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How Detroit’s Dream Cruise reckons with present, charts future

Aug 20, 2016

Could the Woodward Dream Cruise become more than a week-long gaze into the rearview mirror? Let’s hope so.

There was an era — say, pre-2008 — when the cruise’s glorification of Detroit’s muscle cars represented the best and worst of this town’s defining industry. A decade ago, I wrote that it projected a “chronic inability to relegate the past to the past and to move on.”

Back then, it was easier to celebrate roaring steel-and-rubber made at the pinnacle of American industrial might than it was to reckon with a 30-year slide into mediocrity. So cruisers and planners of the annual nostalgia fest looked backward because forward was just too hard.

Not anymore, thanks to bankruptcy and a refreshing embrace of reality. For every vintage ride rolling Woodward today, there’s encouraging evidence that Detroit automakers — and their people — are no longer content to wallow in the Motor City’s Golden Age. They’re learning … finally … from the past and using it to inform their future.

A brush with industrial death can do that — the ignominy of bankruptcy, the realization there are no third chances, the constant reminders of hyper-competition.

Instead of complacency, Detroit’s three automakers are demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit that Lee Iacocca tapped to birth the Ford Mustang 50 years ago, and Chevrolet’s answer with the Camaro.

They’re not consigning storied models to museums and car clubs of graying retirees. They’re showing they value heritage with new, gotta-have iterations of Corvettes and Mustangs and Dodge Challengers.

They’re not downplaying unmistakable global trends. They’re embracing the regenerative push of innovation. You can see it in Chevy Bolt electric vehicles, Ford self-driving cars by 2021, and ride-sharing coming soon to a town near you — risks you can bet Golden Age Detroit wouldn’t dare take.

Today’s auto barons know their brush with collapse and legacy of broken promises produce hard feelings and natural skeptics. The heads of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler know they won’t get much respect until they can prove their mettle in a recession. They’ll need profits on lower sales, investments in core products and the right tech plays in mobility … all at the same time.

Detroiters quick to take offense should understand that. Rolling along Woodward gunning a hometown V-8 may feel great, but it won’t quickly change those deeply held perceptions. Only consistent performance and smart business decisions will.

The keepers of Detroit’s metaphoric flame, almost extinguished eight years ago, should keep that in mind this weekend, too. This town’s historic willingness to work hard now means working continually to adjust the business to the world as it is … not as they think it ought to be.

That’s not built into this town’s DNA or the expectations of its people. For too long, they prized stability and predictability in a world that ensures neither — realities many of their toughest foreign competitors learned to manage long before Detroit did.

The Woodward Dream Cruise is a reminder that Detroit’s future is deeply rooted in the past. That future will not be given. It must be earned.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.