There’s nothing that embodies the American experience quite like the Woodward Dream Cruise. In an election year when the bitter partisan rhetoric seeks to define who we should be, what we should stand for and whom we should oppose, about 1.3 million people and countless thousands of cars and trucks of all stripes converge on one of the country’s legendary cruising venues to celebrate not only the vehicles themselves but the ingenuity, individualism and innovation that forged the country in the first place.
The Woodward Dream Cruise stretches 16 miles between the suburbs of Ferndale and Pontiac, with each city along the route hosting events and thousands of enthusiasts in the week leading up to the official Saturday cruise.
And while it’s billed as the world’s largest single-day automotive event in the world, the Woodward Dream Cruise – which just marked its 18th anniversary – has evolved into a weeklong holiday in the Motor City.
If anything deserved the description “spectacle,” this is it. Generally four lanes wide in each direction, divided for most of the way by a wide, grassy median, the Woodward Dream Cruise stretches about 16 miles, anchored by the suburb of Ferndale at the south end and capped by the city of Pontiac, up at the north end.
There are literally cars and people lining both sides of those 16 miles and while the density may vary, depending on which stretch of the avenue you’re on, there’s absolutely nothing to prepare your senses for automotive overload. Along with the cars on the street, every parking lot along the route is a car show unto itself. Car clubs use the event to host sub-events of their own, so you’ll see 40 cars from the Impala SS club parked in one area and 200 Corvettes from another club another mile up the road.
Chevrolet put out an impressive display along Woodward, highlighted by a celebration of the Corvette’s upcoming 60th anniversary. Cars representing every generation were on hand, in the shadow of a nearly 10-story-tall banner that announced the milestone.
You can forget try to see it all, too. It’s impossible. The cars, the people – it’s sensory overload and you simply have to resign yourself to having the best time you can by viewing the cars that cross your path. Some of the vehicles appear and disappear like big-block-powered Loch Ness Monsters. You’ll cry, “Did you see that?” to a buddy, who will say no, and the car won’t be seen again, while others will make loops like they’re city buses.
A few miles away from the big Chevrolet display was the Chevrolet Performance stand, which included a new Camaro SS with the 1LE package. In fact, it was the very test car that flew around Virginia International Raceway in 2:58.34.
Diversity is the other great aspect of the Woodward Dream Cruise. Almost every vehicle you can think of will be there, from ubiquitous ’69 Camaros to concours-ready Monza Spyders. Of course, there are some non-Chevys in the mix, too, but the bow tie represents a significant percentage of the participant vehicles on the street and more and more of them are sporting LS power. We were continually amazed by the number and variety of late-model vehicles with LS engines under the hood, including some extremely unexpected finds, such as a couple of old MGs and pro-street AMC Pacer wagon.
As has been the tradition in recent years, Chevrolet sets up shop at the “Triangle” area, where Old Woodward meets the current, wide avenue at the southern tip of the city of Birmingham. Besides the expected contingent of new vehicles to examine, they always bring a number of vintage vehicles from General Motors’ stunning collection of heritage vehicles.
This fiberglass-nosed ’55 rocked the vintage “Two Lane Blacktop” look. If you’re not familiar with this early-Seventies’ slice of cinematic existentialism, it starred soft-rock icon James Taylor as a long-haired street racer, with one of the Beach Boys as his mechanic. You have to see it.
Looks like a Chevelle, right? Wrong. It’s a Beaumont that was sold through Pontiac dealers in Canada. It was Chevy-powered, too. This one was a high-performance, SD-396 model. Cool, eh? (Right). Look closely and you’ll see this not-quite-straight first-gen Camaro is a ’68 that wears 1969 rear quarter panels. On the drag strip or at a stoplight, however, we wouldn’t quibble with the mixed sheet metal. From the sound of it, the parachute hanging off the rear bumper was probably a necessary feature (Left).
This year, they marked the Corvette’s 60th anniversary (although it’s technically next year), with a range of C1-C6 models – and a huge, nearly 10-story banner draped down the side of condominium building. It was an impressive display.
Like we mentioned above, the Woodward Dream Cruise is one than a one-day affair and on the Friday afternoon preceding the official Saturday kick-off, we cruised with LS engine guru Brian Thomson (thomsonautomotive.com) in his newly built LS7-powered Corvette Grand Sport. The LS7 isn’t stock, either. He stroked it to 442 cubic inches and slid in a monster cam, pushing output to 630 naturally aspirated horsepower.
Pro Touring may be the rage, but here in the Midwest, wheel tubs have never gone out of style and on this Malibu, the pro-street thing looks mean as hell.
The thing barks like an angry pit bull when started, cackles like an alcohol funny car at idle and wails like an old Can Am race car at WOT. It sends a chill up your spine and it was one of the few late-model cars that day that swiveled heads like a supercharged ’55 Chevy.
“The sheer scope of this event is what really boggles your mind,” says Thomson. “It is an event that is uniquely Detroit – and one that I don’t think could be pulled off somewhere else. People come from other states and other countries to participate. It’s something you really have to experience to understand.”
Like any great event, “Woodward Week” – as it has come to be known – is more than the cars. Companies use the days leading up to the Saturday cruise to host picnics, cook-outs and cruise nights. And on the day of the big traffic jam, thousands and thousands of people of all economic and social backgrounds use the event as the excuse for a BBQ in their yard or along the cruise route. The smell of grilled burgers is even better than the exhaust of an LS6 Chevelle – and you can inhale it for 16 miles.
Only during the Woodward Dream Cruise are you going to see a four-wide flock of Camaros headed in each lane by new ZL1s. It was an impressive display of Chevy’s latest performer.
No, there’s no bow tie in the grille, but under the front-flip hood of this “woody” AMC Pacer beats the heart of a carbureted LS engine, which further reinforces the notion that the LS engine is the hot rodding world’s new 350ci. small-block. It almost makes a Pacer cool (left). The locals are warned weeks in advance that the Dream Cruise is approaching – and they need to participate or stay away! (right)
If you’ve never been to Woodward and want to do it next year, you’ll need to book a hotel now and plan accordingly. Most of the ideal parking/hang-out spaces right on Woodward, in the cities of Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak, Berkley and Birmingham are reserved. They’re rented out to groups and companies, but you can usually wedge your way in somewhere. The farther north you go, the easier it will be to find an open spot.
The best advice is to simply soak it all in. Don’t simply park yourself and ride out the whole event there. Get in your car and cruise all the way to Pontiac and back. Hit some of the sub-events along the way and soak up the atmosphere. There are more than a million enthusiasts to share the day with – and more vintage cars than you ever thought could still be left in the world.
America’s success was driven largely by automobile. It’s more than a transportation device. It’s vehicle of freedom and expression. On the third Saturday every August, that freedom is celebrated in a most amazing way in the Detroit area.
It doesn’t have a Chevy body or engine, but this heavy-duty hot rod was just too interesting to pass up for this photo gallery. It was the only car we saw at the cruise that could have pulled a car hauler’s worth of other hot rods across the country.