Behind the Wheel: The evolution of Santa’s sleigh

 Santa makes his way down Kercheval Avenue during a past Grosse Pointe Santa Claus Parade. The float was designed by Grosse Pointe Park resident Dick Ruzzin.

Santa makes his way down Kercheval Avenue during a past Grosse Pointe Santa Claus Parade. The float was designed by Grosse Pointe Park resident Dick Ruzzin.

File photo by Patricia O’Blenes


By: Jennifer Sigouin | All | Published November 28, 2017

 Designer Dick Ruzzin, Friends of the Grosse Pointe Parade co-founder John Stevens and engineer Bruce Burton are pictured at Michael Stapleton’s PropArt studio in Detroit, where the float was constructed.

Designer Dick Ruzzin, Friends of the Grosse Pointe Parade co-founder John Stevens and engineer Bruce Burton are pictured at Michael Stapleton’s PropArt studio in Detroit, where the float was constructed.

Photo provided by Dick Ruzzin

 Small-scale buildings on the float represent the Grosse Pointe landscape.

Small-scale buildings on the float represent the Grosse Pointe landscape.

Photo provided by Dick Ruzzin

 Ruzzin’s design process began with a concept sketch and a mechanical drawing.

Ruzzin’s design process began with a concept sketch and a mechanical drawing.

Photo provided by Dick Ruzzin

Each year, the Grosse Pointe Santa Claus Parade makes its way down Kercheval Avenue as spectators eagerly await the arrival of Santa — and when the parade VIP finally makes his appearance, he arrives in style on a custom-made sleigh with high-flying reindeer leading the way.

Santa’s souped-up sleigh made its debut in 2005, after Grosse Pointe residents John and Betty Stevens thought that St. Nick’s parade transportation could use an upgrade. They founded the nonprofit Friends of the Grosse Pointe Parade and enlisted the help of auto designer Dick Ruzzin, of Grosse Pointe Park, to create the motorized float that is used today. 

Ruzzin, now retired, worked as a creative designer for General Motors Co. for nearly 40 years, rising through the ranks from junior designer to director of design for GM Europe, and then to director of design for Chevrolet. When asked to design the float, he knew he could get the job done.

“It was very easy for me to do,” said Ruzzin. “It went along really fast. It was a great concept, as it turns out.”

Ruzzin started by drafting a vision statement that outlined some of the must-have features to be included in the design. In that statement, he noted that he wanted to “develop a theme like no other Santa Claus parade float.”

“That was really important to me,” he stated. “It was what I always tried to do as a car designer for GM.”

The float needed to be self-propelled, built to a realistic scale, and designed to reflect the character and landscape of Grosse Pointe. Ruzzin also wanted to focus on Christmas from a child’s perspective, so he studied children’s Christmas books at the Grosse Pointe Public Library for inspiration.

“The thing that really jumped out at me was the character and landscape of Grosse Pointe,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘What about Santa Claus flying over Grosse Pointe?’ … I really felt good about that.”

After running his idea by John and Betty Stevens — who embraced the vision that he presented — Ruzzin started working on a design. The result was a concept sketch of Santa’s sleigh flying over the parade route — over the Hill business district, down Kercheval toward the Village — with small-scale models of city landmarks below. Ruzzin also created a mechanical drawing of the physical float, which depicted where the driver and engine would be placed. 

“The driver would look out one of the buildings on the Hill,” said Ruzzin, who also proposed a canopy, similar to what’s seen on a fighter plane, for driver entry.

The next step was to start making his sketches come alive, so he enlisted the help of two local experts. Designer Michael Stapleton, of Grosse Pointe Woods, agreed to help construct most of the float in his shop, PropArt, in Detroit, while engineer Bruce Burton, of Grosse Pointe Farms, stepped in to build the chassis; develop the front-end suspension; and add the engine, steering wheel and gas tank. 

“Michael started to building the platform, and when the chassis arrived, it was lifted and put on,” said Ruzzin. 

Over the course of a few months, Ruzzin and his team completed the rest of the details, including the sleigh, the life-sized reindeer and the Grosse Pointe landscape, which features local stores, churches, schools and other familiar landmarks, all scaled to match the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, on which Ruzzin based all of his measurements.

The last step, Ruzzin said, was to take the float on its first test drive.

“We were ready for the parade,” he said. “It ran great.”

The float was completed on schedule for its inaugural run in the 2005 parade, and it has since become a Christmas icon for the Grosse Pointes. 

“Kids go nuts over it,” said Ruzzin. “People are passionate about Christmas.”

Last year, the Friends of the Grosse Pointe Parade donated the float to the city of Grosse Pointe Park, which will continue to make Santa’s sleigh part of its annual parade and holiday celebration. This year's Grosse Pointe Santa Claus Parade was held on Nov. 24.


Do you own a vehicle that has an interesting history or a special meaning to you? Contact Staff Writer Jennifer Sigouin at jsigouin@candgnews.com, and you could be featured in an upcoming edition of Behind the Wheel.