Radwood is a new series of car show events that take place around the USA, plus Japan and the UK, featuring cars, trucks, motorcycles, music, and fashion from the 1980s and 1990s. This literally is not your father's car show. Generation X, Millennials, and younger generation enthusiasts have less interest in 1957 Chevys, 1964 1/2 Ford Mustangs, and 1969 Dodge Chargers than they do in 1992 Dodge Vipers, 1984 Ford Mustang SVO turbos, and 1987 Chevy Celebrity Eurosport VRs. For its first visit to Detroit we sent Kelly, a child of the 1980s who once owned a Chevy Cavalier Z24, to check it out.
By: Kelly Lett
On a much too hot late September weekend, Radwood Detroit took over the West Riverfront Park lawn, bringing with it the bodacious awesomeness that is 80s and 90s culture. As a child of the 80s, and a teen of the 90s, I was stoked when given this assignment. My editor knows my love for that era and the cars that went with it, he casually mentioned that I might even see my first true love there, I laughed and said I hope you’re right.
Plus, I’ve gotten a little "gag me with a spoon" when it comes to classic car shows. Chrome and 50s nostalgia is fine, but it isn’t rad. The 80s brought us a time traveling DeLorean, and a knight riding Trans-Am that talked back to the handsome, young, crime-fighting David Hasselhoff. We were already living in the future in the 80s, and cars represented that. That futuristic detailing was clearly on display at Radwood Detroit, pop-up headlights flared across the park grounds.
My first true love was, of course, my first car. In 1996, I was handed the keys to my mother’s 1985 Chevy Cavalier convertible (all black with a solid red interior), which I drove from then on, until the day it died. Though I secretly already had a set of keys, as I’d had my own set made when I began stealing it from her at age 14. Don’t tell her though!
It wasn’t all futuristic and 8bit nostalgia though. Nestled in among the neon paint jobs and giant sedans was what in my mind will forever be the ultimate "Mom car": A faux wood tan and beige station wagon with backwards facing third seat. The amount of strange fuzzy childhood memories I have attached to that particular vehicle might only be parallel to the amount of mini Care Bears I lost in the crevasses of the fold down seat.
I was so small when my family had one of those that I was able to roll like a ball around the way-back when the seat was collapsed. I often did this as my mother yelled at me to get in my seat and buckle up. Don’t judge, the 80’s were a whole different time when it came to transporting children.
As the 1990’s arrived the future seemed less high tech, things softened up a bit. Japanese car makers introduced wide wheel flares, and rounded out the hoods and rear ends. Small, efficient, aerodynamic jelly beans had a brief decade of popularity. But, in response Dodge created The Viper, just a concept for the 1989 Detroit auto show, it nevertheless went into production for 1992. Bright red and ready to be ticketed, the Dodge Viper was known for being loud, clunky and hot, as in physically hot and uncomfortable for the driver and passenger. My mom wanted one, she loves little sports cars, but my Dad smiled, rolled his eyes, and upgraded her mini-van.
This show being in Detroit, the organizers of Radwood convinced Fiat Chrysler to bring out that 1989 show car! It was joined by several other privately owned, production models in the park. Also under the Dodge branded big top, was the 1981 Dodge M4S concept car, as made famous in the 1986 cult classis "The Wraith".
With the hard push away from traditional bodies on frames, and into lighter more aerodynamic unibody cars, and composite body panels, the higher fuel efficiency cars of the 90’s gave up a lot when it came to style. Many contemporary automotive writers described them as melted bars of soap, or lozenges. As a nation it seemed like we were starting to embrace the reality of thinking globally and acting locally when it came to our vehicles and climate change.
Then the explosive popularity of the Sports Utility Vehicle brought all that to a crashing halt. Minivans (which had already replaced mom's uncool station wagon) became the new symbol for the loss of one's cool. But SUV’s meant you were the hip soccer mom who went to that cool new coffee shop, Starbucks, before each game. Linda and her thermos filled with homebrewed coffee were so passe’. Never mind the fact that early SUV’s were so top heavy they had the regrettable habit of flipping over while driving down the freeway.
The only real way to step back in time to the rad age is to go to a Radwood show, but perhaps the next best thing is with a big gallery of brightly colored pictures? You wouldn't think Detroit, near the river, would be hot, sunny, and pleasant in early autum, but I guess we all just got lucky?
One of the more lamentable things to happen in the 1990’s was the end of the second oldest American car manufacturer and main supplier of jobs in my hometown of Lansing, Oldsmobile. It didn’t go down quietly though, near the end Oldsmobile released what I consider my favorite luxury sedan, the Aurora. Not much to look at (another smooth 90s lozenge), but the ride was as smooth as floating on a cloud, even on the roads around Detroit. The new age V8 engine put out modern power, and even with that floaty ride, nothing took turns as well as that pearl white road hog.
My parents got one and held onto it for years, I coveted it from afar and was rewarded with the keys when I moved back to Detroit 5 years ago. It lasted one final year before the underbody rusted out at last. I had a few offers from strangers wanting to purchase mine. And why not? Still today, driving around the city I see Aurora’s constantly, but there were none at Radwood. I still miss that car.
Radwood was a great chance to catch up with memories from two decades often overlooked in the annals of car reporting. Besides the cars, Radwood from the start has encouraged period dress, culture and accessories; archaic car phones and clunky boom boxes are worth extra street cred. Seeing people dress in the bright, day-glo colors of optimism that ruled those decades makes one hopeful for our future again.