The Dream, the Cruise and Woodward Avenue
The Woodward Dream Cruise started as a fundraiser for a soccer field, now it's a symbol of heritage, nostalgia and a tribute to the road.
Cars, combined with Doo-Wop, rock and pop music, added to drive-ins, as social centers – all on Woodward Avenue – were a hallmark of the mid-20th century southeastern Michigan culture. The Woodward Dream Cruise, begun in 1995, endures as an annual tribute to Detroit's auto industry and a way of life centered on "The Car."
Planning for a 1995 Dream Cruise began in Ferndale in November 1994 as a fundraiser for a community project – most immediately a new soccer field. Resident Nelson House headed the committee, supported by the City Council. Hopes were that a few hundred "muscle cars" would be on display July 15. Then the next day was to be a parade on Woodward, from Marshall to Woodard Heights.
Some 500 cars appeared, the public was enthralled, economic prosper were promising and five other communities along the Woodward Corridor – Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak, Huntington Woods, Berkley and Birmingham – wanted in on a 1995 Dream Cruise, which would extend from the site of Hedges Wigman (10 Mile) to Ted's Drive-In (Square Lake Road), the original 1950s cruiser "strip."
Hopes were that 200,000 would attend. And with 1995's totals, success had arrived: 10,000 cars on display and 250,000 in the car-enthused crowd.
In 1996, car clubs, local and beyond, joined. Even an "Elvis" in a 1954 Lincoln Capri appeared. Police began to worry about traffic.
In 1997, Pontiac became a participant. Some 750,000 "gearheads" came. Auto companies and suppliers signed on as important supporters. Official merchandise sales were astonishing. The Cruise had become a major Metro Detroit summer attraction in just two years.
The 1998 totals testified to ever-increasing success: 30,000 cars with 1 million car lovers. Entertainment venues featuring stars of Doo-Wop, rock and pop music were now standard along Woodward. TV shows covered the action, restaurants were packed and Woodward car dealers were ecstatic.
To handle traffic, by 1999 the two outer lanes of Woodward were reserved for classic cars and inner lanes for through traffic. Participants came from as far away as Australia. Even the BBC covered the event. Dream Cruise management was shared by representatives of the participant communities.
Ferndale still had its own car show.
Sale of the official merchandise in Ferndale alone in 2000 was $50,000. Cruise totals included 30,000 cars and some 1.2 million in attendance – an average sustained or surpassed in subsequent years (except for 2003 when a power blackout and rain reduced the crowd to 1.1 million).
In 2002, cruisers were out on the strip months in advance of Dream Cruise weekend. The FBI in the wake of 9/11 was called to aid with security concerns. Still, 1.7 million people came.
By 2005, a comparable number cheered 40,000 cars ranging from Model T's to Mustangs to customized choppers.
In 2006, Cruisers spent an average $75 on merchandise. New events appeared from 2006-2009: specialized car shows, entertainment, juried competitions and even a "Green Car" category.
Several supporters, including some auto companies and suppliers, and Pleasant Ridge and Birmingham, dropped out of formal Dream Cruise support in 2010 because of economic or other concerns. Even Ferndale limited its display area size.
But cars and car lovers still showed up for festivities and the 16-mile memory trip.
Woodward – once a Native American footpath, then a planked military road, next a route for 1890s interurbans, and then a main road for the first Fords from Henry Ford's Highland Park assembly plant – has endured for generations. The Dream Cruise, rain or shine, in 2011 continues to evoke an iconic highway, southeastern Michigan development, the auto industry, and a way of life.
-Jean Spang, Ferndale Historical Society
Sources consulted: local newspaper for respective annual cruisedates: Detroit Free Press, Royal Oak Tribune.