4 June 2012

Motor City Madness

The Woodward Dream Cruise in metro Detroit is like nothing else. Think of it as a free-wheeling, kaleidoscopic, vehicular lollapalooza where performer and audience are one and the same.


For more than a decade, the local Detroit newspapers gamely have tried to wrangle all the scheduled events of the Woodward Dream Cruise into a single infographic of, say, the front grille of some unidentifiable “old car,” with each of the grille’s bars representing some organized event or community along the cruise route.

These attempts are cute, but the Dream Cruise, which started back in ’95, is not anywhere near that tidy. It’s not even an event in the way that vintage races, concours or car shows are events, with distinct time and space boundaries. No, the Dream Cruise is an unruly happening, spilling over its official one-day allotment into the surrounding days and weeks, with events and day-to-day idiocy happening all at once, without regard to taste or schedule or point. Organizers, such as they are, usually estimate the crowd to be about 1.5 million people, but that number simply gives the news media something to say. How could anyone know how many people were there? And what actually constitutes “there,” anyway?

There are so many splinter events in corporate hospitality tents, neighbors’ front yards, chiropractors’ office parking lots and carnival-style promenades that if you could see the whole thing at once from above, it would look less like the orderly graphic everyone seems to want it to be and more like the remains of a freshly smushed centipede, all randomly strewn legs and spilt juices around a central body.

Oh, one more caveat before we (photographer Roy Ritchie and I) pull onto Detroit’s preeminent avenue: The Woodward Dream Cruise isn’t exactly a cruise, not really. “Cruise” assumes some more or less constant forward motion and recalls the heyday of Woodward cruising during the ’50s and ’60s. But the suburban cruising landmarks (Ted’s Drive Inn on the northern reaches of the route in Bloomfield Hills and the Totem Pole Drive-In at the southern end in Royal Oak) have long since been erased from the landscape. That anything at all ever moves at the Woodward Dream Cruise is something of a shock, really. With all the backyard specials built by shade-tree fumblers featuring monster motors with idles so lumpy that they’re anything but idle, it’s a miracle that the entire length of the cruise isn’t just a 16-milelong break-down lane of leaking, steaming and cursing. Let’s face it, even a perfectly running vintage car isn’t a modern car. And precious few of these beasts and mutants were meant to sit in traffic all day.

The weather on the third Saturday of August in Detroit can be, well, it can be anything. But mostly, it’s likely to be hot. And hot with the sort of humidity that will have you wilting and sweating in a fruitless attempt to shed heat. If you can recall what it was like to be in the womb, you’ll be better prepared for it. But then it could rain. Or it could be a perfect 75 degrees and sunny. Ain’t no telling.

But you can be assured that it’s going to smell. There will be the sweet tanginess of high-octane racing fuel and the more distinctly organic waft of human grease. Unburned gasoline will sting your eyes. Diesel soot, which billows out of the vertical stacks on a diesel pickup, will hang above the crowd like some sort of horrid black miasma. Hot-rodded diesel trucks being one subset, within a subset, within a niche, tucked inside a little cubby hole of automotive enthusiasm. You got a DeLorean? There’s a place for you. An immaculate Ford Pinto? You’re welcome, too. Maybe you arrive in your ’57 Chevy Bel Air with your now-graying hair greased and your wife done up in a poodle skirt and hair bows. Maybe you’re a fan of vehicles with only three wheels and an appetite for maiming their operators. Hot rodders, rockabilly rat rodders, creeps, regular folk, nostalgia nuts, Vega lovers, chartreuse metalflake Cutlass donk riders, Ferrari pilots, art-car weirdos, Studebaker fans, drag racers, guys with an unnatural fascination with The Dukes of Hazzard. There is room inside the big tent of Woodward for all of you.

It’s the most American of car happenings, not because it’s on one of America’s first paved roads through the country’s manufacturing nexus smack in the middle of the Midwest. And not because it is comprised mainly of American cars, ostensibly celebrating a uniquely American tradition. No, it’s the most American of happenings precisely because it’s a come-as-you are, ratty mess of wildly divergent people and obsessions paying tribute to a single guiding principle, lashing them all together in one glorious mess.

That’s what happens when you invite no one: Everyone comes. The wheat and the chaff. The trailer queens and the trash. The wicker-seated, surrey-topped Fiat Jolly and the primer-gray tubbed Nova.


To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Summer 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine

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