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Cruising Toward Oblivion

The Woodward Dream Cruise has become a tradition in Detroit, drawing nearly two million folks from the city and suburbs–and increasingly from across the country–to the arrow-straight boulevard in order to watch classic muscle cars pass by each August.

The Woodward Dream Cruise has become a tradition in Detroit, drawing nearly two million folks from the city and suburbs–and increasingly from across the country–to the arrow-straight boulevard in order to watch classic muscle cars pass by each August. This year was no different, though the festivities are starting earlier and earlier each year. What began as a single-day event has spread out over a week, each day growing larger and more congested than the one before.

Of course, the Dream Cruise also has crossed every marketing department radar screen at the suppliers and OEMs. And what began as a celebration of times past has turned into a “marketing opportunity” with a captive and receptive audience. Fair enough. The Dream Cruise is a great way to intertwine heritage, performance, and product with hors d’oeuvres, marketing hype, and “civic presence”.

The true meaning of the event is on the street, moving at near-walking speed along the Woodward Avenue corridor. Unfortunately, this also means it’s easily missed by the hospitality tent-dwellers. Thankfully, it’s also seen earlier in the week–and throughout the summer–as people spontaneously gather to show off their restored, heavily modified, or bone-stock vehicles. These are people who are proud of their cars and trucks, and willing to share them with like-minded bystanders or interested passers by. Their generosity is gladly accepted, but why?

By today’s standards, most of these cars and trucks don’t drive particularly well. And their power output per cubic inch, or liter–except for those hot rodded to the max–falls well below that of many economy cars today. Safety? That can’t be it. The only air bags at this event are found in many of the hospitality tents lining the 16-mile route.

What I saw while watching the Woodward Dream Cruise was a response to the utter blandness of today’s automotive landscape, and a repudiation of globalist, politically correct thinking. It’s an analog to the meeting bikers have each year in Sturgis, South Dakota, except for the fact that the Dream Cruise looks more like a cotillion than an advertisement for leather, tattoos, and body piercing. Yet the sentiments expressed at each event are the same: “I may have to play by restrictive rules in my public life, but I don’t have to like it.”

That’s why I’m not amazed by the number of friends–people who once solidly supported one or more of the domestics and attend the Dream Cruise–who say, “The domestics just don’t build anything I want to buy,” before they buy an import. Why? These self-same domestic automakers–proud sponsors of the cruise, and unrepentant shills of their corporate heritage–produce vehicles as distinct from their peers as the ubiquitous “aero matched” wonders racing on NASCAR’s ovals. No wonder Detroit is losing market share! If you’re going to buy bland, buy it from the folks with the highest quality, dependability, and reliability–the Japanese.

I’m certain the domestic industry’s culture–relentless blame placing, a decided lack of risk taking, and “murder (of ideas) by meetings”–has eviscerated its ability to lead. If you can’t lead, you can’t inspire. And if no one stands taller than their peers in the ability to inspire, secondary considerations take precedence in the decision-making process.

What should worry Detroit most are rumors that the Japanese automakers will join the festivities on Woodward next year. Judging from the increasing number of so-called “rice burners”, heavily modified Japanese vehicles driven by Generations X and Y, trundling down Woodward Avenue, the reception will be warm. And Detroit’s automakers will have to find another way to connect with buyers. Yet, given the choice between producing marketing hype or solid product, I’ll bet Detroit passes on the latter.

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