Detroit, Michigan 48226-3473

Taking the M1 can lead you to interesting places.

Early 20th century. Image:

To many, including UK residents, the M1 motorway was not Britain’s inaugural Special Road, that honour goes to what was enigmatically entitled the Preston Northerly Bypass, now part of the M59. While the UK began to contemplate 70mph limits and new styles of signage, the M1 of today’s piece is across the Atlantic, owning a longevity along with its own unique history – Woodward Avenue.

Many years before Detroit was even a township, native Americans had developed trading routes and trails, one of which was the Saginaw. By the early 19th century, that path had become a 120ft wide right-of-way for the now burgeoning city. The aftermath of a devastating fire saw a city layout redesign, somewhat mirroring Washington DC and labelled the ‘Paris of the West’.

Perhaps pre-empting its wheeled future, a spoke pattern of roads emanated from the city centre, Woodward Avenue taking centre stage. The name derives from a President Jefferson[1] appointed judge, Augustus Woodward who deflected public criticism of naming the avenue after himself, stating, “Not so. The road is toward the woods; wood-ward.

Initially a corduroy road, constructed of logs with clay or sand filling the gaps, toll booths would collect the duty from cattle drovers or wagons. Later, planks replaced the logs giving way to early forms of carriage racing. The Avenue claims to have had the world’s first mile of concrete surface laid in 1909 and just seven years later the entire 27 mile stretch to the city of Pontiac became sealed as the proliferate automobile began to oust horse power.

The first car was driven along the then still wooden effort on March 3rd 1896, a handful of weeks before one Henry Ford took to the streets. Combating itinerant motorists, a crows nest tower was erected at the Woodard and Michigan Avenues intersection in 1917 with another world first in 1920 – the four way traffic light.

As America began to take the automobile to heart, opening highways and connecting places, the year 1926 saw them officially naming and numbering roads. Locally known as the M-10 became US-10, taking until 1969 before the M1 designation, although much history would occur in between. It wasn’t just the car worshipped along this avenue, 22 churches led to bells and horse hooves prevalent over engine noise for many years. The city’s population grew in the postwar years, as did the avenue’s infrastructure to accommodate. Jazz, followed by night clubs, then the increasingly popular Rock and Roll scene led one local journalist to describe the melting pot “a precarious balance between the sacred and profane.

Woodward Avenue sometime between 1910 and 1920.

Then as now, it’s not all nefarious activity along the way. Arts institutions, several theatres, cinemas, a library of Congress, a zoo, university buildings and a 32 floor skyscraper built for the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company. Architect Minoru Yamasaki’s design, incorporating gothic arches, narrow windows and sculptural gardens remains a talking point from its mid-60’s build.

Though Detroit is past its heyday, the car remains the city’s catalyst, an accelerant, if you will. The avenue saw its first official speeding ticket issued on March 17th 1895, when two unidentified vehicles were caught ‘racing’ just before dawn. Although unlucky, it’s difficult to imagine speeds above 30mph along the corduroy planks…

The pattern continued apace. The Plaza at the Jefferson intersection is considered the birthplace of Ford Motor Company and but a stones throw from the GM HQ, with that of Chrysler close by. The avenue once saw the birthing of over one hundred automotive brands. Henry’s first twelve thousand Model T cars were built at the Piquette Avenue Plant, just east of Woodward before he transferred to Highland Park, running adjacent. The Big Three provided employment for many thousands of city dwellers, with the surrounding areas family friendly. One Mecca for such being Sanders where it’s claimed the ice-cream soda was invented.

Hey wise guy, move the black car! Image:

By the 1950s the Avenue had become the place to be seen, observe the opposite sex and perhaps most importantly, show off one’s automobile. Woodwarding, into drive-thru movies or restaurants became the pastime. And whilst many were happy to slowly cruise the eight land highway, many more were intent on revealing the car’s more often than not V8 power. With such an abundant and receptive crowd, manufacturers jumped onto the bandwagon using the Avenue as not only a design playground but that of test strip. The modern day spy photographer would have been overwhelmed by the bevy of ideas pouring out along this strip of black top.

Hot Rods morphed into factory made muscle cars. What with freely available and cheap gasoline, ‘endless summer nights’ and a booming industry, Woodward Avenue remained the hotspot for worshipping at the automotive altar. It was not unknown for manufacturers to send employees to various workshops in order to ascertain the latest trend.

Bust had to follow boom, of course. The late 1960s witnessed increasing disdain for such wanton activity. Laws brought about restrictions for long-time parking and cruising, street racing banned. With insurmountable insurance rates along with the giant killing oil crisis, the Avenue, inasmuch the city’s tune, changed.


This being America, the scenery changed but the cars remain. The Avenue’s plethora of independent drive-in’s have become food chains known the world over, but still hankers for the classic days of old. A plumber named Nelson House along with then Mayor, Pamela S. McCullough planned to raise funds for a community soccer field. The idea for a small car cruise along Woodward they thought “might draw in 30,000 visitors.” The inaugural 1995 Woodward Dream Cruise saw 250,000, becoming an annual, mid August event, barring the pandemic. Now attracting 30-40,000 vehicles along with one and half million visitors over the weekend, many drive the Avenue whereas others park up and let the cruise drive by.

And for a single day over the same weekend, The Avenue once more reverberates to the din of nitrous engines along with tyres torturing the tarmac. Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge sees the legal closing of an eighth mile strip of Woodward for genuine street racing, once more.

Henry will be turning in his grave.

[1] Having his own named avenue, of course.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

4 thoughts on “Detroit, Michigan 48226-3473”

  1. Good morning, Andrew and thanks for today’s article. The Roadkill Nights may be powered by Dodge I’m thinking of something different now.

    I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a three-ninety-six
    Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor

  2. Thank you for this Andrew- I’ve driven along Woodward a few times 15-20 years ago but unfortunately never saw the Dream Cruise although you would encounter more interesting machinery on any day here -usually of the muscle car or custom variety- than on a regular American road.
    Pontiac was in its performance image heydays of the mid-to late sixties always the most brazen in its advertising: this (in)famous ad which I believe was also available as a poster at the time was one of those and led to tsk-tsk noises from the authorities:

  3. Good morning Andrew. I knew nothing of Woorward Avenue, so thank you for this nicely drawn history. Present day Detroit is, by many accounts, a sad place, struggling with the dereliction left behind by the collapse of its great industrial past.

    There are positive signs for the city, however: Ford purchased the magnificent Michigan Central Station building five years ago and it is nearing the end of a major renovation. Here is can image of the station in its former heyday:

  4. While knowing nothing about the street itself, and little about Detroit for that matter, I was familiar with the Cruise from reading American car magazines over the years. I guess I assumed Detroit, as a city, had always been there.
    How amazing that the city iself developed from next to nothing so quickly. Still sobering to realise how quickly a city that’s largely dependent on one industry can crumble once that industry fails.
    Sic transit gloria mundi, and all that.

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