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Memory lane: Woodward rewards car faithful

The Detroit News
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It was a day when all roads led to Woodward Avenue.

From left, Eric Steiner, of Royal Oak, reaches out to high-five a passing vehicle while friend Matthew Csaki, of Ferndale, son Carson Steiner, 8, and brother Craig Steiner sit in Craig's 1970 Ford Bronco on Woodward Ave. near Nine Mile.

From flashbacks to fastbacks to American muscle to rat rods, they all heard the rumbling call of the Dream Cruise.

It was a reminder that everything that once was, still is and will be again next year. For officially one day only, 16 miles of historic pavement — from Ferndale to Pontiac — belonged to the Dreamers, the enthusiasts, the gasoline guzzlers, all 40,000 of them. And an estimated 1 million people cheered them on.

Under mostly sunny skies, young and old generations lined the sides of Woodward Avenue to catch a glimpse of their favorite vehicles from years past and current. By late afternoon, traffic headed northbound on Woodward was at a crawl into much of the evening.

Many cars donned out-of-state license plates, from Pennsylvania and Florida to several from Ontario.

While some parking spots remained empty, including $100 spots in Berkley, crowds were packed at many of the popular viewing spots, including near 13 Mile.

Some cruise fans perched on a platform atop a Ford Econoline van to get a better vantage point. The van included umbrellas and a ladder.

There were signs of some vehicle malfunctions with one rat rod blowing a hose and overheating. A few other classics were seen on flatbed tow trucks.

They'll be back.

"It's very iconic for the area," said Erin Hojnacki, 29, of Sterling Heights. "It's cool to see the cars come out and represent the city. It's called the Motor City for a reason."

To the north end of the Dream Cruise, downtown Pontiac was alive despite the 80-degree heat and few places to hide from it. Traffic was limited to one direction or closed off entirely in sections allowing for no-hassle car inspections by fans from all over the area.

Pontiac City Square, the massive ocean of parking spaces in the downtown area, was the focal point for most of the action. The event attracted several hundred cars and even more visitors. One end of the lot was anchored by roughly a dozen food trucks, with the smell of barbecue from the Red Wood Grill wafting over the festivities. Those with different tastes could opt for cheesesteaks or even liquid nitrogen ice cream.

In another corner of the lot, a stage hosted live music throughout the day, including local band the Lofteez holding things down.

The activity was a welcome sight to Major Guy, the manager at Pontiac City Square.

“The crowds have improved slightly from last year,” he said. “With the downtown coming back, I think people are recognizing that.”

Here is a collection of other moments experienced during the Woodward Dream Cruise on Saturday.


Mike Mullen, 61, bought this 1961 Citroen 2CV from a widow in 2011.
Cutline: Mike Mullen, 61, poses next to his psychedelic “French hippie car,” the 1961 Citroën 2CV, which crossed four countries and four hands before reaching him.

When the Peter Max-inspired 1961 Citroen 2CV bounced down Woodward Avenue Saturday, a tot pointed and exclaimed, “Scooby Doo!”

Most people smile and wave, or throw two thumbs up and peace signs at Mike Mullen’s groovy, Mystery Machine-style painted French car, complete with psychedelic mushrooms, wacky suns and the command to “Be Kind!” Mullen, 61, even has John Lennon sunglasses to match.

“It’s just tons of fun,” Mullen said, from what everyone knows as his spot on Woodward Avenue and Webster Street.

It took Mullen months to track down who painted the car after acquiring it in 2011 from the widow of a Detroit car collector, who put it in a garage for 17 years, preserving its condition.

First, he tried calling Peter Max’s studio to see if the legend had painted the car, which would have increased the car’s value astronomically.

It hadn’t, but the real story is wilder: Mullen traced what American servicemen called the “sardine can” through four owners and across France, Germany, Canada and Minnesota. Mullen tracked down the third owner, a “tin foil on everything” paranoid type named Terrance Dickinson, isolated in Colorado. Dickinson had flipped the car in a matter of months — fortunately, before he had the chance to strip the car of its psychedelic paint job.

“Nutcase,” Mullen said, too appreciative of the work. “This is the most beautiful car.”

Previously, Minnesotan dik Bolger parted with it because it needed fixing and he needed cash to go to Europe. Dik bought it from his older brother Jack, who got it in Europe in the late ’60s, shipped it to Canada (looser safety regulations) and drove it home to Richfield, Minnesota.

That’s when, inspired by Peter Max’s vibrant colors and funky designs, Jack, dik and an art student turned the Citroën from grey to Technicolor.

Jack Bolger died in 1995, but Mullen was able to reunite dik Bolger with his beloved French hippie car in 2012 after a five-and-a-half-month search and an article in Minnesota’s paper, The Star Tribune. dik and his family made the connection in a matter of hours.

Rich Childs, 59, is a fellow Citroën owner who parked his grey, stickered sardine next to Mullen’s.

“It evokes the Summer of Love,” Childs said, a fitting remark considering 2017 marks a 50-year anniversary for the glory days of Haight-Ashbury hippies.

For being a funky-fresh Citroën, it doesn’t get much attention, a fact Mullen said surprises his friends.

“Ford, Chrysler and GM own (The Woodward Dream Cruise), and whether you know it or not, they’re pushing status — they’re not going to push that,” he said, pointing at the seatbelt-less, stick shift sardine with bouncy suspension.

Regardless, the people seem to love it. Even the sports car drivers and riders lean out their windows and take videos.

“It’s the highest compliment,” said Mullen, a muscle car fan himself.

He can’t rev the car or spin it out when kids ask, but he can do one thing with his car: Bring people joy.

Love at first sight

Just three hours after Bill Pilchak, 63, set his eyes on the original 1956 Cadillac Sedan de Ville in 1991, he knew his family had to buy it.

After all, he and his wife, Toni, both of Rochester Hills, had been looking for a classic family car. He paid $10,800 and the car, with even the rubber siding on the windshield in tact — a cue about the car's impeccable condition — was theirs.

The car is totally original, not one modification, but the front seat will need restoration soon, he said. Raising a hotel magazine up, Pilchak proudly remarked it even made magazines as the poster-car for the Woodward Dream Cruise. It was on display Saturday in Birmingham, between Bowers and Hazel.

With an "ask to touch sign" atop the headlight, which doubles as the gas cover, vintage car paraphernalia and even a "no cruising" sign from 1969, Pilchak's car attracts attention.

He said a few years ago, a man told him this was the car his family abandoned when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba.
Roseville resident Kelley Pomper, 40, had come to the Dream Cruise for the last 10 years.

When she first saw the car, all she could say was "wow!"

"It's awesome, for as old as it is," she said. "That trunk alone could fit five people going to a drive-in, which is probably why we don't have drive-ins anymore."

Passersby stopped for pictures next to the sign, which read, "Cruising and gathering outside a vehicle unlawful. City ordinance."

"When I was 16, you have to find places to park your car; you will be drag racing up and down the street; you get chased places," Pilchak said. "And now, you spend a week celebrating."

I Love Lucy Scotty trailer parks for tours

An I Love Lucy themed 1960s Scotty camper trailer was on display for all fans to enter and take photos on Saturday in Royal Oak.

Elaine and John Vermeersch of Chesterfield have owned the trailer for 10 years and have taken it on tours across the country.

At Woodward and west Webster Street before 13 Mile parked the I Love Lucy trailer owned by Elaine and John Vermeersch, residents of Chesterfield and married for 48 years.

The trailer camper is cream with a turquoise topper and has a portrait of Lucy and the gang on the front with “179 episodes of iconic history” written. There are also famous one-liners from the show like “I love candy” and “Oh, Lucy” painted on the back.

Inside is a replicated working kitchen, a dining table with a side booth, a bed that's a convertible bunker and even air conditioning. Inside the small camper, one only has to take two steps to get from the front to the back.

“We bought it with the stuff painted, but we did most of the work modifying it,” John Vermeersch said. “It wasn't hard at all finding the stuff on the internet and it's grown over time.”

This is the couple’s 15th year at the Woodward Dream Cruise; they have owned the trailer for a decade. The couple works with cars in their daily life, but say the Dream Cruise is the highlight of their year.

“It's all Elaine, she loves the show so much and it is such a classic show, but lately when we aren't touring it around the country, it sits in our back yard for the grandkids to enjoy,” John Vermeersch said.

John Vermeersch, 71, also owns 25 other classic cars, but his favorite is his 1946 Ford Station Wagon, which he drives daily.  The couple repair displays and transport show cars around the country.

They originally purchased the camper trailer as a small office space to have with them on the road and it wasn't long before Elaine Vermeersch remodeled it to her favorite television show.

“She's the best comedian ever,” Elaine Vermeersch, 69, said. “My favorite scene has to be the one with her at the candy factory. She's just so funny and iconic.”

The trailer will also be at next weekend's Hines Cruise.

Mustang mania

Ford Motor Co.'s main outpost, Mustang Alley, in Ferndale looked like a street fair, with pony car fans perusing close to 1,000 Mustangs spanning decades of Dearborn muscle.

For Mark Schaller, Ford's Mustang marketing manager, this weekend in August is one of the best, putting the brand in the spotlight during Michigan's premier car event, he said.

Nearby, a steady stream of people walked up Nine Mile to Woodward, and others had gathered just east of the main thoroughfare to gawk at a Ford GT supercar the automaker had on display.

"If you gotta ask, you can't afford," one man said to a group watching the silver speedster spin on its rotation platform.

Though Mustang Alley has been a big draw for cruisers and car fans for a few years, the stretch of Nine Mile from just west of Woodward through the heart of downtown Ferndale bore a special significance Saturday. Ford was in its inaugural year as the Woodward Dream Cruise's main sponsor.

Adrian Green, 53, drove from Eastpointe with his brother-in-law. At just after 9 a.m. Saturday, Greeb had a bag full of Ford merchandise and leaned on a barricade watching a Ford Mustang attempt a brief burnout on Woodward.

"I'm a Ford man," he said. "They put on a good show every year."

Shocks andstyle in Pontiac

Bud Marotz’s blue 1940 Ford Deluxe Tudor is, essentially, plan B for his annual trips to Kalamazoo with his wife to the National Street Rod Association gathering in September. For years, they’d made the trip west from their Waterford Township home in his 1929 Model A. It’s a car no one would describe as “comfy.”

Enter the Deluxe, a cushier ride he picked up two weeks ago, just in time for Saturday's Dream Cruise and a few weeks ahead of this year’s pilgrimage to Kalamazoo.

“We can take this anytime,” said Marotz, who has owned a heating and cooling business in Waterford Township where he’s worked for 50 of his 72 years. “This has good shocks, comfortable seats, a radio and air conditioning.”

Those additions — plus the custom dark blue, striped paint job — mean the nearly 80-year-old vehicle is far from stock, but Marotz doesn’t mind. It’s all about the comfort.

“All my friends say, ‘You didn’t buy that, you stole it,’” he joked.

Late in the day, an arrest

A man in his mid- to late 20s was arrested in Royal Oak while driving his classic black Mustang around 8 p.m. Saturday.

Police officers from Warren and Royal Oak police departments said they were a few cars behind when a driver burned out his tires along Woodward and west 13 Mile.

After pulling him over into a Burger King parking lot on Woodward just before Normandy, they searched his car and found a firearm in his possession without registration, officials said.

Police arrested the man, whose name was not disclosed, and took him to Oakland County jail. He was driving with his girlfriend in the passenger seat and officers asked her to exit the vehicle so the man's Mustang could be towed.

Witness Jill Hamilton, 55, of Rochester, who was stationed outside the Burger King since 6 a.m. Saturday, said the man was wrongfully stopped.

"They pulled him over for squeaking his tires a little bit and people have been burning their tires here all day," Hamilton said.

Officers said they believe the man had intentions to race other vehicles and waited for him to rev his engine to pull him over.

The Royal Oak Police Department declined to release any information.

Early fans get the spots

Many cruise fans got a spot early and stayed put most of the day.

Mike Cunningham, 41, of Shelbyville, Indiana, had a tent and chairs set up next to his parked 2008 Chevrolet Corvette near 13 Mile in Royal Oak. He and a friend arrived at 7 a.m. — two hours before the cruise officially kicked off.

Cunningham has been coming to the Dream Cruise for about four years and hoped to be able to get a little driving in this year. He loves the diversity of cars.

“You see everything, “ he said as loud muscle cars accelerated along Woodward. “New cars, old cars, hot rods, crazy stuff that people built that you don’t think should even be on the street, but they’re out here driving it.”

J.R. Robinson, 66, of Detroit and his wife, Cheryl, 49, of Detroit found a spot about 7:30 a.m. just south of 13 Mile in Royal Oak to watch the parade of cruisers up Woodward.

J.R. Robinson said he’s been coming to the cruise for about 10 years and loves to see all the muscle cars. He’s got one himself: a 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS T-Top.

“I didn’t want to bring mine because it’s not in mint shape yet,” he said. “Mine’s running and clean, but it’s not mint yet."

But Robinson hopes to drive it in the Dream Cruise. “Lord willing, I hope mine will be in it next year.”

Father-son production

Dylan Flegel and his father, Jim, are giving people the equivalent of a head fake. People passing by along the east side of Woodward near 14 Mile think they’re seeing one thing, but it’s actually another.

The V-shaped twin air intakes for cooling their 1994 Pontiac Firebird’s small-block 350, seemingly pop out of the engine.

“People think they’re seeing twin turbos,” said Dylan, a 23-year-old from Kalamazoo.

He and his father began working on the car roughly seven years ago — a bonding experience the younger Flegel clearly cherishes. The work took roughly three years to complete.

What they’ve put out together is a vehicle Dylan describes as “old style,” with its big tires and big engine. The outside is finished in deep, dark orange color, with a black interior.

“Now, after all of the work, we get to just drive it,” he said.

Built to run

The first car Doug Phend learned to drive in nearly 40 years ago was a tiny little Fiat. The car he’s currently tooling around in, in Pontiac on Saturday, is so not that.

A year and a half ago, the 56-year-old Clarkston resident bought his 1957 Chevy Nomad from one of the friends he and his wife had dinner with every Tuesday. Technically, it’s a two-door station wagon. But the black-and-chrome monster is far from what most of us think of when we hear that term.

Under the hood, the Nomad sports a crate 350 engine, with a cam on it and a 671 blower.

“I saw that and couldn’t believe what (the previous owner) had done in there,” Phen said. And instead of keeping it under wraps, he gets it out on the road as often as possible.

“I drive it a lot,” he said. “It’s only been in the trailer once.”

The interior features chrome trim nearly everywhere, including spans across the ceiling. It’s a level of detail that makes cleaning a real chore. Those are matched on the outside of the vehicle’s roof by ribbing. Those are just some of the touches that Phend loves about his new prize.

“I will never sell it,” he said. “My wife can sell it after I’m gone, I guess.”

Drive behind the Cruise

What began as a fundraiser for a soccer field in Ferndale in 1995 quickly evolved into the world’s largest one-day automotive event.

Spectators and cruisers travel each third Saturday in August to Metro Detroit, the birthplace of the American automobile, to demonstrate and participate in an event that celebrates an ongoing love affair with the automobile.

The Dream Cruise is many things to many people: a road party, car show, manufacturer display, a meandering drive that’s more about the journey than the destination.

But mostly it’s a trip to the past, a time when American cars ruled the world, and all roads led to Detroit.

The vintage cars along Woodward on Saturday show Motown know-how in all its souped-up, tricked-out glory.

Staff writers Melissa Burden, Jim Lynch, Ian Thibodeau, Francis X. Donnelly, Sarah Rahal and Jo Kroeker contributed.

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