Road-inspired items bring Woodward home

Jeanine Matlow
Special to The Detroit News

As car enthusiasts enjoy the classics at the Woodward Dream Cruise this weekend, there’s another way to ride the wave with automotive memorabilia that includes everything from vintage pieces to Detroit-themed street signs. Here’s a look at some local sources for unique finds that let you rev up your interiors by injecting them with the symbol of the Motor City.

Though the Dream Cruise will soon come and go, Mary Liz Curtin, co-owner of Leon & Lulu in Clawson, says that cars are what we’re all about. “Lots of people come to the store for car-themed pieces to add to their man caves or restaurants and they make great gifts for guys,” she says. “People want to celebrate cars. They’re big and shiny. Who can resist that?”

Their latest items range from a wooden race car table lamp to bottle koozies made from recycled Michigan license plates.

At Detroit Mercantile Co. in the Eastern Market District, you’ll find a diverse selection of domestic products that honor the local car culture.

Co-proprietor Robert Stanzler, whose great-grandfather came from Poland to work for Ford at the Model T assembly plant, shops auctions and estate sales throughout the Midwest. “Pieces with a Michigan provenance are really what customers want,” he says.

Vintage ashtrays that were promotional items for tire companies are among his favorite pieces with a past. “They make great holders for paper clips and rubber bands and they can even be candleholders,” says Stanzler.

Some of their top sellers in the car category are made in Michigan like the dish towels that feature the Chrysler Airflow that Stanzler considers one of the most important tipping points of automotive design. Other styles include the Model T and a street map of Detroit.

Dog collars and belts that look like seat belts and are made from the same materials pay tribute to the industry.

Vintage signs, like the one they have from Quaker State Motor Oil, remain popular with collectors, while old wood production molds act as decorative objects. “They can fill an empty space beneath a glass coffee table or go on top of a wall cabinet,” he says.

An assortment of vintage toys includes cars made from plastic and wood. “They can be a fun collection or you can use one to perk up an otherwise fairly normal gift,” says Stanzler.

Trays with automotive themes are another option. “People just love decorative pieces,” says Stanzler. “You can take a promotional item and give it a new life.”

Ode to the motor city

Another way to find unique car-themed pieces is to go the custom route through local artists like Darcel Deneau, a painter based in Northville awaiting completion of her loft in Detroit where she lived until the age of 9.

Her ties to the Motor City often appear in her work, as seen in the mural she did for the Garage Grill & Fuel Bar in Northville that would inspire one of their customers to commission a painting that depicts Woodward in the ’50s.

That masterpiece hangs in a man cave in Birmingham alongside tables made by the homeowner from car parts topped with glass. One features a tire and wheel from an old Triumph sports car while another holds wine bottles in the cylinders of a V8 engine from a GMC truck.

Deneau’s painting recalls the days of teenage drag racing and drive-in restaurants with vintage cars filled with the homeowner’s family members.

Though some parts are accurate like eateries such as Hunter House and Totem Pole, they took liberties with some of the other details that were based on research like neon signs and street lights from that era. “It was fun to try to figure out what it was like back then,” says Deneau, who relied on model cars to get the right perspective.

Start your engines

For the 2005 fundraiser CarTunes on Parade, a joint project with Detroit and Windsor, Deneau painted one of the car-themed sculptures with a Detroit theme. “It’s not any one particular scene. It’s just little snippets of the city,” says the artist who is known for her Motor City street scenes often filled with cars. “I just paint what I see and cars represent the level of activity in Detroit and that level is going up and that interests me.”

Don Grieser, who lives in Bloomfield Township, bid on some of the sculptures like Deneau’s and won. “I’ve been fascinated with cars and trucks since I was a kid,” he says.

The art collector and car enthusiast was drawn to the fact that the city of Detroit was featured in such detail by Deneau. “It was a labor of love for her,” he says. “She put a lot of time, energy and thought into it.

“It says a lot about the city of Detroit and the auto industry and the fact that it brought everything together. That was the beauty of this particular piece,” says Grieser.

He also won the bid for another sculpture painted by Gary Kulak, a Birmingham-based artist known for his metal sculptures along with some maquettes from both artists. “These are the salesman samples, if you will,” he says. “They come up with these ideas and this is the initial sample of what they’re going to do with the product.”

The sculptures are constant conversation pieces when he has company. “That’s part of the intrigue of having them in the house. It’s an exciting time for cars and the auto companies are making strong designs. It’s also a very exciting time downtown with all the new lofts and apartments,” he says.

“It’s fun to be part of it, says Grieser, who wouldn’t dream of missing the Dream Cruise. “I’m like a kid in a candy store with all the beautiful cars. People don’t always know how important the car industry is to the nation. When you see this many beautiful cars in the area, you know.”

And after the Dream Cruise has come and gone, he’ll still be able to admire his car-themed sculptures year-round.

Jeanine Matlow writes the Smart Solutions column in Homestyle. You can reach her at

Dream Cruise

The 22nd Annual Woodward Dream Cruise will be held between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20. It takes place along a 16-mile stretch on historical Woodward Avenue through nine host communities including Berkley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, Ferndale, Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge, Pontiac and Royal Oak.