ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Jack Beller's blue 1966 Corvette has the classic big-block engine and the enormous carburetor that make putting the keys in the ignition a roaring ode to muscle car history.
He and his classic ride have been coming to the Woodward Dream Cruise, billed by its sponsors as "the world's largest one-day celebration of car culture," since it began 15 years ago. But this year, as he sat against wife Marilyn's arrest-me-red '62 Corvette, there was a depressing realization setting in: There may not be a successor to his beloved fleet of classic cars.
"This is gone," said Beller, 68, sweeping his hand across a parking lot along the cruise's Woodward Avenue route, where 100 other classic cars were lined up. "This is gone forever."
In a year when General Motors and Chrysler have taken a quick trip through bankruptcy court and are being supported with taxpayer dollars, this cruise had participants feeling more nostalgic than ever about their vehicles. With GM now pushing cars like the whispery-quiet electric Volt, fuel-guzzling beasts that marked America's love affair with the car are a dwindling breed and a rare sight on the road.
As the industry turns toward more fuel-efficient and even electric vehicles, classic car owners worry the soul of the cars that symbolized personal freedom, speed, status and sex appeal have been lost.
For a day, though, Woodward Avenue was given over to the strutting cars of yesteryear. An estimated 40,000 Dream Cruisers slowly drove up and down the event's 16-mile stretch in Detroit's suburbs, classic big-body Cadillacs swimming by with a murmur. A fleet of hot rods, engines announcing their presence long before they came into view, roared out of red lights as patrons at local bars cheered, sipping beers midmorning.
As they cruised, the classic car enthusiasts discussed whether any contemporary vehicles will reach the iconic status of their trusty rides. Sadly, the drivers say, today's cars just don't measure up to the wonders of old — making the cruise a bittersweet journey.
"They're bellybutton cars — everybody's got one," said Bob Patrick, 74, of Warren while sitting next to his glossy red 1947 Plymouth Special Deluxe.
It makes identifying a future generation of classic cars difficult. While cars known as "tuners" — typically foreign model cars whose mystique stems from souped-up engines and agile handling — are often put forward as heirs to the classics throne, their skeptics abound.
Even if the glory days of muscle cars are waning, some, like 16-year-old Kevin Duby of Livonia, Mich., are still buying into muscle car culture.
Duby spent four years of savings on his 1979 Camaro. And despite what his friends might value in a new car, the allure of a flashy ride is worth a heavy price.
"I would rather work two jobs to drive that than a Prius," he said.