As the sun sets, I find myself feeling a little light-headed. Sucking down exhaust fumes all day will do that to you. For the past 10 hours, I’ve been prowling the same stretch of curb almost nonstop, afraid to look away from the long line of hot rods, wild customs and pristine classics driving by for fear that I might miss something really interesting. It’s been a long day, but I really couldn’t be happier because, for a lifelong car buff like me, Detroit’s Woodward Dream Cruise is like having died and gone to a high-test heaven.
Woodward's more whimsical wheels include these motorized bar stools.
A Rolling Car Show
If you subscribe to the idea of an American car culture, Detroit’s Woodward Avenue would be its shrine—and the Dream Cruise its High Mass. This annual event, held the third Saturday of August, draws as many as 1.5 million spectators who come to ogle some 40,000 extraordinary cars as they motor up and down the 16-mile stretch of Woodward that runs from Ferndale to Pontiac, Michigan. More than just a major suburban thoroughfare, though, this stretch of asphalt has the distinction of being the cradle of that uniquely homegrown pastime known simply as cruising.
Not surprisingly, these numbers make this 12-hour distillation of hot-rod history the largest one-day automotive extravaganza in the world. What those stats can’t convey, however, is the always-unfolding spectacle that is at the heart of the Dream Cruise. Think of it as equal parts rolling car show and automotive carnival with a healthy dose of nostalgia—not the maudlin kind, but the “wow, that’s so cool” variety—thrown in for good measure.
Not all Dream Cruise wheels are shiny.
Ultimately, though, even that description fails to adequately sum up all that the Dream Cruise is. Suffice it to say that it is an event every automotive enthusiast needs to experience at least once.
Motor City Madness
For an event that’s grown into a certifiable phenomenon, the Dream Cruise traces its origins to remarkably humble roots. The year was 1995, and locals in the working-class suburb of Ferndale were looking for a way to fund a kids’ soccer field. When they announced the event, billed as a chance to relive the city’s glory days, they expected maybe 25,000 spectators; the actual number of spectators who turned up, however, was 10 times that.
In retrospect, they shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Woodward Avenue had been the preeminent cruising destination for area teens for the better part of three decades, with its cultural zenith in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. Fueled by boredom and cheap gasoline, local teenagers rolled down Woodward on balmy Friday and Saturday nights stopping off at TV sitcom-worthy drive-in eateries, most of which are gone now.
Detroit being the Motor City had something to do with the pastime’s popularity as well. Not only was the city filled with the men and women who built these cars, but it was also the home turf of the engineers who designed them. In fact, legend has it that the nights along Woodward Avenue were filled with the roar of engines in part because the local automakers used the street as a real-world test bed for their latest designs in the heady days of factory-produced muscle cars.
One of Everything
If, like me, you’ve ever wondered where all the cool cars of your youth have gone, the answer is that they’re here. I mean, seriously, it’s as if the world’s coolest car museum flung open its doors to allow its collection to frolic in its paved element. That’s not the case, of course, but the effect is the same, as individual owners gingerly peel back their car covers to reveal gleaming internal- combustion-powered gems that have been lovingly cared for throughout the decades.
Is that an intergalactic visitor in the passenger seat of this Anglia coupe?
As far as what you’ll see rolling by on Woodward Avenue during the Dream Cruise, during the long day I spent wandering up and down that curb, I witnessed a virtually endless parade of muscle cars, ranging from supercharged SS Chevelles to all-original Plymouth Superbirds (complete with the Road Runner-style meep-meep horn). I’d have gone gaga over any of these vehicles in another time and place, but here they were as common as your garden-variety sedan.
There were the classic hot rods, of course, including vintage Model T-based T-buckets and ’32 Ford roadsters and American Graffiti-style five-window coupes. Then there were unconventional customs such as snorkel hood-scooped Chevettes and even an AMC Gremlin, a car that was openly mocked during its lifetime. The creativity on display was astounding, coming in such forms as a cheater-slick-equipped Willys gasser coupe, which looked as if it arrived directly from the starting line of the local drag strip, and a Volkswagen Beetle of unknown vintage that had had its body panels replaced with wrought-iron latticework, giving it a unique form of air conditioning.
Properly preserved and restored historic cars were represented as well, ranging from the unusual—a bubble-canopied Messerschmitt KR200 and a BMW Isetta, a two-seater in which the entire front of the car swings open to allow ingress and egress—to the downright rare: a 1916 Paige four-door convertible touring model, a brand I’ll admit I’d never even heard of much less seen in person. There were off-the-wall entries, including a pair of wheelie-pulling hot-rodded golf carts as well as motorized bar stools and a custom-painted chopper-style minibike.
Wait long enough and you're likely to see one of everything roll by.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Let’s just say that after a few hours, I became convinced that, if only I waited long enough, I’d see at least one of everything roll by.
Not Just for Car Geeks
It’s a safe bet that you won’t find yourself bored at the Dream Cruise. I mean, when was the last time you experienced any event with a million-plus of your closest friends? Don’t let those numbers intimidate you, however, as the crowd is spread out over mile after mile of curbs, sidewalks and parking lots. That’s enough room that you’ll rarely find the rubberneckers stacked up more than a couple of people deep.
What’s more important is that the Dream Cruise isn’t just for car geeks. The festival-like atmosphere, with everything from Elvis impersonators and rock bands to kiddie areas and food courts, makes the whole thing remarkably family-friendly. The fact that no alcohol is allowed outside licensed establishments along the route helps keep things that way.
Where have all the cool cars gone? They're right here on Woodward Avenue.
At the end of the day, as the local constabulary cleared the streets of cruisers, I headed back to my hotel completely spent. While I admit that 12 hours of this four-wheeled fete is a little over the top, I can tell you that I loved every minute I spent at the Woodward Dream Cruise. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, for this car-lover, it stands out as one of the most memorable events I’ve ever attended, a petrol-powered paradise if there ever were one.
Tips to Take
- Sunscreen, good walking shoes and a hat are must-haves. If you plan on staying in one spot for the duration, lawn chairs and a small cooler filled with water/soft drinks will enhance the experience.
- If you plan on taking more than the occasional casual snapshot, be sure you have spare camera batteries/memory cards.
- Bear in mind that open alcoholic beverages, jaywalking and driving shenanigans such as burnouts will earn you an expensive ticket from patrolling police officers.
If you go
- Attending the Woodward Dream Cruise is simple as there are no tickets to buy and no seats to find. Simply show up along your preferred stretch of Woodward Avenue, settle in and watch the vehicle showcase go by.
- WHEN: The third Saturday in August; this year, that’s August 18. Official times are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are also events in the cities along the route the week before the big event.
- WHERE: The cruise starts in Ferndale, Michigan, and goes north to Pontiac, Michigan, (or vice versa) and back. Remember: Woodward is still a public street; this is not a parade, so people just drive back and forth all day. For a map and event listings, visit woodwarddreamcruise.com.
- WHO: Anyone with a car can cruise, but the outside two lanes (closest to the curb) in each direction are reserved for cruisers in hot rods and classic cars.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of AAA World.