Automotive Culture Took Root Along These 13 Miles of Michigan Road
By Robert Genat
The Totem Pole, seen here circa 1961, opened in 1954 with a menu that featured its Big Chief Burger and other “American Indian” fare such as the Pow Wow Hot Dog and the ever-famous Shawnee Chicken Dinner. This was the first stop heading north on Woodward.
Detroit’s Woodward Avenue has the distinction of being the first street on which a ticket was written for street racing. It happened on March 17, 1895, when two unidentified motorized vehicles raced up Woodward Avenue just before dawn. A few decades later street racers would make the road famous and the racers who ran there infamous. There were streets in every city where young people raced, but none as famous as Woodward.
In 1805, when the streets of Detroit were first laid out, they took the shape of spokes in a wagon wheel, with downtown Detroit the hub. The main artery running from the city in a northwesterly direction was Woodward Avenue, named after Judge Augustus B. Woodward. In 1909, one mile of Woodward was paved, becoming the first paved road in America. As Detroit’s population grew after WWII, the northern suburbs that ringed Woodward thrived. The Big Three offered plenty of good jobs, and those workers from GM and Chrysler found the suburbs off of Woodward a pleasant place to raise a family.
In the ’50s cars morphed into something other than appliances to get from point A to B. The nation’s new highway system provided a strong draw that attracted people to the open highways for vacations. Cars that had typically been low-cost, plain-Jane models now sported hardtop styling and new V-8 engines. The motoring public found many ways of enjoying family life in a car. Drive-in movies and drive-in restaurants gave the family more reasons to get in the car and go somewhere — anywhere.
Drive-in restaurants sprouted up along Woodward like weeds. While there were chains, the majority of drive-ins along Woodward were mom-and-pop affairs with unique and memorable names, such as the American Indian–themed Totem Pole, the cowboy-themed Maverick’s, and those named after their owner, such as Ted’s and Richard’s. The food was basic — burgers, hot dogs, and shakes, no fancy salads, kids’ meals, or tacos. These drive-ins opened to supply the population’s demand for more automotive destinations. One could start at the Totem Pole at Woodward’s southern end and an hour or two later be back after making it all the way to Ted’s at the northern end. Between those two iconic driveins were many others to cruise through.
Woodward was a perfect storm, carwise, with a combination of a wide, 13-mile-long boulevard, drive-ins dotting the landscape, and an automotive-loving crowd. The autoworkers who lived in the suburbs that lined Woodward were mostly young white-collar engineers and designers. Many were able to take home company test cars for evaluation. And what better way of trying out a new V-8 engine or other option, destined for next year’s production, than by racing another car on Woodward? This happened with V-8s in ’54 Chevrolets and 440 Six Pack engines in ’68 Road Runners. No doubt any performance option that was ever offered had a preproduction trial run on Woodward.
In 1959, the NHRA hosted its annual U.S. Nationals at the Detroit Dragway. In attendance were executives from the Big Three, all watching intently as a new generation of car buyers was racing all types of cars, including passenger cars. The NHRA returned to the Detroit Dragway in 1960 along with an increased interest in factory hot rods. Royal Pontiac, a local dealership, fielded two cars, with one taking Super Stock honors. Young men who once wanted to build a hot rod saw the factory performance cars as a shortcut. Why spend two or three years rebuilding an old car when six weeks after a visit to a local dealership you could have the car of your dreams for low monthly payments and a warranty to fix anything that broke? Royal Pontiac, just a couple blocks off Woodward in Royal Oak, saw the potential and developed a solid clientele of performance customers. Other dealers tried to copy Royal’s template; while none had the same level of success, they all did well selling muscle cars.
In the early ’60s the stage was fully set: the street, the drive-ins, and the cars. Add to that cheap gas and balmy summer nights, and you had a Disneyland for young men. By the mid ’60s every manufacturer offered some species of performance car. Pontiac’s GTO and Ford’s Mustang both hit the streets in 1964, the same year that the leading edge of the baby boom generation was getting their driver’s licenses. The booming auto industry also meant many families could afford a second car, making transportation even more available to young people.
Cars offered not only freedom for young people in the ’60s but also a way to take part in an impromptu street race. While there were street racing venues all around Detroit — and all across America, for that matter — racing on Woodward was like the Super Bowl or the World Series. There were always poseurs who popped off the hubcaps and air cleaner from daddy’s car to look race-ready. And then there were the serious drag racers, the guys who raced the 375hp SS396 Chevelles, the Royal-tuned GTOs, the 440 Mopars, and any Corvette. These serious racers usually pulled a 4.11 or 4.56 gear and featured other performance modifications.
But at the top of the Woodward racing pyramid was the Hemi-powered Silver Bullet. Best described as a Mopar skunkworks car driven by a local mechanic, Jimmy Addison, this ’66 GTX featured components that were not available to the general public. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Chrysler engineers frequented Addison’s gas station. The Silver Bullet ran in the mid–10-second range on the drag strip and feared no one on the street.
By the late ’60s the police and local residents had grown weary of the racing, and the drive-in owners were tired of cars circling through their parking lots looking for a race while others sat in the same spot for hours nursing a 10-cent Coke. Laws were soon enacted that limited the cruising and long-term parking. The late ’60s were a time of rebellion for young people. They didn’t like the war in Vietnam, and they didn’t like the new restrictions on Woodward. There were demonstrations and a few arrests. Coinciding with this activity were the rising insurance rates on muscle cars. In some instances, young men were paying more a month for insurance than their car payment. Then OPEC reared its ugly head, putting the final nail in the muscle car coffin.
Today, Woodward Avenue looks much as it did in the muscle car era, except all of the classic drive-ins are gone. Interestingly, today on any given summer night there are more cars — muscle cars, hot rods and Corvettes — cruising on Woodward than in the ’60s.
You can learn more about Woodward and its history in Robert Genat’s book, Woodward Avenue, Cruising the Legendary Strip, available from CarTech books, www.cartechbooks.com.