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Classic Cruising

Collectible-car fever is catching on across the country—from Detroit's Woodward Dream Cruise to California's Concours d'Elegance—with action for buyers, sellers, drivers and gawkers
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

About this time on a midsummer day in Detroit, Bob Stephenson and his family would normally be found tossing some hamburgers and steaks onto the backyard barbecue. Instead, this warm Tuesday evening, they're stretched out on a blanket along Woodward Avenue, passing around sandwiches and snacks as traffic races by, close enough to smell the exhaust. As the bright August sun slowly sets, the scene, just with different characters, repeats itself all along the sprawling, eight-lane suburban boulevard.

The last of the day's commuters are rushing home, but, imperceptibly at first, traffic begins to pick up again. Were you to wander through town on this particular evening, you'd undoubtedly wonder why so many spectators have come to line up along Detroit's major corridor. Then again, you might notice that the minivans, pickups and sport-utes that suburban drivers tend to favor these days are suddenly in the minority, the cars taking their place making you feel as if you'd taken an unexpected detour into the automotive past lane.

A deafening screech rolls in on the warm breeze. "Man, did you see him move?" blurts out Stephenson, when a classic, ticket-me-red Pontiac GTO leaves a patch of rubber as the light goes green at the 13 Mile Road intersection. But the suburban Detroit machinist's son has his eyes on a Mustang Cobra GT350 slowly cruising down Woodward, with a pair of fuzzy red dice dangling from its rearview mirror. On the other side of the grassy median, a Little Deuce Coupe (a 1932 Model B Ford like the one that inspired the Beach Boys song of the same name) rolls by. The hot rod's engine compartment yawns wide, revealing a maze of brightly chromed pipes and machinery, burbling menacingly. "We'll be out here every night this week," Stephenson says with a broad smile, the family nodding in agreement. And so will more and more folks each night this week. They'll pack tighter and tighter along the boulevard until the automotive orgy reaches its climax over the weekend, with the official Woodward Dream Cruise.

August 20 will mark the 11th anniversary of what has become the biggest classic car event in the United States. Somewhere north of a million people will line every available inch of grass, sidewalk and parking lot along a 16-mile stretch of the big boulevard for a chance to relive the golden era of American muscle. Oh, there'll be a few Porsches and Nissan Zs, along with some modern sedans and SUVs slowly rolling along for the ride, but after a monthlong buildup, the Saturday extravaganza will be dominated by more than 40,000 muscle cars, hot rods and other automotive antiques.

The raw numbers will be somewhat smaller on the other side of the country that weekend, but the passion will be equally intense. It would be hard for anyone anywhere along the Monterey coast to miss the sound of thunder and fury echoing from the Laguna Seca racetrack, which straddles the hillsides a few miles inland from chichi Carmel. Few opportunities exist to see a 1903 Stanley Steamer Turtle, which some claim is the world's oldest race car, or a recent-vintage Formula One Ferrari—as well as some of the racers, like Phil Hill and Stirling Moss, who steered them to victory. Yet here the crowds can spend three days watching them in action.

The Monterey Historic Races are just one in a weeklong series of classic motoring events all over the peninsula, building to an elegant finale on Sunday. For one day each year, the 18th hole at Pebble Beach is transformed into the world's most expensive used car lot. Some of the nation's most avid—and wealthy—motoring hobbyists spend all year working and waiting for this day. Celebrity gawkers will be richly rewarded, as big names like Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Ralph Lauren vie with lesser-known, if equally avid collectors. It's not uncommon for collectors to invest $5 million to ready the rare Bugatti or Duesenberg for the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. The event prides itself on attracting only the most unusual, exclusive, even historic vehicles, often for their first showing in decades. But only one will take home Best of Show from this, the automotive equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Unless they're lucky enough to have access to a private jet, automotive aficionados have to choose which side of the country they'll be on that weekend. But even gearheads who can't make it to Pebble Beach or Detroit have plenty of other options. The number of classic car shows, cruises and auctions has steadily grown each year, along with the number of American collectors. Check the online calendar at, the bible of classic motor fans, and you'll likely find at least one event every single day, even in the middle of winter. There's something for absolutely every taste and fancy. The annual "orphan" show in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for example, targets the unusually avid fans of oddball, out-of-production nameplates, like Rambler, Willys and Kaiser. And it's staged at what claims to be the nation's only remaining Hudson showroom.

"I've got two. I've got two. Who'll give me 220?" The chant is hypnotic—and effective, the audience responding with increasing fervor. Bidders hoist paddles, raise their hands, tap their foreheads or give other subtle signs that send the figure on the video tote board jumping up $10,000 at a time.

The object of desire is a red-and-cream 1938 Lincoln Zephyr V-12 street rod, one of the more eagerly awaited cars to roll across the stage at a recent Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. Approaching its 35th anniversary, the five-day event is "more than an auction. It's a massive happening," laughs the legendary writer Brock Yates, who has anchored what regularly proves to be one of the most popular shows on the motor sports network, The Speed Channel, which carries a good portion of the auction's action. Craig Jackson, the auction's boyish ringmaster and son of one of its founders, has created a county-fair-cum-car-show. Booths hawk everything from car parts to car art—as well as chiropractors and massage shoes. You might need the latter if you expect to cover all the acreage.

The cars are still the stars. And, perhaps aptly, prices have gone into orbit. At the January 2005 auction, one bidder spent $3,240,000 for a 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 General Motors concept car (a figure that includes additional bidder's fees). And the Barrett-Jackson is by no means unique. A Duesenberg drew $2.7 million on RM Auctions' block early this year, while that same auction house dropped the gavel on a $1.76 million bid for a 1950 Ferrari 166 MM Barchetta during an event coinciding with the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance. The Florida gathering marks the semiofficial opening of the annual auto collector season.

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