Eyes radiate like headlights, hearts rev, engines pump — if any city is equipped for this perfectly customized event, it’s the Motor City. Whether it’s an exhaust-filled, gas-guzzling blast from the cruising past you’ve been anticipating all year or a bumper-to-bumper nightmare you’ve made out-of-town plans to avoid, the Woodward Dream Cruise is here, celebrating the fruits of the automobile industry, and it will not be ignored. Officially, the “world’s largest one-day auto event” takes place on Saturday, Aug. 18; unofficially, those obsessive and motorized eager beavers are already strutting their customized “joy-on-wheels” up and down the avenue from Ferndale to Pontiac, and anywhere else they can think to ride, spin and whirl.
It’s hard to wait after all those winter months of being on your back for hours with gritty, oily bits dropping onto your face, and suffering never-ending harangues of “You love that hunk of metal and spark plugs more than me!” All that blood, sweat and grease is about to pay off as we get closer to that pot of gold at the end of the tailpipe and celebrate those manmade mechanisms that made getting from here to far, far away on a saddle obsolete.
Dream Cruisers aren’t so much interested in driving their cars as wearing them. In this world of vintage and classic cars, everyone sees their surroundings through invisible, customized, chrome-gilded glasses. No one’s looking at that receding hairline or that spare tire around the waist that somehow appeared over the years. All eyes are drinking in the visage of that perfect and impossible-to-find Deco-lady hood ornament, glistening and giving herself to the wind on the nose of your ’57 Ford Thunderbird convertible that took you five years to restore. Forget the crow’s feet and focus on the magnificent sharklike physical structure covered in an enameled eggshell finish that took forever to get right. Your body may show time’s ravaging wear and tear, but you can sure as heck keep your T-bird looking as good as it did in your college days.
Inhabitants of the Motor City understand that personality embodies itself in metal, rubber, color and how you get from point A to the “it” spots in town. Maybe you’re the 1966 Z28 Chevy Camaro convertible type, driven to action in a street racer: bowed body line and solid black grill with hidden headlights, a shape somewhere between a banana and a handgun. Or perhaps you’re more enigmatically seductive, preferring to sport around in a ’65 Cobra with its rounded, sexy, serpentine body: hand-rolled aluminum wrapped around a tubular steel frame with protruding eyelike headlights that seem to say it’s fast whether it’s moving or not. Or maybe it’s a ’59 Cadillac convertible that’s more your style, in baby blue or precious pink, with the highest fins on earth (42 inches), embellished with extravagant mounds of chrome and ruby-red tail lights formed to mimic the thrust shooting out the back of a Mars-bound rocket. Getting only eight miles to the gallon and needing a football stadium to turn around, this honey’s made to be seen, not to win races.
But some of you out there can’t be satisfied driving the Dream Cruise behind the wheel of some other guy’s vision — so instead of keeping it bone stock, you take wrenches into your own hands. I’m talking about the “Mom headache cars,” all those souped-up, tubbed-out, chopped-down man-strosities that travel alongside the well-known classics of nostalgia. The super-personalized products of the imagination made to shock, annoy, deafen, amaze and/or win. If you can think it (and afford it), you can figure out a way to attach it, cut it down, lift it up and paint it just the way you want it. Flames on luster-rich crimson, 24-karat gold-plated wire wheels, stainless-steel braided hoses, diamond-studded gear shifts, truck chassis lifted so high you can walk underneath, hot-rod frames sunk so low you lie down to drive — chop and channel, drop that roof, shorten those windows, lower the seats — no, tub it out, shorten that axle, take out the back seat, the tires are too small!
Sparkly, shiny, gleaming and slick, all kinds and makes are represented at the Cruise because Michigan has the best. More than 30,000 vehicular memories and fantasies will be on-site and stuck in traffic, giving you plenty of time to suck it all up. You’ll wonder at the star-crossed DeLorean: With its gull-wing doors open, it resembles some strange Italian insect, and when they’re closed, a skwooshed stainless-steel sandwich. You’ll see plain stock vehicles cut down as low as they can go, then watch as the hydraulics pump those low riders up and down in a specially homemade thrill ride rockin’ to a race-paced “Hey Mamacita” salsa sound track. There’ll be Eldorados, Mustangs, Dusters, Barracudas, Duesenbergs, and you may even catch a glimpse of a Tucker or two. At the Cruise, all are welcomed and paraded amid pony rides, Elvis impersonators, free chicken wings and clandestine beverages hidden in anonymous plastic cups.
“Hey girl! Want a ride?” They’re already out there. Two auto-conscious young men drive by me in a chartreuse metal-flaked dune buggy equipped with tires that could take over a small planet. They’re confident sitting inside the love of their life that shows the world what they’re all about.
In Detroit, we know that when it comes to cars, whoever you are on the inside can be customized on the outside for everyone else to see. “Hey, look what I got!”Anita Schmaltz writes about performance and spectacle for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org