Written by Barbara Toombs
From small towns to big cities, cruising Main Street in that first car has been a rite of passage for decades for many a teenager in America.
In Detroit, that culture of cruising is deeply rooted in the city’s history – perhaps not surprising, given that the Motor City is the birthplace of the American automobile. Running north-south through Metro Detroit is state highway M-1, more commonly known as Woodward Avenue. Often called “Detroit’s Main Street,” it was created after the Detroit Fire in 1805. Originally made of logs, it was converted to planks in 1848, which prompted young carriage drivers to race one another along the roadway, placing bets on each other’s carriages while racing from tavern to tavern.
The first automobile in Detroit was reportedly driven by Charles Brady King along Woodward Avenue in March 1896, a few weeks before Henry Ford drove his first car in the city. Ford developed and first produced the Model T in 1907-08 at his plant just east of Woodward. In 1909, the first mile of concrete roadway in the country was paved along Woodward, between 6 and 7 Mile roads.
Around 100 automobile companies were founded along the roadway, and during the 1950s and ’60s, automotive engineers were known to street-test their cars there. By the late 1950s, Woodward began to develop a reputation for unofficial street racing, which grew as the muscle car era dawned, and with it numerous drive-ins, car dealerships and auto accessory shops. For car-crazed young adults, there was simply no better place to cruise, race and hang out.
The cruising culture on Woodward Avenue faded in the 1970s with the arrival of new car safety standards and higher gas prices. But in 1995, a Detroit-area plumber named Nelson House had the idea to revive and recreate the nostalgic ’50s and ’60s through a car show at a local dealership to raise funds for a children’s soccer field. House thought a cruise down Woodward Avenue would be a nice way to end the day. The response was overwhelming – instead of the 250 cars expected, ten times that number showed up to celebrate the roadway’s glory days.
Today, the Woodward Dream Cruise is the world’s largest one-day automotive event, drawing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars each year from around the globe. The event still has a charitable element; more than 50 local charities benefit each year from the sale of official Dream Cruise merchandise and refreshments.
“The Woodward Dream Cruise is unquestionably a huge enthusiast event,” says Barrett-Jackson Chairman and CEO Craig Jackson. “Not only is it one of the most important in my home state of Michigan, but it’s one of the most important anywhere.”
“Only the North American International Auto Show draws a bigger crowd,” wrote Aaron Foley of Jalopnik. “It shows why Detroit, the capital of the American auto industry, matters.”
Although officially the cruise is just one day (Saturday, August 19, this year), it has evolved into a weeklong festival for fans of design, engineering and great vehicles. Sure, there are muscle cars aplenty – but don’t be surprised to see everything from hot rods, Model Ts, go-karts and scooters to BMW Isettas, customized pickups, armored vehicles and sleek, modern supercars. It doesn’t have to be a classic to cruise on Woodward.
There’s no official start time for the Dream Cruise; those in the know typically take a turn or two along a stretch of Woodward in the morning, park their car for a while, and cruise more later. As Motor Trend once reported, “There’s no schedule or ceremony, it just is. The Dream Cruise is fueled on leaded gas and hotdogs. Portable grills line the street as families gather for a roadside tailgate party that lasts all day.”
The Woodward Dream Cruise is, pure and simple, one monumental celebration of America’s love affair with the automobile.
Look for the Barrett-Jackson team at the Woodward Dream Cruise on Saturday, August 19, at the Ford and Chevrolet displays. For more information on the event, visit WoodwardDreamCruise.com.