Let's get ready to rumble: Cruising in the Motor City

The most popular spot for cruising has long been north Woodward.

The roar of souped-up engines, wolf whistles, boisterous laughing, muscle cars lean and mean, rumbling as the sun goes down…the week-end road show has begun.

Cruising was more than a way for teenagers to pass the time. It was — and still is — a national passion for anyone old enough to drive but too young for the bars.

Carloads of young people driving up and down a main drag, cruising through fast food joints and gathering in places where they could smoke, drink softdrinks and mingle. Coupes and Mustangs ruled the roads.

One buck of gas filled the tank for the night and your car was the gateway to the world.

The 1950s and '60s were the golden days of teen cruising.

The 1950s and ’60s were the golden days of teen cruising.

“Cars, girls and rock ‘n’ roll — that was life,” said Mike Hadden, an ex-cruiser. “Parents and school were just inconveniences.”

Cars inch forward, bumper-to-bumper. You’d think it was rush hour traffic. There’s a glance, a smile, a wink, a flirt. The nightime ritual begins. It’s peak cruising time, no rush at all. In fact, drivers don’t care if you sit through a light. It’s a night of play and flirtation.

“It’s an attitude,” says John Vulpe, now in his mid-50s. Vulpe used to cruise Woodward in his ’53 Ford. “You had your car. You were free, “he says.

In Metro Detroit, Woodward Avenue was the prime cruising strip for teens from the late ’50s through the 70s. Sure, there was Telegraph on the West side, Gratiot on the East side, Fort Street downriver, but there was only one Woodward! Lined with diners and drive-ins, it was the place to see and the place to be seen.

Cruising Woodward started in 1926, when the state approved a “Widen Woodward” bill and plowed a pleasant boulevard from Detroit to Oakland County into an eight-lane highway.

By 1960, it was said to be the most heavily traveled roadway in the state. Baby boomers had gotten their driver’s license and were ready to rumble.

In 1970, the U.S. Census Bureau counted nearly 17,000 kids aged 15-19 living in the six cities along Woodward — Birmingham, Royal Oak, Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge and Ferndale, plus thousands more in neighboring towns.

By 1990, the number of 15-19-year-olds living in these towns had dropped to 7,000.

In the 1960s, Woodward on cruise nights was like a parking lot on wheels. Woodward was a magnet for buffed up, shiny machines and youthful brashness.

In the height of “Woodwarding” teens ditched their local strip to check out the action on Woodward.

Cruising traffic got really thick around 10 Mile Road where there was always a “Turtle Race,” four cars abreast doing 5 mph from one light to the next.

The legendary Ted's Drive-in on north Woodward.

The legendary Ted’s Drive-in on north Woodward.

Girls ignored girls but tried to hook up with guys.

One would sit with the window down, radio playing (not too loud, you had to be able to hear if someone yelled out to you). Once contact was made, the cars moved up, hung back idling. One can’t make things too easy and you have to check out what’s available.

Conversation usually began with car talk, like the great finish on a ’65 Dodge or a vanity license plate. Eventually the love dance took over.

At the south end of the strip the muscle cars belonged to the blue collar kids with after-school jobs at the local tool and die shops. At the north end you’d find the preppy kids with the sports cars.

Regardless of economic background, they all gathered at four landmarks — the Totem Pole (Royal Oak), Big Boy (Woodward and 13 1/2 Mile Rd.), Maverick’s (north Oakland) and the legendary Ted’s (Bloomfield).

“On Woodward, it wasn’t officially a weekend until you’d gone to the Totem Pole or Ted’s,” remembers a ’58 Mumford grad.

The Drive-in was a large part of the hangout culture. Kids gathered to eat greasy food, talk and mingle.

“You’d check out who was there and order as little as possible, then back out and run up and down,” said Mary Jane Robertson Bower, Birmingham Groves, class of ’64.

Real love was discovered by Elaine Amberg (Mumford ’62) when she went to Richard’s Drive In (a popular restaurant chain during the ’50s and ’60s, home of “the California twin burger”) on Eight Mile and Greenfield and met one of Richard’s short-order cooks, Sanford Melder (Mumford ’61). The two later married.

Local authorities tried to crack down on cruising from time to time, like this sign in the late '60s at Ted's Drive-in.

Local authorities tried to crack down on cruising from time to time, like this sign in the late ’60s at Ted’s Drive-in.

There was no correct way to meet anybody. A car full of girls would connect with a car full of guys; they’d pull over and talk.

Cruising Woodward was a way of life for some.

“I couldn’t go to bed at night without cruising to see who was there,” said Marnie Davis, who grew up in Royal Oak.

The drag racing was social. Occasionally, there was money at stake, $100 to $200 max. Those into serious racing went to the lonely northern end of the strip.

Barbara Georges, out with two girlfriends in her ’67 Riveria, met three guys in a ’66 Mustang in the Big Boy parking lot. The three girls ending up marrying the three guys.

Everyone looked for to romance, though usually it did not occur.

“We kept chasin’ ’em, said one male ex-cruiser, “but we never caught any.”

“My best friend had a ’65 Mustang when I was 16,” said Derrick Yancy of Southfield. “Girls liked the car. I tagged along,” he sighed.

Still there was the chase, the music, the transportation and clothes. In the mid-60s the cool cars were the Mustangs, Chevelles, Road Runners and Super-sport Impalas. One of the hot old cars was the ’57 Chevy.

“It’s hard to put into words the feeling you get when a guy in a Hemi Plymouth Road Runner pulls up to you — the chill went up and down your spine when you realized he wanted to race,” said Steve Tryanski of Berkley.

Clothes were an important part of cruising too. One spent hours primping to hit the road. Cardigan sweaters buttoned up the back, petal pushers, white Levi’s, Madras, bell bottoms, penny loafers were all the rage.

Music was critical to cruising. The Beach Boys lead the list with numerous cruising tunes such as “409,” “I Get Around.” “Little Deuce Coupe.” “No Particular Place to Go,” by Chuck Berry, “Mustang Sally,” by Wilson Pickett and Jan and Dean’s classic, “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” were also favorites.

By the early 70s, the cruising heyday was about over. Gas prices rose, the drive-ins were closing up, cops were beginning to crack down and the baby boomers went off to college or Vietnam.

“With the demise of the Dairy Queens and A&W’s there was no reason to cruise anymore, I mean where were you going to go,” sums up Jim Hermann, author of “Car Hop and Curb Service.”

The Susie Q. on Woodward in Royal Oak was the place to be seen in the 1950s.

The Susie Q. on Woodward in Royal Oak was the place to be seen in the 1950s.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Mary Bailey / Detroit News Online