Article and Photography by Nathan Leach-Proffer.
Over one million people. Forty-thousand cars. Police presence fit for the presidential motorcade to keep everyone on the up and up. Food, music and rolling entertainment are just some highlights of the world’s largest one-day car show.
The Big Three automakers have a heavy presence at the event, sponsoring a host of events for their loyal fans. Families from around the world make the automotive pilgrimage to Woodward Avenue in mid August.
Before Woodward became the paved automotive holy land it is today, it was a wooden-planked road, originally plotted in 1805. Even in the late 1800s, young carriage drivers would race one another down the road—a tradition still honored to this day, despite police displeasure.
By 1958, Woodward was the Mecca for area street races. The avenue was lined with drive-ins and diners, capturing the teenage culture that erupted in the 1950s after World War II.
This custom built rig, powered by a Caterpillar engine, was one of the most interesting vehicles at the Cruise. The sad thing is, cars like these never stay still, lumbering off down the road. A lot of great cars are only glimpses of greatness.
Automakers quickly took notice that this is where their cars were winning and losing. The Big Three brought the horsepower wars of the 1960s here. Some even engineered their high-performance machines specifically for the red-light-to-red-light street racing that dominated late night car cruises on the road just for supreme bragging rights.
Talk about dedication… and a dick-measuring contest. Nevertheless, one that ultimately served the needs of their customers, because more horsepower is rarely a bad thing.
The Cruise, which has morphed into a must-see event for any automotive enthusiast before they kick the bucket and head to the great junkyard in the sky, had very humble beginnings.
Turning a dump truck into passenger seating gets creativity points. There is always a wide range of custom builds at the cruise.
Nelson House, a plumber from Ferndale, Mich., came up with the idea for the cruise in 1994. He wanted to find a way to help raise money for a children's soccer field in his community. Initially, about 35,000 were expected to attend the event, but 250,000 ended up showing.
It hasn’t stopped growing since.
Even though Woodward Dream Cruise is a one-day event, it has transformed into an unofficial, weeklong extravaganza. Folks will whip out the lawn chair and take up residency on the wide center median a week before the official start of the Cruise. Not because they are fighting for the best seats in the house, but because cars are already out doing what they do best—cruising.
A great sight at the event is the number of wide-eyed kids staring at the artful pieces of automotive history rolling by. There is no better place to cajole a future automotive enthusiast than the Woodward Dream Cruise.
A collective "that’s cool” is easily heard.
There is more to the event than crusty old men babying their Ford to the Malt Shop for the Thursday Cruise In. People from all over the world bring their families and their cars. One man and his car came from Australia. Talk about a deep wallet and some great vacation time saved up.
Remove the people and the cars and Woodward looks like any other strip of semi-commercialized, suburban road. However, it is still unique on closer inspection. Woodward is a massive eight-lane road that stretches over 21 miles from Detroit to Pontiac. The road passes through five cities and three counties, starting at the intersection with Jefferson Avenue next to Hart Plaza, which is regarded as the birthplace of Ford Motor Company.
Stores, businesses and restaurants line the road. If you’re in the area, be sure to check out Vinsetta Garage. Originally a service garage, it has been transformed into a restaurant. The iconic building retains all its garage charm and is considered one of the oldest garages this side of the Mississippi.
So, while dining on some delicious food, enjoy the stream of classic and modern metal rolling by. There is a great turnout for domestic cars. You have Corvettes, Camaros, GTOs and Mustangs of all flavors.
Even with the demographics skewed American, almost every style has representation at the event. Hot rods, tuners, restomods, one-off creations. Huge pickup trucks, Asian makes, Chrysler Prowlers—there is a club of ‘em toolin’ around—and even a DeLorean or two can be spotted.
It isn’t rare to see a few Ferraris or Lamborghinis either—though they are fleeting glimpses as they speed away.
While police do have a heavy-handed presence at the event, ticketing even the most minor driving infraction with swift penalty, there are some things illegal that go unpunished. It is not uncommon to see people sitting in the bed of pickup trucks or a hot rod spewing flames from the exhaust.
As night winds down, traffic on Woodward becomes as thick as gas fumes in the air. At times, traffic is almost at a stand still, but for those watching, it just provides more time to admire the beautiful cars. Headlights and taillights snake their way up and down Woodward, creating a sea of red and off-yellow glow.
Night brings a unique calm to the Cruise. The hot, humid August day gives way to a cool, clear night. The air gets crisp, filled with gas, burning rubber and hot engines. Car lights lazily dance down Woodward, moving a few feet stopping, a few revs of the engine for fun—then moving again. The cool air is contrasted with the heat pouring off the cars.
As the event slowly fades away, the future of the Woodward Dream Cruise is bright. As automakers see the opportunities to be had at the event—Dodge even unveiled its hellish 707-horsepower Charger Hellcat over the weekend—more and more people will come out and enjoy the sights and sounds.
The Woodward Dream Cruise celebrated its 20th anniversary this year and one has to wonder how big of an event can this become in 5, 10, 20 or even 50 years.