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Muscle Rebound

America's Love affair with performance machine Cruises back onto the new-car market
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

What's left of his hair is a lot grayer now, and creases line his forehead. But when Bob Norton slips behind the wheel of his lovingly restored '57 Chevy, he's 17 all over again. So it's probably not surprising that come mid-August, you're likely to find him in Detroit cruising Woodward Avenue most evenings, the same eight-lane boulevard where he spent hot summer nights as a teenager.

Norton's not alone. Every August, when you'd expect to find folks sitting down for supper, Woodward is transformed into Muscle Car Memory Lane, a sort of roadside revival session. The numbers grow by the day -- until that climactic Saturday known as Dream Cruise. Even the blackout that shut down most of the Northeast couldn't dampen the enthusiasm this past August. With a helping hand from the governor, who ordered tanker-loads of gasoline trucked in, more than a million people lined the length of Woodward Avenue, some to drive their hot rods, muscle cars and sports cars, sports cars, others to simply lay back in lawn chairs and watch the slowly moving paean to classic American muscle.

Don't think that the auto industry didn't notice. Carmakers are mounting a comeback of the sort of performance cars that paraded daily (and nightly) in their own backyard before the oil pinch.

Forget Los Angeles and American Graffiti. In those balmy years bookmarked by the Korean and Vietnam wars, the real action was on Woodward Avenue. Late at night, you'd find the youth of Detroit cruising the strip that served as a demarcation line between the Motor City's east and west sides. "You'd get your wheels and your girlfriend and go out there, sometimes driving, sometimes racing, and always showing your car off," recalls Jim Wangers. He should know. As General Motors' resident marketing genius in the 1960s, Wangers helped launch the muscle car phenomenon and market and create that ultimate of cruisers, the Pontiac GTO.

The action would start each night at the Totem Pole diner near Ten Mile Road. The kids would wolf down Big Chief burgers before beginning the nightly ritual, heading north to Pontiac -- then cruising back again. "You told your old man you were going to the library when you were really going cruising," recalls Cheryl Reno. (You're likely to spot her at the Dream Cruise each summer in her original pink poodle skirt, lamenting the day she finally got grounded for good -- by a new job.)

More than occasionally, the Woodward regulars would spot a ringer. Some of Detroit's top engineers, even some ranking executives, like GM's John Z. DeLorean, would show up in prototype Mustangs, Barracudas, Firebirds or Javelins. They'd make a few high-speed runs down Woodward hoping to gauge the reaction and build word of mouth. You could build a legend by outrunning an underpowered police cruiser, though one night Wangers got caught in his ticket-me-red '64 "Goat." "The cop was angry," he recalls, "but also loved cars. He said to me, 'I'm going to be nice to you this time, but only if you promise to sell the car to me when you get tired of it.'" A few months later, Wangers wisely sold it to him for $1,200 -- something he still regrets. Of course, Detroit wasn't the only place where muscle cars ruled the road. Across America, from Ocean Avenue in Asbury Park to Van Nuys Boulevard in L.A., you'd hear tires squealing late into the night.

Those seemingly endless summer evenings started to grow chilly during the turbulent late '60s, as the suburbs started to sprawl and youngsters took to the street to protest, rather than play. The cops started cracking down with big fines and confiscating cars. Then the twin oil shocks of the 1970s drained the classic American muscle cars dry. Suddenly, a generation of socially conscious youth traded in their gas-guzzling, V-8-powered Detroit iron for fuel-sipping imports that could take them to antiwar rallies on a pint of gas.


That might have been the end of it, had it not been for the need to fix up a run-down soccer field. An old cruiser named Nelson House came up with a novel way to raise some money by staging a classic car show in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale. Now, there'd been plenty of muscle- car and hot-rod rallies over the years. But what House had in mind wasn't the usual car show. He wasn't interested in simply parking his car to watch other people admire it. What he had in mind was more like a cruise-in.

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