Woodward Dream Cruise: Beginnings

Paul Stenquist
The New York Times

The Dream Cruise, Detroit’s mammoth automotive celebration, could take place only on Woodward Avenue, the street that has been inseparably linked to the automobile business for more than a century.

It was on Woodward that the birth of the American auto industry was announced in 1896, when Charles Brady King drove the street in his horseless carriage. Hundreds of spectators watched King cruise Woodward from Jefferson Avenue in downtown Detroit to Grand Boulevard, where he was ticketed for disturbing the peace. Henry Ford, who reportedly followed King on a bicycle, cruised the same avenue in his own car a few months later.

Woodward soon became the showplace for Detroit iron. Auto company executives used the street to show off their newest hardware, proudly demonstrating the machinery and gauging public reaction. In 1909, a one-mile stretch of the avenue became a concrete-paved road. In the 1920s, Woodward was widened from its southern end near the Detroit River to its northern terminus more than 20 miles to the north in Pontiac.

The 1950s were the golden age of the American car business, and Detroit was flush with dollars. New model introductions were celebrated. If you were old enough to drive, you had a car. And if you had a car, you showed it off on Woodward.

From one drive-in restaurant to the next, from the Totem Pole in Royal Oak to Suzy Q’s, the Varsity, Big Boy and Ted’s, young Detroiters in their hot iron cruised nine miles of Woodward. It was the place to see and be seen, a place to hang out with your friends and embrace the good times. If you were a hard-core street racer, it was also a place where you could engage in stoplight-to-stoplight drag races. Late at night, the competition became more serious. And the competitors weren’t just teenage thrill-seekers.

“Some big-three battles of the 1960s were fought just east of Woodward on Square Lake Road,” said Floyd Allen, Chrysler’s former vice president for power train product engineering. “A number of our engineers built their own high-performance street machines, as did the Ford and G.M. guys. Once a week, factory engineers from all over the area would gather after midnight. They had a portable Christmas tree and timing equipment. Pair after pair, they’d blast off side-by-side down Square Lake, recording numbers well into the triple digits at the quarter-mile finish line. It was a battle of warring states, a ritual defense of one’s honor.”

Today, you won’t see much real racing on Woodward, and the Detroit Three are fighting their battles in other arenas. You will see some machinery that is obviously built more for go than show, and quiet negotiations are sometimes conducted at the side of the road. But if races take place, they’re probably held in some obscure and distant place.

For most Detroiters, Woodward is more about entertainment than competition. And perhaps more about the past and the future than the moment. Today, Woodward is the cruise, the party, the celebration and the affirmation. It’s a place where car folk can go to dream about the way things were and hope for better days. It’s the beating heart of the American automobile business.


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