The Drive Home: Epic cruise opens Detroit auto show

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

St. Louis —  Imagine the Woodward Dream Cruise taking place in the middle of winter instead of summer. And stretching not 16 miles through nine Woodward Avenue communities, but 3,000 miles through nine states. And ending at the foot of Woodward in front of Cobo Center.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne rode with the “Drive Home” tour’s 1957 Chevy, left, 1961 Chrysler and 1966 Mustang from Kansas City to St. Louis.

Welcome to “The Drive Home,” an epic classic car journey from Tacoma, Washington, to Detroit, kicking off the 2016 North American International Auto Show.

For the Kansas City-St. Louis leg, I joined the expedition featuring three red classics: a 1957 Chevy Nomad, 1961 Chrysler 300G, and a 1966 Ford Mustang. It was kind of like meeting your buddy at 13 Mile and Woodward for a cruise from Royal Oak to Ferndale in his favorite muscle car. Except my Drive Home leg covered 250 miles across America’s farm belt.

The Detroit News’ Henry Payne piloted the 1957, Corvette-inspired, Chevy Nomad wagon on the Kansas City-to-St. Louis leg of The Drive Home.

This glorious adventure is the brainchild of David Madeira, who runs the nation’s biggest (165,000 square feet) auto museum, LeMay America’s Car Museum, in Tacoma. A grizzled car-and-cycle globetrotter, Madeira last year traversed the Indian Himalayas’ fearsome Khardalungala Pass on a motorbike. In a hailstorm. With his wife on the back. So braving the Rockies in January in a ’66 Mustang must seem like a day at the beach.

Madeira is no ordinary guy; America’s Car Museum is no ordinary museum.

Founded on the sprawling collection of Tacoma refuse magnate Harold LeMay, Madeira believes in a living auto museum. That is, a collection with artifacts that continue to do what they were designed to do: be driven like mad.

“I argue that while driving vintage cars may put them at ‘risk,’ not driving them makes their ‘death’ certain,” writes Madeira in his Drive Home blog at AmericasCarMuseum.org. “Cars that don’t move are sad objects to look at. And driving them is the only way to give them a chance for a meaningful existence, giving pleasure to driver and passengers.”

Madiera would fit right in in Detroit’s cruise culture, where road warriors and their antique machines hit Woodard every August to rev their engines.

So it’s no surprise that the museum’s chief found kindred spirits in Detroit Auto Dealers Association Executive Director Rod Albert and their 2016 auto show. Madeira’s “Drive Home” means to showcase the museum’s classics and kick off the country’s biggest car circus with some of the showstoppers of yesteryear.

“The Drive Home is ‘driving home’ the point that ACM is an entity which promotes and celebrates America’s automotive heritage and is relevant to the car culture today,” says Madeira.

For the inaugural event Madeira brought out some heavy hitters. Meet the players:

■1957 Chevy Nomad: The product of GM design legend “Hollywood Harley” Earl, the Nomad was inspired by Chevy’s 1954 Corvette Nomad station wagon concept (I’m not making this up). Sporting the same small-block V-8 architecture that powers ’Vettes today, the ’57 Nomad wagon is distinguished by cold air intakes above the headlights, which prevent the fenders from rusting out.

1961 Chrysler 300G: The king of the “original muscle car” 300-series, the 413-cube, V-8-powered G was designed by airplane-obsessed Virgil Exner. With its rear fins, angled headlights and sloped trunk, the G is an early ’60s icon.

1966 Ford Mustang: The pony that created pony cars. Powered by a 289-cubic inch V-8, this hardtop head-turner sports the long hood, grille and three-bar taillights that are still a Mustang signature today.

We were given a hearty send-off at Kansas City’s Roasterie coffee factory by area car clubs on a brisk, sunny Sunday morning. Locals met the America’s Car Museum threesome with an array of iron — modified 1930s Ford hardtops, a ground-shaking 1969 427-cubic-inch Chevy Corvette, various Porsches, a 1959 Aston M DB3 — even a 2014 Tesla P85D.

Fortunately we didn’t need oars in St. Louis — the Mississippi Valley’s flooding had subsided and all major highways were open. But the Chevy Suburban-length, 220-inch 300G still felt like a boat. As Cruisers know, the biggest advances in the last 60 years have come in handling, where numb steering (even in my 1966 Porsche 906 racer) have been replaced by modern links that feel rooted to the ground. The three classics cars also lack today’s electronic console infotainment systems, though I didn’t miss them what with the constant chatter over the caravan’s walkie-talkie system between “Giraffe” (my handle), “The Dude” Madeira, “The Kid” Bill Hall and the rest of the crew.

But the old-guard cars can still school the current generation with better rear visibility and dashboards that are works of art. The Chrysler’s delicious detailing deserves its own museum. And its button-controlled transmission and climate controls — even foot-button operated high beams — were ergonomically intuitive. After a stint in the 300G, I took the helm of the short-wheelbase Nomad which maneuvered like a jet-ski by comparison.

Only the Mustang eluded my grasp, because “The Dude” was nursing it through a carburetor issue. But like the cold bug that had swept through the crew, the cars had suffered only minor illnesses — a silent 300G radio, an unresponsive Nomad speedometer — that never slowed the Tacoma-Detroit safari as it clocked 2,225 miles under the St. Louis arch.

“David Madeira is like a preacher,” smiled Mark Hyman, CEO of Hyman Limited Classic Cars, at a barbecue feast welcoming us into St. Louis. “He’s out on the road spreading the gospel of the American automobile.”

Amen. That passion also fuels ACM’s mission, through its Hagerty Education Program, to baptize today’s youth as tomorrow’s car craftsmen. ACM’s generosity funds programs across the country like Wexford-Missaukee Tech in Cadillac.

I left Madeira’s missionaries in St. Louis as they steamed onward for stops in Bloomington, Illinois, and Chicago before they reach Detroit later this week. Follow their journey at the AmericanCarMuseum.org blog, and then bring out your hot rod to Lincoln of Troy Friday morning to escort them down Woodward.

You might want to keep the convertible top up, though. This is a winter cruise, after all.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com.

Join the parade

“The Drive Home” will complete its final leg Friday morning on the way to the Detroit auto show. Bring your car — classic or otherwise — to Lincoln of Troy, 1950 W. Maple, Troy, from 8-9 a.m. The all-red Drive Home trio — a 1957 Chevy Nomad, 1961 Chrysler 300G and 1966 Ford Mustang — will be there.

Then join them as they “drive home” down Woodward to Cadillac Square, where they will be greeted with a news conference and other festivities (after which they will get a good bath and dress up nice for the big Cobo show).