If it was 1970 and you needed a new car to tow with, what would have been your choice? Before going any further, this particular towing need wouldn't be for long jaunts; in fact, no more than a mile at a time. It would, however, have to be able to get the payload up to speed as quickly as possible. For researchers at Wayne State University near Detroit, the just-released '70 Road Runner equipped with a 440-6bbl engine option was perfect for this task.
The University needed a car to tow other cars to their demise. Working in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a series of tests were performed to demonstrate and evaluate the strength of various guardrail designs. Tests were conducted by hurling occupantless cars into the guardrails at various angles and speeds, after which both the cars and the highway railing were examined for damage and documented so the data could be used to determine future guardrail construction and replacement. While it was once mistakenly stated in one magazine that cadavers in the tow cars were part of this equation, this was untrue. The only "dead" was the cable-pulled remains of Detroit iron that was piled up in the name of science.
Further deductions had the tow vehicle driving away from the guardrail being tested, with the tow cable (attached to the rear of the car) looped through a stanchion, where it connected to the crash vehicle. This car faced the opposite direction (toward the guardrail) and the length of the cable attached to it was exactly one-half the length attached to the tow car. As the tow car accelerated one way, the crash car accelerated in the opposite direction, moving at twice the speed. The tow car released the cable and the crash car headed toward its meeting with automotive oblivion.
For this reason, the budget-model Road Runner was ordered with a 727 TorqueFlite and the Super Performance axle package 4.10-equipped Dana 60 rearend, though drag racing or street cruising weren't part of the equation. It was painted EV1 (Alpine White) and had only basic equipment (AM radio, no hood or sidestripes, no additional gauging [clock or tach], no exhaust tips, and so on). The Air Grabber received the nod, however, to maximize the car's performance, and since the interior color was optional, the purchaser selected Burnt Orange. On the glovebox door, a tag was applied that said "Do not exceed 50 mph" (remember, the crash car would be accelerating at 100 mph at this speed!). Door-size decals declaring Wayne State University were applied as well, and the Plymouth went to work in the summer of '70 at the project's site on the Willow Run Airport property near Romulus. The tests were successful, the researchers were able to compile a monstrous, phone book-sized analysis for the NHTSA, and the Road Runner-its tour of duty complete-was parked in a building of the school and ignored, with less than 14,000 miles on the odometer.
Mopar enthusiast (and future founder of Sherman & Associates) Jim Sherman was a freshman attending Wayne State back in 1976 when he noticed the classic B-Body lines under a cover in the corner of the Engineering Department. The bracket for the tow cable and testing-speed data recorder were still intact on the rear bumper. The interior was still perfect, and the car had never been driven hard (though later one professor involved with the program admitted with a smile he'd found out it was a pretty strong-running car on the highways around Detroit). After talking to university officials, it was agreed the car's usefulness to them was over. However, since it was technically the property of the State of Michigan, to deaccession it, an auction was required. Jim could only put in his bid and hope for the best; as it turned out, he was the only bidder, so the car was his.
Since there was a little surface wear on the car, Jim repainted it, being careful not to alter the Wayne State decals on the doors. Other than removing the remains of the test equipment still on the car, he basically left it as he'd found it. During the two decades it was in his possession, Jim put less than 3,000 miles on the Runner.
Then he made the mistake of showing it to Dave Hakim, a Detroit native. Dave thought it was about as cool as cars get, especially with its local history and low mileage. In August 1996, after Jim got tired of Dave's constant phone calls and offers, he sold the car to him, making Dave the car's third owner.
Of course, being a Stock Eliminator racer as well as the recently appointed marketing manager for Mopar Performance, Dave fortified a few things on the machine. Bob Karakashian redid the Six Pack carbs, which are now incredibly responsive. Racer Don Little did an NHRA-legal valve job on the heads (though Dave swears the ports are untouched), and some minor restoration work was done, but the car is still 90-percent original. Through the exhaust manifolds and with Dave behind the wheel, the car has gone down the quarter to the tune of 13.20s, which is pretty stout for any restoration, let alone an engine still using the factory-built bottom end. In the past five years, the car's odometer has rolled up to 21,000 miles, since Dave has no problem taking the Road Runner out for an occasional jaunt.
In fact, when we talked about coming up after the Mopar Nats to deliver the Dodge Stratus-Fear project car (DaimlerChrysler executive James Julow had bought it) and return our borrowed Dodge Motorsports Dakota, Dave had a brainstorm.
"You know, that's the week of the Woodward Dream Cruise. We should take the Road Runner out there for an evening....
Panic In Detroit
Cruisin' Woodward in a pair of '70 classics
In the annals of musclecar history, some locations are legendary. The Connecting Highway in New York is one, as is Front Street in Philadelphia and Van Nuys Boulevard in Southern California. For the hottest iron of that day, however, the wide expanses of Michigan's route M1 running north from Detroit up to Pontiac got the nod. Between 11 Mile and 15 Mile Roads, this street named Woodward Avenue became the place of legends.
After all, every major American manufacturer had corporate offices in the area. As America's need for speed heated up, the three, then four lanes of asphalt in each direction became the testing grounds for new styling exercises and performance improvements, the latter often proven in the wee hours of the morning via duels. The auto builders never sanctioned this sort of experimentation directly; it was something to talk about over the water cooler in Highland Park or after work with buddies. Tom Hoover and the Chrysler engineering team had a rented garage on Woodward where race car and covert operations were executed (albeit with the unspoken blessing of management). Everybody knew what it was all about. In fact, Pontiac once used a Woodward Avenue sign for a GTO advertisement in the late '60s. For anyone outside of easy driving distance, Woodward Avenue was the ultimate destination for street action.
However, the local police departments of upscale townships like Royal Oak and Bloomfield Hills had little patience for the street set that looped from Ted's Drive-in on the north side down to the small businesses on the south end by the Detroit Zoo. With the real heavies of the street set lurking in the shadows for 10 miles or so, it was late at night before any serious action happened. Ticketing was, and remains, a common occurrence for those who decide to strut their stuff in open view, and the only thing that precluded wholesale enforcement was the length of Woodward itself and the multiple escape routes that made risks worth taking.
Those days were gone, but the memories remained, and it was from this longing for the past that the Woodward Dream Cruise Weekend was born. It was decided, with the surprising blessing of the local communities, that one day a year would be a celebration of Woodward's heritage. Cars of all ages and sizes would be welcome on this particular Saturday to come out and make the loop once again.
By 2001 the event could be called the Woodward Dream Cruise Week. Drawing in the neighborhood of a million people (literally) for the event, not to mention some serious corporate sponsorship, people were already rolling onto the boulevard by the previous weekend. By Tuesday, street rods, restored musclecars, vintage classics, Harleys, and a tremendous variety of radical machinery were already on Woodward in force, showing off and snarling traffic for miles.
Steve Dulcich and I drove up with Jerry Pitt and Dave Hakim from the Mopar Nationals on Sunday afternoon; it was sort of a Mopar Nats Return From Brice Road Caravan. Dave, marketing manager for Mopar Performance Parts, has lived in the Detroit area his entire life. He knew Woodward from bygone days (it was the first place he went once he obtained his driver's license in 1978) and also had the iron to make a respectable showing of it now. One car is an unrestored '71 Hemi Charger R/T and the other is the former Wayne State University crash accelerator 440-6bbl '70 Road Runner. We spent most of Monday evening helping Dave put a new throwout bearing in the Hemi car (followed by a midnight blast past million-dollar homes in Grosse Pointe to test the handiwork), but he wanted to take the Road Runner out the following night to Woodward. We were there, baby, we were right there.
Why the Six Pack instead of the Hemi? Well, for one thing, Woodward is littered with traffic signals; the Hemi would never get a chance to really turn on. The Road Runner is also a survivor, though a testdrive had Dulcich pressing Dave to 'fess up to what he'd done to it. The opinion of our out-of-town contingent was unanimous: This thing was stout. The Polyglas repro tires would spin at will, but with the right launch technique, the car's weight would visibly sit back on the rear tires as the 440 came to life. I've driven this car a couple of times and the front suspension is very tight; it handles great for its massive 2-ton weight. Besides, one of Dave's buddies, Bob Karakashian, known locally as "Mr. Six Pack," would be on hand with a '70 Hemi 'Cuda, so Dulcich and I would be able to swap back and forth as we cruised that evening.
The meeting place was a vintage Elias Brothers' Big Boy Restaurant, one of the first ever opened, located near 13 Mile Road in Royal Oak. At 7 p.m., Dave picked us up at the hotel, we fueled up with 110 leaded at a Woodward Avenue gas station (gotta love that), and we were able to spend some time watching the parade of iron go by once we parked. There were already hundreds of spectators seated in lawn chairs and standing on the sidewalk, while every closed business on the street was converted into a mini car-show display field. It was after 8 p.m. by the time Bob rolled in with his daughter, Kelly; brother, Jack; and friend and Chrysler employee Mike Delahanty all packed into the Hemi E-Body. After Dave introduced us to the sizeable dessert menu at the Big Boy, we loaded up our dynamic mechanical duo and headed south.
By now, it was bumper-to-bumper traffic for almost 5 miles, cars maneuvering in and out of their lanes as they tried to get an advantage in forward motion. I was riding shotgun in the 'Cuda, and we used a set of walkie-talkies to keep in contact in case we lost sight of each other (quite easy tonight), not to mention needle each other a little bit. Bob followed the white Road Runner down past 11 Mile as we made a U-turn and headed northbound.
A couple of things were quickly evident. Jack Karakashian, nervously nestled in the back seat, made no bones about his feelings regarding aggressive driving (whether he was a nuisance or the voice of reason is up to conjecture), so the Hemi car was driven in a very docile manner. Dave, on the other hand, knows his big B-Body inside out and has no problem slammin' the pedal down between traffic lights. Anyplace where he had safe space to run, all six bores leading into the intake manifold were metering fuel into the 440, followed by a jamming of the brakes that seemed certain to stuff the original nose into the vehicle in front of it. However, Big Dave had it under control, and we came out with nary a scratch.
North of 15 Mile, we rolled into the suburb of Birmingham, where Dave and the owner of a red 440 '71 Road Runner got into a window-to-window conversation in front of us. Throttles were blipped to keep the plugs clean, but there was no duel, not with all this traffic. Dave made some closing remark to the gentleman in the red rocket, who replied, "At least my car doesn't carry cadavers!" as he motored off into the night. The low-mileage Road Runner has never carried cadavers, though a misstatement in another publication several months ago has kept Dave busy chasing the rumor away.
Left to right: Steve Dulcich,...
Left to right: Steve Dulcich, Bob Karakashian, Dave Hakim
We looped around at the north end of Birmingham and headed south again. The Hemi 'Cuda was a gentleman in traffic and a wildcat above 3,000 rpm, and Bob had no problem keeping up with Dave when he had to. In fact, it was Bob's handiwork that set Dave's 440-6bbl outfit up, and Mopar Muscle has previously covered "Mr. Six Pack's" tuning efforts in December 1998, as part of our Hemi vs. Wedge issue. The Hemi car eased well through the heavy traffic, and Bob cruised it with the finesse of an F1 racer, no effort showing whatsoever, despite the original car's high street value and accompanying what-if stresses. As we neared Dugan's Pub, considered the epicenter of the event, things were busier than ever, with many people and cars rolling through the parking lot. However, rollers were also evident and this police presence was enough to keep all but the most foolhardy from smoking their tires for the crowd. It took us almost an hour to make a full circle, though Dave made the most of it with his tire-chirping banzai runs for 100 feet or so between lights. At the turnaround below 11 Mile Road, Dulcich and I switched places, and now it was my turn to get the E-ticket Woodward ride as we headed north again.
Let's face it, this car, with its door-size Wayne State University decals plastered on the sides, is highly visible. I spent most of my time watching for the Man, shooting car-to-car photos, and taking deep breaths as we slowed dramatically at traffic signals. Mike was laughing at me from the back seat. Into Birmingham we rolled again, where two kids in a red Chevelle SS lined up next to us at a light. Dave looked over at them and was rewarded with the muffled roar of the Chevy rat coming his way. At the green, he didn't change his previous driving style one bit, coming out of First with a vengeance and slowing down as soon as he hit the legal speed limit. The little guys in the Chevrolet pulled up alongside.
"Yeah, but you guys are probably up past your bedtime," says Dave.
At the next light, the Chevelle tried again, but the Six Pack's rumble was ahead of them before they crossed the intersection. Tail between their legs, they quickly slinked off into the shadows to go cry to their mommies.
"You know, everywhere I go, I see these red-with-black stripe '70-'72 Chevelles," says Dave with a grin. "I think they're still making 'em down in Mexico or something."
We spun around north of Bloomfield Hills this time, and with the coast finally clear, Dave held the pedal to the floor for an uphill jaunt between well-spaced traffic lights. Night wind whistled around the car (though not nearly as bad as some restored Mopars I've been in), and the Third-gear shift found us moving rapidly toward the triple digits. I'll admit I was the first one who finally yelled uncle; after all, these shotgun-seat rides are scary, and the police department in Birmingham would obviously have a field day if we screamed into the city limits this far above the posted speed. Dave laughed it off, and we pulled into a side-street parking space in deserted downtown B-town and Bob and his crew rolled up behind us.
"That guy is crazy," said Jack as he climbed from the 'Cuda shaking his head, looking at Dave a little sideways. "He's nuts!"
That was good for another laugh. We stood around and shot the bull for 15 minutes or so, talking about projects, Bob's tuning secrets, and the upcoming Pure Stock Drags at Mid-Michigan Dragway. It was now approaching 10:30 p.m. and we'd seen enough for one night. Dulcich and I climbed in the Road Runner once again and we eased into the M1 traffic going south one last time.
"Well, what do you guys think?" asked Dave.
"It's pretty cool, man," replied Dulcich. "I mean, this is how it must have been in the old days. I can't believe how many great cars are out here."
"Yeah, there must be a lot of iron in garages around Detroit," I added.
"There is, and some of it gets out here only once a year for the Dream Cruise," said Dave. "Wait until Saturday; you won't be able to move out here."
This Woodward Dream Cruise Weekend was over for us, however. Big birds would be flying us home to see our kin the following day. It didn't matter; there'd been enough cars and people on the street to give us a pretty good idea of what a madhouse Woodward would be like as the week reached its pinnacle. Moreover, the police had already begun closing sections of the road by the time we headed home that night. This wasn't so much due to the crowd as the need to get emergency vehicles in and out of a hospital located down near 11 Mile. Local TV news reports mentioned the shutdown might end up being a regular part of the rest of the week's activities if the crowd increased.
So, that said, would it still be as fun over the upcoming weekend? That's a hard question to answer, but for two ol' boys from out of town, Tuesday evening on Woodward in a '70 Road Runner was enough to put us back into the spirit of the '60s on M1, the expansive road that gave birth to so many legends.