Around eighteen miles of magnificent thunder and iron slashed in half the rusting metropole like a searing arrow of lightning through an evening sky. It was the most spectacular display of automotive beauty I’ve seen up close in my 27 years. And I witnessed most of it at about 10 miles per hour. It was Woodward, and if you’ve never been there in mid-August, add it to your bucket list.
Michigan Highway 1, known to Detroit residents as Woodward Avenue, runs the full length of the greater Motor City area, from GM’s turf up in Pontiac all the way down through Dearborn, Ford’s familial stomping ground. The strip has been a center of hot rod and muscle car culture since the ‘50s, and in 1994, a local plumber came up with the idea for the Woodward Dream Cruise, a one-event where classic and beautiful cars could simply get together and do what they were meant to do: drive.
Today the Woodward Dream Cruise draws an annual attendance of over one million people, thousands of whom bring their cars. And they come from everywhere. I saw license plates from New Jersey, and when I left town the following morning, I saw several classics actually being driven back to their home states.
My good friend Corey, who only lives a few blocks east of Woodward, put me up for the weekend, and on Saturday at around noon, we loaded up my newly acquired Subaru WRX dream wagon and slid over to the Cruise.
The unwritten and informal rule at Woodward, an eight-lane avenue with a grass boulevard in the middle, is that the outer four lanes are for the classics, and the inner four are for everyone else. We turned on to Woodward at about Twelve Mile Road (not far south of Michigan’s only Morgan dealership) and headed north toward Pontiac. As a newbie, I stuck to the inner lanes for most of the trip.
The WRX uses a very light flywheel, which means the clutch is tight and touchy, and my whole left leg was aching by the time we finally parked three hours later, but I barely noticed. Because even though we only averaged about ten miles an hour, it was the perfect speed from which to observe the glorious display of metal and fiberglass roaring around me.
We saw everything, from a gorgeous ‘40s-era flatbed tricked out in Texaco livery to a six-wheeled armored personnel carrier. We saw two Ford GTs. We saw a pair of perfectly breathtaking Cord 812s. There was a stealth-fighter Lamborghini Countach that used to adorn my bedroom wall on a poster, several classic Alfa Romeos, a fair few Rolls Royce examples, and even a flock of DeLoreans, each rolling with its doors up.
But mostly the 20-mile stretch was a river of pure American muscle. Barracudas and Mustangs, Chargers and Camaros, even a few NASCAR-ready Superbirds, all contributed to the cooperative masterpiece. Hot rods, too, from song-inspiring Lincolns all the way back to the flame-pattered T-Buckets, rumbled through the procession, many of them slammed, chopped, and/or ratted, a Greaser’s best friends.
We cruised, mostly in first and second, all the way up to Pontiac, turned around, and scooted back down to Dearborn. It took us three hours. I wish it would have taken longer. Thankfully, the weather was mild, and we had a cooler full of Root Beer and Vernor’s to keep us, er, hydrated. But this couldn’t sustain us forever, so when we’d completed a full circle, we parked by the Morgan dealership and went off in search of some food and photo ops.
Then the heavens opened, dumping a torrent on the parade. Several of the classics parked along the street, including one of the aforementioned Cords, were caught with their windows down. It wasn’t even my car, and I felt a little sick at the sight of the 812 with a rain-spattered interior (though that may have been all the A&W).
The rain refused to let up, and it was getting dark, so we called it a day well spent and headed back to Zack’s Hot Dogs, several blocks east of Woodward, where the night before I’d eaten a frank wrapped in bacon and smothered with sharp cheddar: certainly the best hot dog I’d ever consumed.
I’d wanted to stay longer, of course, to interview some car owners, take more pictures, and generally soak up the exhaust in the atmosphere. But as I sat munching my hot dog (this one deep fried and smothered in buffalo sauce and blue cheese), I knew I was already satisfied, like a beggar who’s been invited to a feast and is full after only a few courses.
I’ve concluded since that every car show should follow this cruise format. Why? First, because it gives you the opportunity, even if you drive a riced-out Civic or a two-tone WRX, to roll with cars much cooler, more valuable, and more beautiful than your own. And their owners don’t mind. They see you checking out their cars, commenting about them to your friends, and generally losing your cool, and just smile. Wouldn’t you?
Second, because the cars get to drive. Yes, we saw more than one vintage example broken down or being pushed out of the road, but one can’t help but imagine that if those old-time cars had feelings, Woodward would be their Christmas nonetheless. It’s not a place for garage queens, pushed onto and off of trailers a few times a year to win shows. It’s a place to drive.
And finally, there’s the sound. It’s hard to describe, rather like a well-tuned shore bombardment or a fine Baroque piece played strictly through exhaust pipes. The threatening roar of the Hemi Cuda harmonized with the good-humored chuckle of the Baja Beetle. Turbos sang sweet sopranos to meet V12 baritones. Several curbside booths played classic rock and roll to fit the occasion, but as I kept remarking to Corey, “They need to shut off the music. The cars are providing plenty.”
I hope to be back at Woodward next year. I hope to be back every year for the rest of my life.