For gearheads, speed demons and nostalgia freaks, the big day is here at last.
Up to a million auto enthusiasts are expected to flock to the epicenter of Metro Detroit’s car culture Saturday for the 20th annual Woodward Dream Cruise.
From before dawn to past dusk, 16 miles of M-1 from Ferndale to Pontiac will be wall-to-wall fenders, fins and fuzzy dice as 40,000 El Dorados, Thunderbirds and other vintage vehicles roll down memory lane.
The car-crazy crowds will be oohhing and aahhing Saturday as a gleaming parade of chrome-bedecked Motown classics crawls along Michigan’s main drag, taking them back to the glory days of the Big Three.
“It’s nostalgia for people my age,” said John Heggie, 61, of Berkley, who was watching his hometown’s annual classic car parade Friday night. Heggie, who said he misses the distinctive designs of the 1950s and ’60s, plans to cruise Woodward on Saturday in his ’64 Corvette.
Many others couldn’t wait for cruise day and started hitting Woodward in their classics as soon as the weather warmed. The traffic has been building through the summer and all this week.
For some, Friday night is the highlight of the Dream Cruise.
“It’s great up until the day of the cruise. Then it’s just one mass of humanity,” said Steve Toth of Highland Township, who came out with his wife, Colleen, and children, Easton, 6, and Lacey, 4, to Berkley’s classic car parade on 12 Mile between Greenfield and Coolidge. “So the best time for the cruise is actually before the cruise.”
Cities along the route kicked off Dream Cruise activities under perfect conditions Friday night: sunshine, low humidity, temperate temperatures and thousands of spectators looking for a great time after a week of cleaning up soggy basements.
Events in Ferndale included the opening of Mustang Alley and the lights and sirens cruise; events happening in Berkley included the annual classic car parade along 12 Mile and the Champagne Cruise fundraiser to benefit Forgotten Harvest.
A parade of nostalgia
In Berkley, hundreds brought their chairs and dinners to sit and watch as a parade of classics, hot rods and other old-time autos drove the route. The event was geared toward families, with plenty of children’s activities and musical performances.
“It’s the nostalgia,” said Colleen Toth. “I like that my kids can look at the cars and know what things used to be like.”
The Toths were joined by their friends Gunnar and Sølvi Kittelsen Røberg from Norway, who came all the way to Michigan to enjoy the cruise with them. Gunnar said there are similar events in Norway, although not nearly as big as the Woodward cruise.
“We’ve got Fourth of July cruising,” he said. “They shut down the cruising streets so it’s just U.S. cars, and if you try to get in with a different car, the police won’t let you through.”
Two decades ago, the city of Ferndale was approached with the idea of a hosting a classic car cruise as a fundraiser for a soccer field. The soccer field was never built, but the Woodward Dream Cruise became a giant event that attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Many of those visitors are like the Røbergs, coming from around the world to gape and drool over the hundreds of thousands of hot rods, street rods, pony cars, muscle cars, antiques, collectibles, Model A’s and Ts, military vehicles, classic cop cars and more.
Crowds cheered Friday night as dozens of classic police, ambulance and fire trucks peeled off Nine Mile and onto Woodward with lights flashing and sirens screaming.
It was hard to tell who was having the best time, the police or the populace.
In a parking lot on Nine Mile, just east of Woodward, dozens of would-be firefighters momentarily lived the dream when they were taken sky high in a massive Ferndale Fire Department hook-and-ladder truck.
Riding a new pony
Friday also marked the opening of Mustang Alley, a herd of the iconic pony cars that take up real estate along East Nine Mile.
For some Mustang owners, the fun began Friday morning away from Woodward. More more than 200 Mustang owners and friends were invited to the Ford proving ground test track in Dearborn to get an up-close look at the automaker’s newly designed, sixth-generation pony car.
Attendees signed up months ago for a chance to see and ride in the 2015 Mustang. Spots filled up within an hour of the event being advertised on Ford’s Mustang Alley website.
“I came here for the cruise and this is just a bonus,” said Grant Anderson, who traveled from Sioux Falls, Idaho, to attend the event with his friend Jeff Jundt of Lake Orion. “It’s the 20th anniversary of the cruise and the 50th anniversary of the Mustang, so the stars are all aligned.”
The two men planned to bring Jundt’s 1970 Mustang Mach I to Mustang Alley in Ferndale to join a display of about 1,100 Ford pony cars.
“We will have Woodward to the railroad track stacked with Mustangs,” said Matt Sroka, launch manager for Ford’s Flat Rock assembly plant, where the Mustang is built. “I think we’re going to have more cars this year than we had in the first six years of Mustang Alley total.”
Barry and Dianne O’Rourke of Milton, Ont., made the trip to Dearborn, where they ran hot laps with professional drivers in the new Mustang.
They also were going to bring their 1968 Mustang fastback to Ferndale. They’ve had the car for nine years, but it brings back happy memories for them from long before that.
“He had one when we were first dating in 1978,” said Dianne O’Rourke, who has been married to her husband for almost 33 years.
“Now it’s just a chance for us to have fun,” Barry O’Rourke said.
Twice the fun
Herman and Judy Zarkis of Sterling Heights also share a love of classic cars. When it comes to the Dream Cruise, the two are a team.
“We always go out together,” said Judy Zarkis. “If he goes out without me, the guys tell him the car is leaning because I’m missing.”
Nearly half a century ago, Herman Zarkis paid $550 to rescue a 1956 Corvette from a junkyard. The car was a mess, the engine was gone and it was a pea green color. But he saw the potential.
“I’ve always liked the Corvette. It’s always been the prettiest car to me,” said the 75-year-old from Sterling Heights. “I was offered a lot of money for it a lot of times, but I would never sell it.”
After 49 years of love and care — and a significant amount of elbow grease — the couple spend their free time cruising and enjoying the car, which is now an eye-catching orange.
Judy Zarkis jokes she actually owns most of the car now.
“For my birthday, I got new tail lights,” she said. “For each holiday, I get something new.”