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They began arriving early on Saturday morning, along with the rising sun. With their blankets, coolers and lawn chairs, Detroiters and car fans from abroad staked claim to prime spots along the 25-kilometre stretch of asphalt that is Woodward Avenue, Motor City’s eight-lane-wide main street. And despite the ungodly hour, it was not long before every choice vantage point was occupied by an estimated million spectators, anxious to see the rollicking and rolling mobile museum that is the Woodward Dream Cruise.
It’s doubtful anyone was disappointed once the vintage cars began arriving, first in trickles and then in massive waves: DeSotos and Packards and Studebakers; pink Cadillacs and little red Corvettes; souped-up Shelby Mustangs and fleets of Chevelles, Chargers and Challengers. It all made for a flotilla of vintage Detroit iron, festooned with chrome accents and mag wheels and engines that lustily roared of the good old days — long before oil embargoes, off-shore imports and the Environmental Protection Agency.
So began the latest edition of the Woodward Dream Cruise – billed as “the world’s largest one-day automotive event” and a must-see for anyone who adores the automobile. At times, Woodward Avenue resembled a blacktop shrine, with growling big-block V8 motors, utopian tail fins and rocket-shaped tail lights. Bumper-to-bumper and curb-to-curb, many of the world’s most iconic automobiles of yesteryear strutted their stuff — albeit ever so slowly — amid hearty cheers and buoyant thumbs-up salutes and desperate pleas from children imploring drivers to "light ’er up!" (Cruise-speak for revving one’s motor and laying down a trail of rubber.)
Most of the muscle cars, street rods and antiques were either lovingly restored to their former glory or outrageously customized to near-unrecognizable excess. If anything, the event celebrates a time when much of the product that came out of Detroit was large and in charge. The pedigree posted on an ebony 1960 Lincoln Continental Mark V proudly noted: "2,290 inches – largest American production car ever built." A jazzed-up purple Plymouth Barracuda displayed a bumper sticker warning other motorists to "Fear this Mopar." A tangerine-hued Pontiac GTO featured a decal that solemnly stated, "The Judge."
What is the inherent appeal of sitting for hours under a blazing August sun amid the deafening roar of revving motors and the sickly-sweet scent of engine coolant tinged with burnt rubber? Nostalgia, plain and simple.
Undeniably, there is a rear-view mirror feel to the Woodward Dream Cruise given that it harkens back to the glory decades of the American automobile industry, when design and horsepower ruled the day and practically nobody cared about something so banal as fuel economy.
What changed? The world changed.
This was a point driven home upon visiting the spectacular Walter P. Chrysler Museum, just a short car ride away from the main motor event. On the second floor, there are two exhibits that chronicle the ascension of the American automobile. One is a diorama depicting suburban America as many would like to remember it: a quaint house with the de rigueur white picket fence; father emerging from his impeccable 1956 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer, dangling the keys from his outstretched right hand; mother rushing to the driveway to greet the triumphant breadwinner; their daughter looking excitedly out the window. It is a scene lifted right out of Ozzie and Harriet or Leave It To Beaver, and an observer is left pondering if things really ever were truly this sublime.
Down the hall from the Lancer exhibit is another head-turning display – a huge, floor-to-ceiling mural from five decades ago. It depicts Detroit in the next millennium (in other words, the present day). It’s a stunning vision of a futuristic metropolis, complete with a rocket-like monorail (the "Jet-O Magnetic Line") whisking passengers to an Oz-like downtown. Below the gleaming monorail tracks are vast networks of gridlock-free expressways, the opposing lanes divided by lush evergreen trees. In the deep blue, smog-free sky, sleek jets and flying saucer-shaped aircraft rule. In the lower right corner, two rocket ships prepare to launch from the local "Space Port" and into the final frontier. The vibrant mural represents a technological utopia that has yet to materialize, and one is left to ponder if the artist was simply a delirious optimist, or if something, somewhere, went terribly wrong in Detroit’s half-century long journey from Point A to Point B.
Indeed, after spending almost a full day on Woodward Avenue, one realizes the Dream Cruise is not so much a congregation of cars as it is a bona fide cultural event. While people drove old cars and watched old cars being driven and bought old car souvenirs, many also donned vintage clothes and played songs that were decades removed from the Top 40, all of which is meant to pay homage to “the good ol’ days”, be they real or imagined.
Undeniably, the Woodward Dream Cruise is a celebration of the Detroit of yesteryear; before race riots and burnt-out city blocks; before "Murder City" supplanted "Motor City" as Detroit’s unofficial nickname.
In the final analysis, the Woodward Dream Cruise is a fun-filled, candy-coated piece of vehicular nostalgia, fuelled by high octane and sentimental memories. And yet, lurking beneath the cruise’s glossy chrome veneer, the event is also an annual remembrance day for a Detroit that once was and never will be again.
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Whether you own a classic car or a half-decent camera, Woodward Avenue is the place to be if you are an automobile aficionado. The 16th annual Woodward Dream Cruise will take place on August 21, 2010. For more information, visit www.woodwarddreamcruise.com.