Burnouts, bedlam, bliss — the first Dream Cruise

An oral history from the people who created it, drove in it, watched it — and loved it

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The original name of the Woodward Dream Cruise was the Remember Woodward Dream Cruise — which, of course, no one remembers.

Created as a fundraiser for a soccer field in Ferndale, it rolled out on Aug. 19, 1995, a bright, 87-degree Saturday.

Spectators sat in the medians because no one had thought to tell them they couldn't. Some of them brought jugs of water or bleach to pour on the pavement for burnouts.

It was mayhem, say some of the participants from way back then. It was bliss. It was something that won't be seen again, as the Dream Cruise becomes ever larger and more organized and corporate and safe.

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An event founded on nostalgia is old enough now that people are nostalgic about its early years. As the engines begin to rumble for Saturday's 25th incarnation, we've checked in with dozens of the drivers, organizers and spectators who remember the Remember Woodward Dream Cruise.

The originator — a Ferndale handyman named Nelson House — ultimately felt slighted, come to find out, though he'd never admit it publicly or cast a cloud over the event. The staffers felt giddily overwhelmed. All of them felt the joy and the adrenaline rush as thousands of vintage automobiles — and accompanying fleets of minivans — graced M-1, the road to Michigan's soul.

Climb in with them, and enjoy the ride.

I. DRIVE

Police said there were as many as 4,100 classic cars on Woodward at once, and 10,000 throughout the day. There were at least 250,000 spectators, which means anywhere from six to 50 times as many as various people expected.

The learning curve was a hairpin turn.

Jean Chamberlain, Royal Oak. Works in economic development for Oakland County; in 1995, served as liaison for the southern part of the county: We thought the first year, if we had 25,000 people, it would be a gigantic success. About a week or 10 days out, my name was the contact for the event. I started getting calls from L.A., Atlanta, Manitoba: "I’m pulling a flatbed into town with a such-and-such and a such-and-such." They always told the make and model. Never their name.

State Rep. Jim Ellison, D-Royal Oak. Committee chair in 1995, and future mayor of Royal Oak: We were expecting 30,000 to 40,000. We got 250,000 to 300,000. The way they estimate is from helicopters. They figure out an area and extrapolate.

Randy Booden, 63, Berkley. Owner of B&B Collision in Royal Oak and original Dream Cruise committee member: Nobody’s thinking, “What’s in the middle of Woodward?” A nice median, that's what. From 11 Mile to 14 Mile, it was packed with people. By the time the police realized what was going on, it was too late. They couldn’t do anything about it. People had containers of water, of bleach. Burnout city.

Dale Piock, 71, Royal Oak. Retired from tool-and-die sales; now drives a bus for shut-ins and a '65 Chevelle convertible: That first Dream Cruise, people were on the median on Woodward, my wife and I and our friends among them. Now that’s outlawed. It was totally different than it is now. It wasn’t out of hand by no means. But we're walking along Woodward Avenue and these guys are lighting up their tires. It’s a wonder no one got hurt.

Tom Hill, 64, Clawson. Works in parts at Suburban Toyota and Suburban Volvo, and cruises in a 1951 Chevrolet Styleline Deluxe Power Glide: My brother and I were just back from a week vacation in South Haven. A buddy calls and says, "Tom, you’ve got to get out here to Woodward."

It was total bedlam. People were running back and forth across the street to the median. Alcohol was just rampant.

Scott Moore, 66, Birmingham. City commissioner in 1995 and later mayor: One problem we immediately recognized was that there was no starting time. No ending time. One of our officers told me, "What do you want me to do? I can’t even get across the street." How do you go about law enforcement? If you’re putting bleach in the road, are we going to arrest you?

John Van Gorder, 67, Birmingham. Retired Birmingham police commander who does marketing and client services for a money manager. Was a day shift sergeant in 1995: The best way I can explain it, it was a crowd that was very mature. People in their 40s and 50s. It was amazing how well behaved the crowds were.

Don Wright, 68, Clawson. Retired automation builder, crafting the hands for robots: I had a mountain bike. There were three of us, going right down the middle of Woodward between lanes. A bicycle is the best way to see it.

Doug Bernstein, 62, Royal Oak. Attorney at Plunkett Cooney: We were at (Michigan International Speedway) on Saturday. We get off I-696 at Woodward coming home, and we’re at a dead stop, thinking, "What the heck is this?" We’d heard about some sort of cruise, but we had no idea it was going to be so big. And we certainly weren’t figuring it’s going to be what it turned into.

... At Woodward and 12 Mile, we watched this guy in a pickup drop his transmission right in front of us.

CLOSE

"We had a tiger by the tail. We didn't know how popular it would be," said Jim Ellison, the first chairman of the Woodward Dream Cruise. David Guralnick, The Detroit News

Jim Ellison: In Royal Oak, we set up a parking lot near the backside of the driving range behind Memorial Park. We had a slot car track, a live performance and a drive-in movie. It was very sparsely attended. Everybody wanted to be on Woodward.

Randy Booden: We showed "American Graffiti." A crew came out to set up the scaffolding for the movie screen. Then the movie ended, and there was nobody around except us.

Bill Stedman, 69, retired near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Former program director of WOMC-FM (104.3), the official radio station for the cruise: People just didn't want to be drawn off Woodward. That was the fun thing about it. You throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and not all of it sticks, but some of it does.

Big John Vermeersch, 73, Chesterfield Township. Owns Ford Total Performance in Clinton Township, working with Ford on displays and exhibits: Normally, we were cruising Gratiot, which still had a bit of a cruising scene. That’s kind of the whole reason to go someplace new, to see what everybody else is playing with. What they got that you don’t got. What you can trade ‘em out of. You’re always trading, swapping cars. The first Woodward Cruise was better than anticipated.

Dale Piock: A guy that worked for my company had a car, a ’67 Barracuda Coupe, red. He was sitting at the light right at the turnaround north of 13 Mile. He stepped on it and broke the motor mount and the accelerator stuck. He was going sideways. It was wide open.

That scared the feces out of him. He was sideways from the turnaround to 13 Mile when he turned it off.

John Cochrain, 67, Hazel Park. Quality manager for an automotive plastics company in Sterling Heights: The first year, I'm on the Dream Cruise committee. I'm driving a 1974 Dodge Dart Swinger, bright red. Friday night, I'm parallel parking out front of the Jeep dealer on Woodward and the front tires hit a little too hard. It broke my steering box.

I limped back there Saturday, sat all day and drove home.

2. REVERSE

Before there could be a Remember Woodward Dream Cruise, someone had to think of it. Then a lot of people had to plan it. Then a quarter-million people showed up and jump-started something renowned wherever people love cars: A club from Australia has been known to ship its Firebirds from Down Under so the members can drive up Woodward.

We've already turned back the clock to August 1995. Now turn it back a few more clicks to November 1994 ...

Jean Chamberlain: First of all, though everybody takes credit for it, it was Nelson House’s idea. The plumber from Ferndale.

I worked for (the late Oakland County Executive L.) Brooks Patterson in the south end of the county. I’d been helping Nelson raise money for his soccer field. He called me with this hot idea he had and said, "Whatcha think?" I said you’ll need to contact all the cities along the way. If you’ll agree to do that, I’ll give you the names and numbers of the six chambers of commerce. So I did that and thought he’d go away because he used to have these epiphanies all the time.

Randy Booden: I almost credit Ralph Haney (instead of Nelson House). He ran the United Street Machine Association. He wanted to do something for years in conjunction with Woodward. He couldn’t get it kicked off.

Kelly Sweeney, 66, Bloomfield Hills. Retired Realtor; drove a 1967 Camaro convertible: The first cruise in ’95, I was on the Birmingham/Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce. We were trying to tie Birmingham to Royal Oak and all the communities. At the time, it was very disjointed. Every time you went across 14 Mile, the street numbers would change.

The biggest cruise in Michigan at the time was St. Ignace. I was at a meeting and said, "We could have a cruise."

Venetta House, 73, Wayne. Married to Nelson House for 43 years until he died of colon cancer in August 2010, a week and a half before that year's Dream Cruise: He chose the third Saturday of August because he checked, and most often that was the one with no rain.

Sean House, 51, Van Buren Township. Older of two sons of Venetta and Nelson; Iraq vet who works for Ford: The reason for the big push was, the World Cup had been at the Silverdome in  '94, and that got him thinking Ferndale should have a soccer field for kids. He had this idea for a car show to raise money.

The City Council was kind of lukewarm to it. He decided to get a bunch of people in '50s outfits, with the poodle skirts and all. They showed up at a meeting with '50s music on a boombox and shared his vision. He started a 501(c)(3), the Kids' Dream Field Foundation.

Venetta House: I met him at the truck stop at M-59 and U.S. 23 in Hartland. I was a waitress. He asked me on a date. Another waitress told me I couldn’t go out with him because he was hers. I was 20. Our first date was the State Fair. He went on the double Ferris wheel with me and told me he liked it, but he never went on it again.

Sean House: The stories all said he was a plumber from Ferndale, but he was a handyman. He wasn't a licensed electrician, but he could do electrical work. He could do anything.

Jim Ellison: He had an idea. He wanted to have his car show on Nine Mile and drive it all the way up Woodward. He'd give people these plaques cut into six pieces, and you could stop in each community — Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Huntington Woods, Berkley, Royal Oak, Birmingham — to pick up a piece.

Scott Moore: We agreed this was a good idea. I never could figure out how he was making money from it for the soccer field.

Sean House: The car show got bigger every year. By the third one, it stretched west across Woodward. The first one, they closed Nine Mile from Paxton to Woodward — 500 cars, a sellout, at $25 apiece.

Bill Stedman: One of our sales guys at WOMC got wind of a meeting. This guy Nelson House was trying to put something together to raise money for a soccer field. It was the middle of winter. The first meeting was on the second floor of a bank at Nine Mile and Woodward, and we just showed up. I said, we’ll take the enormous 104.3 and talk about it a lot. We’ll have evening broadcasts from Duggan’s Irish Pub in the week leading up.

Jim Ellison: The first meeting I called to order, I said, "OK. Now what?" The first order of business was a logo. It said Remember Woodward Dream Cruise. We used to divide the revenue from T-shirts and whatnot by the footage of curb on Woodward in each city. For the most part, people were made pretty much whole for their expenses.

Bill Stedman: I grew up in Detroit. I’m a car guy. Put cars and music and Woodward Avenue together, what’s not to like? It seemed like a cool thing for the oldies station in town to get connected with.

Jim Ellison: Really, it was one of the first times there was inter-municipal cooperation. In 1993, ’94, the communities didn’t talk to each other. With things like crowd control and event management, we were learning along the way. 

Venetta House: Because (Nelson) had no experience or degree, a committee was formed. It was getting big. It did take a lot of his time. But it's a little sad they didn't include him in the committee.

He always wanted to be positive. He didn't want to say he was a little sad.

Jim Ellison: We carried the idea for nine months. It was a good idea. Nelson called me one day and said, "I didn’t want it to get this big." He was still supportive, but he could see it was getting more complicated than what he could handle. Making contacts, dealing with WOMC. … He didn’t want to deal with all that. He wanted to do his car show.

Venetta House: He did the Ferndale show for three years. Then he took the show to the State Fairgrounds for a year. Then he was out of the picture.

Sean House: Ferndale told him, "Hey, you’re going to have to pay $15,000 for the police, and you have to have insurance."

Venetta House: He stopped going to the Dream Cruise because his feelings were hurt for a while. I’m glad it’s still a nice day for people. He didn’t want to be negative.

3. OVERDRIVE

A few people, including Nelson House, expected bigger things than the committee. House told the Royal Oak Tribune that "I can envision the streets lined from Ferndale to Pontiac," though he was probably speaking long-term, since Pontiac and the Bloomfields weren't initially included.

Marsha Mellert, the event coordinator in Ferndale, said a crowd of 200,000 was possible, but “we are hoping it will be a little less than that, quite a bit less than that for a first-time event. We want to make it successful.”

Jean Spang, 81, Ferndale. Retired librarian and volunteer at the Ferndale Historical Museum: The Dream Cruise bespeaks the best of Detroit. The best car I ever had was a 1965 Mustang, and we drove that in 1995 — myself and my husband, Lothar. That car could corner better than any car I ever had.

John Cochrain: All the cars from our car club were there. Everybody had a good time. Everybody sat around, had a cold drink and watched the traffic go by. There was a lot more water on the pavement back then. I’ve seen some close calls. Bad idea.

A kid with a newer model car, 1980 Monte Carlo or something, he got the tires screaming. Well, eventually the tires grip. He got the car stopped right before he hit the back of a mint ’57 Chevy. I don’t burn tires. Not at $175 apiece.

Jim Ellison: I am a strong proponent of family vans on Woodward. We’ve got kids out there now whose first experience was being in the family car. Participation is important, and that's one of the things that makes it special. If you turn it into an event where the have-nots are on the sideline, the have-nots are going to get bored watching the haves.

Mike Russo, 44, Lincoln Park. Works in sales — "non-automotive": My mom listened to WOMC, so she found out about this cruise up in Oakland County. My three friends and I weren’t even all that into cars, but it sounded like fun. I had a 1980 Dodge Omni, light blue. It was probably even ugly for an Omni. But it was the oldest car any of us had, so we decided that made it the closest to a classic.

The air conditioner wasn’t real good. We’re rolling up Woodward with the windows down — it was hot — and we pull up to a guy driving something old and beautiful. A Lincoln, maybe. He rolls down the window and says, "What year is that piece of hell?" I tell him it’s a 1980. And he says, "If it lasts 10 more years, bring it back. But for now, you should get it off the street." We laughed about that all the way home. And it didn’t last 10 more years.

Bill Stedman: The first couple of years, we were so crazy about the little WOMC signs in the median. Me and my marketing team thought that was brilliant. Certain other people said it was obnoxious. We were back at the radio station stapling signs onto stakes until 1 a.m., then came back and planted them along Woodward early Saturday morning. We had a .22-caliber stapler and a power saw to split the strip of wood in half and put a point on one end. There was an assembly line back in the transmitter room in fashionable Ferndale. We made hundreds of them. Hundreds and hundreds.

Jim Ellison: No controversy. No major incidents. It’s the world’s greatest church picnic.

Scott Moore: Can you imagine anywhere else in the world where you sit in a lawn chair all day and watch traffic?

Pamela Wilcox, 55, Royal Oak. Lived on Larkmoor Blvd. in Berkley in 1995, four houses west of Westborn Market. I think we found out about it two days before. We just told our friends, "C'mon over. We can go out on Woodward and see these cars going by." It was mayhem. There was no time limit. It went forever.

I don’t think we owned any bleach. I was not that type of laundry person. But somebody brought it because we were pouring it onto the street out of a bucket. It was like a license to be crazy as an adult.

CLOSE

Venetta House talks about her late husband Nelson House, originator of the Woodward Dream Cruise. Robin Buckson, The Detroit News

Jack Ryan, 70, Canton Township. Barber by trade; also managed the Contours, who were bigger than ever after "Do You Love Me" was featured in "Dirty Dancing" in 1987: The guys were playing Shain Park in Birmingham for the cruise. They had cars parked all 'round the park. It was GTO Central. By the time my wife and I showed up, they weren’t letting any more cars in.

I had the guys’ money. I would cash the check — $5,000 this time, less than what we'd been making but we didn't have to travel. Then I’d put cash in envelopes for the guys, five Contours and four musicians. This rent-a-cop wouldn't let me in. I said either let me in, or there won’t be any flippin' show. The guy was going to show me how important he was. I told this guy, "The show ain’t going to go on, and somebody’s gonna want your flippin' job."

Ben Speer, 64, Plymouth. Vocalist and guitar player for Benny & the Jets, then a quartet; now he mostly plays solo: We got this '55 Chevy wagon. A guy said, let me put some paint on it. Bright canary yellow. He said, "Can I do some flames?" We said, "We’re not paying you. Do what you want." We would drive that to gigs.

We played in Birmingham, and 100 percent we went cruising. I can’t tell you how much cruising we did, before and after. Last summer, the president of a car club called Memories in Motion tracked the Chevy down. Someone in Brighton restored it and sold it to a girl in North Carolina. She was so impressed with the history of the car — that it had been at the first Woodward Dream Cruise — that she asked me to sign some photos. She keeps them on the dash at car shows.

Kathy Ryan, 65, Canton Township. Married to Jack Ryan for 39 years. Drove them to Shain Park in her 1979 Corvette: It was a forest green T-top with a 350 engine. It was an automatic; I can't drive sticks. After the show, I said, "I have to drive down Woodward for at least a mile or so." We got out there and we were moving an inch at a time. It barely got a block before it overheated. I pulled off on a side street, and in half an hour it was OK. I was concerned about trying to get a tow truck in there. That would have been awful.

Brad Jackson, 51, Rochester. He and his wife Beth, 52, were living in Beverly Hills: We went to a wedding later in the day and then got stuck in traffic for hours coming home because this thing called the Woodward Cruise was still going on.  As we made our way home there was drag racing, bleach being poured under tires for smoke-outs and a bunch of wild and crazy things.

Jim Bright, 67, Bloomington, Indiana. Former head of public relations for the Ford Division of Ford Motor Co.: This was a time when I was being moved by Ford from Dallas after 2 ½ years, back to Detroit. I just happened to show up on Dream Cruise Saturday. I didn’t even have a car to call my own. My friend said you have to see this. A Metro Car picked us up and dropped us off.

I was sipping out of a brown bottle, if you know what I mean. Everywhere you turned, it was “Fun, Fun, Fun,” or “Mustang Sally,” or “Little Deuce Coupe” or “409.” It was special. What a wonderful welcome home for me.

Jean Spang: My husband is buried at Roseland Park Cemetery at 12 Mile and Woodward. When we chose the space, we made sure he could see the Dream Cruise.

4. NEUTRAL

Twenty-five Dream Cruises? It hardly seems possible.

Away from the gridlock, the originators and others ponder pitfalls, predictions and potential ...

Randy Booden: We thought, if this lasts three years, we'll be surprised. If it lasts five years, we'll be shocked.

Jim Ellison: It's now an adult. The cruise itself is old enough to be a classic car.

Scott Moore: Every year, you cross your fingers. You're dealing with so many people. Every year, it's been a tremendous success. All the ingredients were there. ... Suddenly, this thing that had been sleeping since the oil embargo came out to play.

Jean Chamberlain: If we closed everything down the third Saturday in August, people would still be here cruising.

Greg Rassel, 60, Brighton. President of the Woodward Dream Cruise: As I describe it, it's just like Christmas and the story of the Grinch. It'll come without sponsors, it'll come without vendors, it'll come without all of the paraphernalia we attach to it.

Jan Froggatt, 70, Ferndale. President of the Ferndale Historical Society: The Dream Cruise starts when the last snowflake goes away and stops when the first snowflake falls. Some of these cities could drop out, it won't make a difference. It's still going to happen.

CLOSE

Cruising fan Jean Spang talks about the first year of the Woodward Dream Cruise at the Ferndale Historical Museum. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Scott Moore: Is this going to be a generational event? I never expected it to grow this big or last this long. So far I've pretty much been proven wrong.

Jim Ellison: Now we're seeing a much younger group driving imports. Tuners. It's still car culture. That's fine. We started on the nostalgia of cruising Woodward. They started with the nostalgia of earlier Dream Cruises.

Kelly Sweeney: The car culture is an emotional thing. I always told my salespeople, "Logic leaves off where emotion takes over." At the end of the day, this is about recapturing youth.

Jean Chamberlain: The first few years, we had people yipping and yapping because they weren't getting business on Saturday. We paid visits to those stores and told them how they could make money renting their parking lot. Now most of them wind up making two or three times what they could on a normal day.

The Magic Bag theater (in Ferndale) always had something to say on its marquee. One year it was "World's Largest Redneck Traffic Jam." Then they put my home phone number up there: "For Parking, Call Jean." I called and said, "Take it down right now." I didn't sue them.

Bill Stedman: I think that second year, I got to write the line, "The world's largest one-day automotive event." If it wasn't true, I kept writing it until it was.

5. PARK

Someone has been playing tic-tac-toe with chalk on the pathway leading to the soccer field. X is winning.

The field aligns north-south on the northwest piece of Martin Road Park in Ferndale. There's no signage, but there are two adult-sized goals, with white nets on silver frames, and a dozen smaller goals scattered across the lawn. Along the sideline is one set of bleachers, five rows deep and maybe 22 feet wide.

Michael Eby, recreation aid, Ferndale Parks & Recreation Department: It's our largest and most sought-after field. At Wilson and Geary parks, we paint lines on open spaces. Harding Park has our other designated field.

LaReina Wheeler, director, Ferndale Parks & Rec: It’s definitely a very important part of our program. Thanks to the fundraisers, the Dream Field is heavily utilized by our residents and youth. A majority of the time, we're able to play multiple games at once.

Sean House: When my dad died, I spoke to the City Council. I asked them to put up a sign. Call it Woodward Dream Cruise Field, whatever.

Darren Dunlap, 21, Ferndale. Lives on Bonner Street, where his backyard sits parallel to the soccer field: I've just heard it called Martin Road Park. Nothing else, really ... My son (Matthew, 3) hasn't asked about playing yet, but he likes to watch.

LaReina Wheeler: I've been here 2 ½ or 3 years. I knew we call it Dream Field and there was a connection to the Dream Cruise, but I did not know the name Nelson House.

Sean House: My brother and I didn't play soccer. He didn't coach it or anything. He just had a very strong love for children, charities and his home town of Ferndale.

LaReina Wheeler: That was a very selfless act. He could have picked anything to go there, and any number of things to work toward.

Venetta House: Nelson joined the Navy when he was 17. He was the oldest of nine ... They were pretty poor.

Sean House: He's buried at the veterans cemetery in Holly. They gave us four lines. It has his name and the dates he was born and died. Then it says "Beloved Father and Husband." And on the bottom line, it says, "Founder of the Woodward Dream Cruise."

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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