Any other day, it might have been a major headache for the Motor City, but if anyone was frustrated by the traffic that jammed Detroit main thoroughfare they were well advised to keep it to themselves as the annual Woodward Dream Cruise rolled into Detroit.
The Saturday event, now in its 19th year, attracted more than 1 million visitors from all over the country, indeed, more than a few from overseas, to watch an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 classic hot rods, muscle cars and exotics cruise – make that crawl – down Woodward Avenue.
Even after nearly two decades, the Woodward Dream Cruise continues to woe fans with its mix of cars old and new. “I saw the new Viper,” said a youngster from Livonia, Michigan who would only give his first name, Dominic.
The sighting of the still rare Chrysler sports car was one of the highlights of the Dream Cruise weekend for many fans as traffic slowly moved along Woodward Avenue, an eight-lane boulevard that stretches from the Detroit riverfront to Motown’s northern suburbs.
The annual gathering happened almost by accident, as an outgrowth of a local car show, when organizers thought it might be fun to see their classic muscle cars actually move rather than just sit in a parking lot. Participants have been known to bring out just about anything with wheels and a motor – from a powered shopping cart to million-dollar Ferraris. But the emphasis is on classic Detroit metal – the same machines that cruised the boulevard every night during warmer weather during the heyday of the muscle car, in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“It was like ‘Happy Days.’ Everybody cruised,” said Gary Mrowiec, 61, referring to the 1970s TV show. “Once you get it in your blood, it never goes away.”
Mrowlec regularly would cruise Woodward in the mid-1960s with his older brother, Jim Mrowiec. It was a weekend hangout, he said with a wistful smile, a place to show off your wheels, whatever they were.
The Woodward Dream Cruise has traditionally been something of an anarchic affair, despite efforts by event organizers, local communities – and the police – to enforce a sense of order on the wide boulevard. A heavy law enforcement presence has made it more risky to misbehave, the cops quickly handing out tickers to those who even chirp their tires, never mind pull a full burnout.
While that might be frustrating to some fans – who regularly repeat the mantra, “Light ‘em up,” every time they see a Pontiac GTO, Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Corvette capable of spinning the tires.
The event may be a paean to the past but there’s also plenty of opportunity to look ahead. Ford, for example, offered a bit of both at the block-long exhibit it set up along the southern end of the Woodward Dream Cruise in the town of Ferndale. It invited owners to display Mustangs from every year since the pony car was first introduced in April 1964, part of a grand, Golden Anniversary celebration set to climax when an all-new Mustang debuts next spring.
Hundreds of Mustang owners told stories, haggled over potential sales and lined up for the stenciling on free T-Shirts that Ford was obligingly giving away during the day – something that connected with a handful of Japanese fans who barely spoke any English.
While some out-of-towners might have wondered what to expect this year considering the City of Detroit’s bankruptcy, the 2013 Woodward Dream Cruise actually had a more mellow, even prosperous tone about it. No surprise considering the fact that the greater Detroit region is benefiting from a significant upturn in the U.S. auto industry – and from a flood of new muscle cars that includes the new Viper, the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and the upcoming Mustang re-launch.
It was just four years ago that two of the Detroit makers, General Motors and Chrysler, were struggling through bankruptcy, rival Ford barely getting through the reception by mortgaging everything from its factories to the century-old Blue Oval Ford logo. Desperate for cash, the makers pulled their support during the Great Recession. But all three were back for the 2013 Dream Cruise.
The folks at Chrysler even launched a new concept vehicle, the Ram Rumble Bee truck, at the Dream Cruise this year.
For most fans, though, the corporate presence was a sideshow. The real event was the steady parade of cruisers, fans lining the long Woodward boulevard in their lawn chairs, with picnic baskets, coolers and barbeques at the ready.
Ed Syrocki, owner of EMS Classic Car Care in Warren, Michigan, notes that his business slowed down as unemployment soared, financing dried up and the auto industry suffered through bankruptcies and job cuts. Now that the automakers are profitable again, adding jobs in factories and offices, Syrocki’s crew has more cars to work on than it can handle.
“Everybody just kind of held back waiting for that sunshine to come back out and be able to drive the car again when they got a new job,” Syrocki said.
For many Baby Boomers, whose love of cars have made them the key automotive audience for half a century, the exercise in nostalgia is more than a spectator sport, however. And while many paraded down Woodward, others kept their cruisers parked alongside.
“Usually this is a very reliable engine,” lamented Jason Cutting of Brighton, Michigan as he wrestled with the balky 350 V-8 Engine in his modified Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck. “I think it just overheated in all this stop and go traffic and I just have to wait for it to cool down.”
Eventually, he got the engine fired up again and headed back out into the traffic to share in the moment and the memories.
Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.