Every August, more than a million people come back to Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Old muscle cars from the 1960s rumble slowly from stoplight to stoplight as part of the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, and you can smell the throttled-back machinery as it overheats in the stifling summer swelter. Everyone is trying very hard to remember a time when powerful V-8 engines helped make Detroit the capital of the automotive universe.
Woodward Avenue has changed a lot since the days when the Dodge Charger, the Ford Mustang, and the Pontiac GTO were icons of American street racing. This is still Michigan 1, the route that became the primary artery of Detroit's development in the 1890s, when the city built railroad cars instead of automobiles. It extends some twenty-seven miles to Pontiac from downtown Detroit, but time has passed by many of the old landmarks along its lower reaches, such as the old Albert Kahn-designed GM building, the plant where Ford's Model T was built, and Chrysler's now-demolished headquarters in Highland Park.
For us, Woodward Avenue really begins when you drive over the bridge across Eight Mile Road, where the old suburbs of Ferndale and Royal Oak begin. Here the baby-boom generation reached critical mass in the early 1960s, and its members' hormone-charged enthusiasm for cars created an enormous street-racing scene on Woodward Avenue. Every night, kids gathered at drive-ins such as the Totem Pole near Ten Mile Road, tuned their cars in gas stations such as Teddy Spehar's Sunoco just a bit farther north, and then chose off in the parking lot of the Northwood Shopping Center for informal street races either on Woodward itself or on a nearby stretch of Interstate 75. From Ten Mile Road to Square Lake Road some eight miles away, Woodward Avenue was the most exciting stretch of pavement in the country, and it changed the way American cars were built, advertised, and even portrayed in the national media.
Most of the drive-ins are gone now, yet there's a new generation of fast cars arriving on the scene. Just as in the 1960s, the new Charger, Mustang, and GTO are keyed to a marketing program directed at young, aggressive drivers. Muscle-bound, with powerful V-8 engines, these cars hope to become icons for a new generation. Are they the real thing or just overhyped remakes?
The Dodge Charger R/T has aroused a controversy because it has the wrong number of doors (four) compared with the Mopars that used to be flaunted by Ramchargers--Chrysler's old, unofficial street-racing club. Like the Chrysler 300, which it resembles under the skin, the Charger attempts to take the traditional four-door sedan into two-door territory with a low, coupelike roofline. There's an awful lot going on in the Charger, maybe too much: a truck-style grille, frenched headlights, a retro kick-up in the rear door meant to recall Chrysler E-body pony cars of the early '70s, and a Kamm-style aero tail. It's all been stitched together with lots of enthusiasm, but there's not much beauty to behold.