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If it’s possible to look simultaneously in the rearview mirror and toward the future, this weekend’s Woodward Dream Cruise just might show the way.

There was an era — say, pre-2008 — when the cruise’s gauzy glorification of Detroit’s muscle cars represented the best and worst of this town’s defining industry. It projected a “chronic inability,” I wrote a decade ago this week, “to relegate the past to the past and move on.”

Back then, it was easier to celebrate roaring steel-and-rubber produced at the pinnacle of American industrial might than to reckon with the 30-year slide of mediocre product lines built by uncompetitive companies, often for no profit. So cruisers and planners of the annual August nostalgia fest looked backward because forward was just too hard.

Not anymore, thanks to bailout, bankruptcy, brutal restructuring and a refreshing embrace of reality. For every vintage ride rolling Woodward today and Saturday, there’s encouraging evidence that the Detroit companies (and their people) once content to wallow in the Motor City’s Golden Age are learning from the past and using it to inform their future.

A brush with industrial death can do that — the ignominy of bankruptcy, the closing of manufacturing plants, the cutting of thousands of jobs, the realization that there are no third chances, the constant reminders that hyper-competition is a fact of life.

Instead of creeping mediocrity, Detroit’s three automakers are demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit Lee Iacocca tapped to birth the Ford Mustang some 50 years ago and the competitiveness of Chevrolet’s answer with the Camaro. And they’re doing both with greater regularity and much higher quality.

Instead of consigning storied models to museums and car clubs of graying retirees, they’re showing they understand the value of heritage in the new iterations of Corvettes and Mustangs and Dodge Challengers powering ahead today. Call it lineage with a hyper-modern punch.

Instead of downplaying unmistakable global trends in urban mobility, governmental regulation and environmental expectation, they’re embracing the regenerative push of innovation. You can see it in Chevy Bolt electric vehicles, Ford self-driving cars by 2021 and ride-sharing coming soon to a town near you — risks you can bet Golden Age Detroit wouldn’t dare take.

Today’s auto barons know, however hard it is to accept, that their brush with collapse not too long ago and their legacy of broken promises produce hard feelings and natural skeptics. They’re in Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, among would-be buyers and long-time customers, in the news media and the political class.

The heads of General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV know they won’t get much respect until they can prove their mettle in a recession, until they can still book profits on lower sales volumes, invest in their core products and make the right plays in the evolving mobility space.

Detroiters quick to take offense should understand that. Rolling along Woodward gunning a Detroit-built V-8 may feel great, but it won’t change quickly those deeply held perceptions. Only consistent performance, segment-leading products and some high-profile wins in the constantly evolving mobility space will.

Detroiters and Detroit metal-lovers, keepers of the metaphoric flame almost extinguished eight years ago, should keep that in mind this weekend, too. In a town defined by its historic willingness to work hard, continually working to adjust the business and the products to the world as it is will continue to be Job 1.

Historically speaking, that hasn’t been built into this town’s DNA or the expectations of its people. For too long, they prized stability and predictability in a world (and a business) that can ensure neither — realities many of their toughest foreign competitors learned to manage long before Detroit did.

Like the industry it celebrates, the Dream Cruise continues to evolve because stagnation is a road to extinction. Marketing savants at the automakers, especially Chevrolet and Dodge, are using the week-long build up as golden opportunities to tout their metal to a naturally receptive audience.

Well, yeah. If ever you could assemble a gathering of “their people,” it would be at the Dream Cruise, a celebration of Detroit’s automotive arc, the people who designed it and the people who drive it, proudly.

Cruisers are a made-to-order demographic. The event, now in its 22nd year, is the perfect set for Chevy to tout its latest Camaro, for Dodge to show its muscle, for Ford to burnish its street cred with the Shelby GT 350 at Mustang Alley in Ferndale.

It’s also a reminder that the future, deeply rooted in the past, will not be given. It must be earned.

Daniel.Howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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