Annual car event a 'Dream' deferred for attorney

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

By all accounts, the 28th annual Woodward Dream Cruise on August 22 was a monumental success, offering compelling testimony of the power still present under the Motor City’s hood.

More than a million spectators reportedly lined the 16-mile route between Pontiac and Ferndale, the city on the northern edge of Detroit that gave birth to Dream Cruise festivities in 1995.

Attorney Lyle Russell, a man who played a supporting role in launching the rolling classic car festival nearly three decades ago, was not present for this year’s version of the event. He was some 265 miles away in the wilds of Leelanau County, perhaps enjoying thoughts of what might have been.

The backstory to the Dream Cruise could pain Russell, a Beverly Hills resident who has made a legal name for himself in business litigation and white-collar criminal defense work. He was, after all, one of the “founders” of the event, although he prefers to heap the lion’s share of the credit on the late Nelson House.

“I was the attorney for a small group of individuals who were invited by Nelson House, a Ferndale plumber, to discuss and, if agreed, to organize a fund-raising event to take place only in Ferndale,” recalls Russell, an Albion College alum who graduated from the University of Detroit School of Law. “We met at the old Elks Club on Woodward and 9 Mile Road, sipped a beer or two, and commenced to discuss an idea that Nelson had.

“I’m a bit uncertain about the year, but believe it was in the early ‘90s,” says Russell. “Nelson’s idea was to parade vintage cars up Woodward Avenue and use proceeds from entry fees and sales to rebuild city parks so that the local kids would benefit from them. We discussed the possibility that the parade of cars might generate enough enthusiasm to get all the way to Royal Oak, maybe 11 and Woodward, but were somewhat skeptical that it would amount to much due to liability concerns by the City of Ferndale.”

House, according to Russell, was a “community activist in the finest sense of the term,” whose sole motivation in organizing the original meeting was for the “betterment of Ferndale.” Another key player in the organizational efforts, Russell says, was Robert Turner, a district court judge in Madison Heights.

The Dream Cruise seed, watered by the small band of organizers at meetings in various “local establishments,” quickly germinated, turning into a made-in-America phenomenon that serves as a late summer reminder of the best in automotive ingenuity, design, and engineering. For the past 28 years, it has brought car-lovers by the hundreds of thousands to a weekend place of worship, fueled in part by high-octane brews.

Historically speaking, that’s the good news. The flip side, Russell admits, is like “finding a winning lottery ticket a year after it has expired,” the promise of untold riches painfully slipping away.

“Had any of us had the foresight to consider what the event might turn into, we could easily have licensed it and used the proceeds to benefit many kids in southern Oakland County,” Russell reflects. “We were all thinking small and local, and failed to see the unbelievably deep vein of nostalgia, nationalism, and capitalism that seems to have propelled the event into something no one could have imagined.

“If Nelson had lived to see it, I think it would have thrilled him to realize the positive impact this had had on the Detroit Metro area,” Russell says. “Of course, he would also have had a few words about the people who set up lawn chairs along Woodward starting about Memorial Day, and appear to stay there until the Cruise is finally over, but basically, he was a modest guy who set in motion something that was initially a completely unanticipated success for the Detroit area. He never sought credit for originating the idea, and I never heard him express regret for our lack of foresight. He just wanted to help his community.”

A novel idea, indeed.


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