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Cruising in an American classic in an American classic, a 1972 Ford Country Squire
The Woodward Dream Cruise has been described as the world's largest one-day automotive event or its biggest parking lot, depending on your point of view. Over 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars show up each year to see and be seen. For 15 years, the Woodward Dream Cruise has served as a poignant reminder of what Detroit and the American auto industry was, and to some degree, still is all about. To those of us in metro Detroit, the Dream Cruise is our heritage festival, our Mardi Gras. And over the years I've cruised in everything from the family's 1964 Corvette convertible, our 1965 Mustang ragtop, a 1961 bug-eyed Sprite, a 1966 Olds Vista Cruiser, assorted Porsche 911s and a DeLorean, but nothing topped this year's cruiser--a 1972 Ford LTD Country Squire.
I grew up with a 1971 Ford LTD Country Squire. It was the car I learned to drive in, the car that took me to my first job and my first high school dance. Driving the Ford was like coming home: the floaty front end, the skinny steering wheel, the vinyl bench seats long enough to stretch out on, and the third row seats behind the rear axle on top of the gas tank where the kids always sat. Obviously, family values have changed; we thought we were safe back there, breathing in exhaust fumes, making faces at passing cars on family road trips. The moment I got behind the wheel of the County Squire I was 17 again. Why aren't I wearing Love Baby Soft, Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers, Candies mules and Calvin Klein jeans? And why isn't gas still 56 cents a gallon instead of $2.56?
That 1971 Ford wagon spoke volumes back in the day: we'd arrived, we were firmly middle class. No more hippy dippy VW Beetles (though the oil crisis of 1973 brought a VW fastback into our lives). And it started my lifelong love affair with wagons. I was a child of suburbia; pickup trucks were too country, sports cars too sexy. Granted, the first car I ever bought was a used Honda 600 sedan that would have fit on the roof rack of a Country Squire; however, the first new car I bought was a Ford Taurus wagon.
This year, the new Camaro appeared to be the official car of the Woodward Dream Cruise, it seemed as if every 2010 Camaro in Michigan, Ohio, and Canada showed up. Everywhere you looked there were Mustangs and Corvettes, including an incredible display of 14 1996 Corvette Grand Sports spotted Thursday night. And yet we appeared to be the only 1970s vintage wagon on the road. People pointed and smiled, asking where Peter Brady was (eating pork chops and apple sauce, of course) and yelling out "don't make me pull this car over!" The year we were out in the 1966 Olds Vista Cruiser, two retired Oldsmobile engineers ran out into the slow moving traffic with tears in their eyes, they were just so thrilled to see us. These were the cars of my youth, not a highly modified 1946 GMC truck with a modern Cummins Turbo diesel or a rare 1966 AMC Marlin, though the guy next door had a very hot early 'Cuda.
Not all the action was on Woodward Ave. There were car shows tucked away in parking lots, city parks and side streets. The local Border's parking lot was overflowing with Corvettes; the gourmet grocery store next door featured Saleens. Across the street was a large gathering of Cobras with a few Panteras thrown in for good measure. We're spoiled here in Detroit; we barely turn our heads to look at a Ford GT or Ferrari driving down Woodward. Those are daily occurrences in this car-crazy town. Old Mopar, new Mopar, all reminders that Detroit was and to many will always be the Motor City.
The funny thing is that the Woodward Dream Cruise is a regional event. It doesn't even take place in Detroit. It runs through several Detroit suburbs. The route stretches from Ferndale--with its Mustang Alley--north through Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak--notorious for the strictness of its police force--tony Birmingham, where you are as likely to see a Rolls Royce pull up to the light as a Dodge Challenger, and Pontiac to the north where the smell of burnouts and race gas fills the air over Widetrack Road. Crowds eagerly cheered on drivers with signs that read "Light 'em up" and "Burnout zone" over fresh puddles of water.
This isn't a muscle car event or a classic car show. This literally is an avenue of dreams, the good ones and the nightmares. You are more likely to see the cars that were on display at Autorama than the Meadowbrook Concours d'Elegance. Hot rods, resto mods, drag cars and the oddballs were out in full force. It's not unusual to spot an Amphicar or two, period hot rods in primer with mailbox hood scopes, vintage hearses complete with coffins or even a BMW Isetta with a VW Beetle engine crammed in the back making their way down Woodward. No experts evaluate your car, just crowds of fans along the sides of the road, giving high-fives and waving 10's just like one of the judges on Dancing with the Stars.
Was this year's cruise the biggest, the best? I don't think so, in spite of what the organizers say. There were fewer classics, less automotive diversity. I wonder how many families' pride and joy got sold off this past year in hopes of paying the mortgage with the proceeds? Two of the three Detroit manufactures, GM and Chrysler, pulled their big displays. And yet this year's cruise reminded me more of the early days of this event: hopeful, inspired, positive. No need to one-up last year's effort, just keep moving forward, albeit slowly, without overheating. Maybe the Woodward Dream Cruise is a good analogy for the American auto industry in general. We're proud of our past; and we still have our eyes focused on the road ahead.