Downriver: Home to the best Classic Car Cruise south of Woodward Avenue

(Article courtesy of Heritage Newspapers)
Click HERE for the official "Cruisin' Downriver" site

"What you're seeing is the pent-up interest, the nostalgia, and these cruises capture that and give the people a way to go cruising.  Where else in the world would this happen?  It wouldn't happen in Tokyo or Stuttgart.  Where else do you have the automotive background we have?"
- BILL STEDMAN (in 2000)
Program Director, WOMC-104.3 FM

In 2000, Evelyn Cairns, then the lifestyles editor for The News-Herald Newspapers, was paid a visit at work by her son, Glen Cairns. She was busy at the time, so Glen began talking to the director of advertising, Ray Woodrow.  Cairns’ son talked about how he wanted a local classic car cruise because the Woodward Dream Cruise in Oakland County was too far for him to drive his 1929 Ford Model A. 
“My son said, ‘This is where it should be because these are the car people,’” Cairns said. “The Downriver people either worked in factories or their relatives worked in factories, and this is the car area of metro Detroit.”

Evelyn Cairns, former Food and Lifestyles editor for the News-Herald, holds the front-page plaque showing the first Cruisin' event in 2001.

"It turns out, if you think about it, Fort Street is the perfect route."
Former Publisher,
Heritage Newspapers

That was the idea: give this largely blue-collar area that has long been intertwined with the auto industry a major event to show off with pride.

Cairns said she told Don Thurlow, then publisher of the newspaper, about the idea, and also brought it to the late Heinz Prechter, owner of the paper at the time.  Thurlow remembered recently what he thought of the cruise. At first, he didn’t take it too seriously, but he didn’t dismiss it.  “Then, the more I thought about it, I thought that might be something we could do Downriver because it is kind of a contiguous community,” he said. “There’s a lot of car people down here, with the Trenton Engine Plant, the Ford Plant, Mazda a little bit further down.”

At the time, Thurlow met with Ed Clemente, who was president of the Southern Wayne County Chamber of Commerce and then was Democratic state representative from Lincoln Park from 2004-10.  Even though neither is a car enthusiast, both were enthralled by the idea and brainstormed about how to pull it off.

“I think the first thing we decided was we had to pick a route before we talked to anybody,” Thurlow said. “It turns out, if you think about it, Fort Street is the perfect route.”

It was settled that the route would be on Fort between Southfield and Sibley roads.  Fort Street was perfect for several reasons, Thurlow said: It’s centrally located Downriver, it’s a state highway so there was only one transportation entity to clear it with and the speed limit increases just south of Sibley.

For those driving older cars that overheat frequently, the higher velocity helps cool the engine.

It doesn’t really matter who started the event.  What matters is it’s still going on, which, to me, is a victory in itself for the area because we were sort of isolated.”
Former president, S.W.C.C.C.
They met with classic car clubs, whose members all loved the idea. Clemente and Thurlow and some of the car club members went to city council meetings in the four cities and gave presentations. Soon, all cities were on board.  The pair also met with police and fire chiefs to discuss how to best protect the attendees. Some police chiefs called their Oakland County counterparts for tips because they had experience with the annual Woodward Dream Cruise. The biggest issue for public safety was the overtime costs, which would have to be reimbursed.

Like Cairns’ son, Clemente wanted to bring people together Downriver for a huge event. The Woodward Dream Cruise got a lot of attention and he felt some area media wrote off southern Wayne County as a place where nothing major, and positive, happens.  “As a chamber guy, I was always a little bit more aware of how the Downriver area was portrayed in the media of southeast Michigan, “Clemente said. “My bigger issue, too, was we needed a signature event and the cruise is good for the summer.”

Thurlow and Clemente estimated about 200,000 people attended the first Cruisin’ Downriver.