Written by Kyle Brandon
One word that has been associated with more history in the city of Detroit then any automaker has. But many people don’t know the history of Woodward itself. Coming in at just under 21.5 miles and starting only 750 ft. from the Detroit River, Woodward Ave. has run thought the heart of the Detroit area for centuries. But how did Woodward even come to be what we know it as today?
Forged from Fire
Woodward has its roots going all the way back to The Detroit Fire of 1805. Yes, you read that right, 1805. Woodward itself was created on a route that was at one time known as The Saginaw Trail. The Trail ran from Detroit to Saginaw and was used as a Tribal foot path by Indians.
After the fire of 1805 a Judge by the name of Augustus Brevoort Woodward was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to come to Detroit and be the provisional judge for the region. When he arrived, he found that only one single structure remained in the entire city. So Judge Woodward decided he would help rebuild and restructure the city, he would model the new city layout similar to that of Washington D.C. and Paris.
There was a lot of disagreement on him naming a major roadway after himself, but, he combated this by saying the road was heading north towards the woods so it was a “wood-ward” road. Eventually, however, parts of his original design were thrown out. Between the original desgin and the eventually adopted design a number of things remained, one being the road we know today as Woodward ave.
Judge Woodward would go on to become the President of the Bank of Detroit and a Founding Father of the University of Michigan.
In 1818 the government here in, then, Territorial Michigan, finally authorized a road to be built along the Saginaw Trail extending outside of Detroit. The original road was rough, being constructed from wooden logs placed into the ground and having gaps filled by dirt or sand, it proved a hard time for the carriages that would travel the road.
Sometime down the line, in 1848 the old log road was replaced by a smoother wood plank road. The road was then a Toll road costing 1 cent per mile for carriages and 2 cents per mile for a herd of cattle. With the smoother roads, carriage drivers were able to go faster and this is where our “cruising Woodward” history really starts. At the time, taverns were littered all along Woodward and carriage drivers would race each other from tavern to tavern placing bets on who was the fastest.
The city of Detroit and its suburbs would continue to grow and as they did, Woodward grew as well.
From 1860-1890 Woodward became a thriving vein of the city of Detroit, a Residential playground for Detroit wealthy (The home of Wilhelm Böing, father of aviation pioneer William Boeing once sat at 1101 Woodward Avenue.) and a center of commerce. Communities rapidly popped up along Woodward. In the 1860’s you could swing in for a bottle of the first pop in America, Vernors, at the Vernors Drugstore on Woodward and Clifford. There were multiple department stores, churches, tailors, shoe shops located all along Woodward.
When you think of the first car in Detroit, the uninformed would immediately assume it was a Ford, but they would be wrong. On March 6th, 1896 just before 11 PM, a man by the name of Charles King drove the first car built in and driven through Detroit and down Woodward Ave. King not only drove this vehicle but he also built it himself! (built not bought, yo) He drove it an extremely “fast” pace of 5 – 7 mph. Henry Ford was there that day, but he was riding on a bicycle behind King. Ford wouldn’t drive his vehicle until several weeks later. The Detroit Free Press said the next day “The first horseless carriage seen in this city was out on the streets last night. It is the invention of Charles B. King, a Detroiter, and its progress up down Woodward Avenue about 11 o’clock caused a deal of comment, people crowding around it so that its progress was impeded. The apparatus seemed to work all right, and went at the rate of five or six miles an hour at an even rate of speed”
Soak that in for a minute, 11pm and this dude is thinking, “might as well take the first automobile in Michigan out for a spin.”, Now we cant even go out at 9 pm on most days without getting harassed.
Charles King was an American engineer and entrepreneur remembered as an automotive pioneer, artist, etcher, musician, poet, architect, mystic, industrialist and inventor. Seriously this dude was a bad ass. In addition to his efforts in the automotive field he also invented the jack hammer. You know he used that in his efforts at picking up the ladies, but I digress.
This whole event caused a massive boom not only on Woodward but also all of Detroit. Its estimated that close to 100 automobile companies started on Woodward, even if they never produced a car, they had still set up shop there. Fords first plant on Piquette was just 2 blocks off Woodward and the Highland park facility where the Model T was built is on Woodward! In 1909 the first mile of concrete roadway in America was built, on Woodward. In 1916 the whole stretch was paved. In 1917 the first “crows nest” in the US, an elevated platform police would use to control traffic, was erected at the intersection of Woodward and Michigan. That was replaced in 1920 by the worlds first 4 way, 3 color traffic light we know today. Woodward cemented itself as America’s first “urban” superhighway.
And it cemented itself for years to come, through the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.
Drive Ins, Ace Wilson and Royal Pontiac
The argument can be made that american muscle cars were born on Woodward. Back in the 50’s and 60’s it was common for Engineers from the big 3 to test drive their cars between 8 Mile and Square Lake. This of course helped usher in the era we’ve heard so much about from our fathers and Grandfathers. Woodward was a place where speed was king and your smack talking was done behind the wheel, not behind the keyboard.
A few names are synonymous with Woodward. Ted’s Drive In, Big Boy, Totem Pole, Wigwam just to name a few. These locations served as meeting spots for the cruisers to pull into, meet other cruisers, see other cars and more importantly, find out “what the hell have you got in that thing?”. But they also allowed a spot to relax and see the other cars that were driving by. Where even the lowliest of peasants could see a well built car tearing up the streets.
Teds Drive In was the first drive in for the state and was located on Square Lake Rd. The Totem Pole which opened in Royal Oak had the worlds first two way radio system for ordering from your car! These locations became the turn around spots in the weekend night cruise on Woodward.
Woodward Continued to gain fame in the region and auto enthusiasts of all colors and creeds would flock to popular road to see the fastest, cleanest cars make their weekly drive down the strip.
Insert Asa “Ace” Wilson. Ace Wilson liked to street race his car on Woodward back in the 1950’s and this concerned his father. So he did what any concerned and disgustingly rich father would do, he bought Ace a Pontiac Dealership. I know, thinking about it makes my head hurt too. Ace took ownership of the “Royal Pontiac” Dealership right around the same time Jim Wangers (Aka Godfather of the GTO) was beginning to market new after market parts to Pontiac dealers on behalf of Pontiac itself. Most dealers thought they were crazy and saw no point in “Performance after market parts”. But Ace Wilson, well like any gear head, He LOVED the idea. In fact Jim Wangers himself said “He was so enthusiastic about it he went ballistic and would not let me out of his office until he signed a contract”. The catch? He had to sell the parts and put a car on the drag strip. Wilson agreed.
The gamble that Wilson had made paid off. Fielding a 1959 Catalina in the NHRA Drag circuit. On Labor day in 1960, 3 Royal Pontiac tuned Super Dutys won 3 separate events at 3 different venues. Soon after customers looking for the same high performance parts began to flock to Woodward Ave. to head to Royal Pontiac in Royal Oak. They started selling special packages for owners to buy both by mail and in person, the first “performance kit” of its day. The Bobcat was born, in a small dealership, right on Woodward itself. What did they sell in this “Bobcat” Package though? The kit for the Bobcat included: Rocker arm locking nuts; new rocker cover gaskets; thinner head gaskets by 0.022-0.025 inches, to increase compression; rocker cover gaskets; blocked heat riser gasket; carburetor re-jetting package; distributor re-curve kit, which included Mallory points and condenser and a new advance stop with lighter weights and springs and two Royal Bobcat emblems.
Royal Pontiac became the performance garage for Pontiac, adding to the lore of Woodward. It was now a place where you could have a glimpse of the next best thing, the american muscle car, designed for speeds no other manufactures were going after in the consumer market. Jim Wangers could be seen in the 1960’s driving and testing GTO’s up and down Woodward. But one of the most recognized moments for Woodward would come when Car and Driver would test drive the first “Street Hemi” on Woodward, giving it its public debut. Multiple automotive publications would follow suit when coming to Detroit, hoping they could take their test car out for a spin on Detroit infamous “Woodward Ave.”. Woodward quickly became the battle grounds for the horsepower wars of the 60’s. If it was fast and on 4 wheels, it was on Woodward. If it ran and raced on Woodward, you could quickly find it all across the nation.
Royal Pontiac would continue to exist leading up to the 1970’s, when Ace would eventually become burned out from the dealership. He sold the Racing Team to the Brother of John DeLorean, George. The dealership would eventually change hands and become the Jim Fresard Pontiac-Buick-GMC. However, if you go into the location you can still enjoy the fact knowing that your car is being serviced in the same bays some say the american muscle car was born.
The Dream Cruise and a new Generation.
The scene: A warm summer Michigan night in Royal Oak, 9pm on a Friday. The locals begin to flock to Woodward from all over Metro Detroit. Its “The place to be” say many. “Woodward or Bust” say others. Every Generation of drivers come out. The Legend of Woodward avenue has continued to grow through generations. Speed is the only language all the drivers speak, always looking for the best way to push out even the smallest amounts of horsepower from their engines to go faster then their opponent. This isn’t 1950, Its 2015.
We jump back to 1995, where a local man by the Nelson House and some others we’re looking for a way to raise funds for a local soccer field. They decided to hold an event that would capture and recreate the nostalgia of Woodward in the 1950’s and 60’s. Little did they know at the time, they would be laying the ground work for the worlds largest automotive event. The planned event was set to take place through several communities lining Woodward and was expected to only draw a few hundred people. But this is Woodward. Known for its big names and bigger engines. as such, its no surprise to find out that the first event drew in over 250,000 people. The Woodward Dream Cruise was born.
The Third Saturday in August. You don’t need a date. Its not just one day. Its a entire week dedicated to the history of Automobiles. From Original Model A Vehicles to the newest Super and Hyper cars, its all there. Drawing in over 1.5 Million people and over 40,000 cars in one day, its the worlds largest automotive event. People come from all over the globe, from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the former Soviet Union. North American cruisers from California, Georgia, Mexico, Canada and all points in between caravan to Metro Detroit to participate in what has become, for many, an annual rite of summer. Woodward has never been taken off the map and some believe, it never will.
Its amazing to think, 210 years ago, a fire, a cocky judge and racing carriage drivers, would lay the groundwork for what we have today.
Not only the First Super Highway in America, but simply, the Best.
Sources: Whitall, Susan (March 12, 2007). “Woodward Avenue: Michigan’s Main Street”. The Detroit News. pp. 1A, 8A. ISSN 1055-2715. OCLC 137348716.Archived from the original on August 21, 2012. Retrieved July 16, 2012.
Federal Highway Administration. “Woodward Avenue Auto History Tour”. America’s Byways. Federal Highway Administration. Retrieved December 8, 2012.
Michigan Department of Transportation (June 3, 2008). “National Firsts”. Michigan Department of Transportation. Retrieved November 8, 2008.
Kavanaugh, Catherine (April 18, 2012). “Royal Oak Auto Designer Pays Tribute to Woodward Avenue”. The Daily Tribune (Mount Clemens, MI). Archived from the original on July 24, 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2012.
Woodward Avenue Action Association. Birthplace of the Automobile Industry (PDF)(Pamphlet). Woodward Avenue Action Association. Retrieved December 8, 2012.
Michigan Legislature (1915). “Chapter 91: State Reward Trunk Line Highways”. In Shields, Edmund C.; Black, Cyrenius P. & Broomfield, Archibald. The Compiled Laws of the State of Michigan, Volume I. Lansing, MI: Wynkoop, Hallenbeck, Crawford. pp. 1868–72. OCLC 44724558. Retrieved January 24, 2012.