On Woodward, Forever Young

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DETROIT -- It's Dream Cruise week in metro Detroit, and Woodward Avenue, main street to the American auto industry for more than a century, is dancing to the rumbling beat of some 30,000 muscle cars, street rods and classics.

A crowd estimated at more than one million has been gathering for days to witness Saturday's bumper-to-bumper parade of automotive excess. The revelers are celebrating what the Motor City does -- and honoring the Woodward tradition of cruising, an automotive ritual of youth that's generations old and hit a peak in the 1950s and '60s, glory days for Detroit's industry.

The first Woodward Dream Cruise -- a fund-raiser for a soccer program -- took to the streets in 1995 and proved far more popular than organizers had anticipated. It returned the next year and each year since. Today, it is a mammoth outdoor party that's a pilgrimage for enthusiasts who make the trek and a marketing showcase for automakers and sponsors.

Among those enjoying the festivities are Dave and Shirley Ziolkowski. The Ziolkowskis are well into retirement; he's 70 and she's 66. Their home is a modest ranch house in the quiet suburb of Sterling Heights, and their car is a 1988 Dodge Shadow, just the sort of thrifty transportation one might expect to find in the garage of seniors.

But the Ziolkowski's Shadow shares little with the 93-horsepower front-drive compact that Chrysler built in 1987-94. In the lexicon of hot rodders, it's a pro-street custom, with flaming-red sheet metal that conceals a professional-grade racecar frame and a brawny Chrysler V-8.

Subtlety is not part of the package: the carburetors, topped by a dragster-style air scoop, poke through the hood. Rear tires 18 1/2 inches wide are tucked into wheel housings that intrude on the space once occupied by the car's cozy back seat. A pair of "wheelie bars" -- steel tubes with small wheels at their far ends -- sprout from the rear, poised to keep the front wheels close to the ground on an all-out run through the gears. Though the Ziolkowskis have not probed the car's limits, this Shadow has enough V-8 horsepower to reach supercar top speeds.

It's the kind of vehicle every retiree should have for trips to the Social Security office -- providing that office isn't distant.

"We don't drive far," Mrs. Ziolkowski said. "The car is deafening."

Why would these sober-minded retirees build a car that flouts every notion of sensible transportation?

The answer is the story of the Dream Cruise: a tale of what once was.

For this couple, it began on a spring evening in 1964 when 21-year-old Mr. Ziolkowski was cruising Detroit's Gratiot Avenue in his potent 425-horsepower '64 Ford Galaxie. He planned to drop by Jupiter's Drive In, then drive north to the A&W on Conner Avenue before motoring over to Woodward, the Totem Pole, the Varsity and finally Ted's -- a long-gone Bloomfield Township drive-in that was once the end point of the cruise.

That evening, Shirley Bieke, a 17-year-old high school senior, was dateless. So she and a friend hiked three miles from their Detroit neighborhood to the A&W. Along the way, they enjoyed adult beverages -- illicitly. But after a couple of hours, the effects of the alcohol made any thoughts of walking home too daunting. In those innocent times, Ms. Bieke stuck out her thumb.

That's when Mr. Ziolkowski drove by and gave the girls a ride home. Before long he asked Shirley out, and less than a year later they were Mr. and Mrs.

True products of a town that revered cars the way Brooklyn loved the Dodgers, they cruised in the musclebound Ford for a few years. Then came a baby, grown-up responsibilities -- and a practical sedan.

The life changes didn't matter so much, as it turned out, because by the mid-1970s Woodward and Gratiot had largely gone silent. Engines choked by pollution controls, strife in Detroit and a multitude of other factors killed the cruise. Before long, many of the popular drive-ins were bulldozed.

"We had an ordinary life, but were never happy with ordinary cars," Mrs. Ziolkowski said. "Dave replaced the hubcaps on our sedan with baby moons and striped the body. We clung to the past."

In the 1990s, a comeback began. The Detroit automakers clawed their way back with credible performance cars that met emission standards. The Ziolkowski's son, David, graduated from college, their finances improved and their opportunities were no longer so limited.

But it was the older generation, not the younger, that reawakened the youthful memories and the desire for hot cars.

"My dad was my best buddy," Dave Ziolkowski said of his father, William, who died 20 years ago. "We did things together; went to car shows. At one show, he kept going back to look at an outrageous machine that was almost too extreme to drive in traffic. He asked if we could build something like that. 'Sure,' I said."

It wasn't long before William, known as Sparky, his son and daughter-in-law began to outline the project. The father and son even selected an ideal donor car for their hot rod: the white Dodge Shadow that Mrs. Ziolkowski was driving at the time.

"Get your hands off my car," she said. Her husband agreed, of course, knowing that it wouldn't be hard to find another Shadow, but replacing his wife would be impossible.

The project stalled when William died, but restarted two years later when Mr. Ziolkowski's mother, Jenny, urged her son and daughter-in law to build the car William had dreamed about.

They bought a 1988 Shadow for $800, stripped off the sheet metal and piled the parts in a corner of their garage. They then ordered a racecar frame, built from steel tubing and incorporating a full safety cage.

Under the hood they planted a 528-cubic-inch version of the engine that powered many Dodge and Plymouth factory racecars in the early 1960s. Built using a prototype iron cylinder block cast at a Detroit foundry, the engine was fitted with a full complement of racing-duty parts, including forged pistons and aftermarket aluminum heads.

Two huge 4-barrel carburetors feed the beast. Suspension components, brakes and powertrain parts similar to those used in professional drag race cars complete the mechanical underpinnings.

Mr. Ziolkowski said that when tested on a chassis dynamometer, the 2,350-pound Shadow registered more than 700 horsepower at the rear wheels.

The Ziolkowskis have spent more than $95,000 on the Shadow, remaking different areas of the car over the years. Anodized aluminum inner fender panels were formed to cover front chassis parts, tires and wheels were swapped, and carbon fiber panels were fitted to the interior.

"We have to make one more carbon-fiber panel," Mrs. Ziolkowski said. "We're going to remove the radio, since we can't hear it, and cover that part of the dash. Then we're done. For now."

First, though, the Ziolkowskis have a Dream Cruise date on Woodward Avenue, the street that shares their story.

"We cruise a wee bit, then park and party," Mr. Ziolkowski said. "The Shadow doesn't like 2-m.p.h. traffic."

The hot-rod Shadow and the Woodward Dream Cruise were products of Motown's renewed enthusiasm for things automotive, so it was no coincidence that they got under way at nearly the same time. When the Shadow was ready for the street, the cruise was in its fifth year and Woodward was roaring again -- all summer long -- just as it had when Shirley was a teenager and Dave was showing off his hot Ford Galaxie. The Woodward scene brought back a part of Detroit's motoring life, just as the Ziolkowski's outrageous machine invigorated them.

"The Shadow is the culmination of a dream," Mrs. Ziolkowski said. "I would rather spend money on the car than on a new kitchen.

"It has given us our youth again," she continued. "Can't get that from a new set of cupboards."

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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