Howard Cunningham: Cruisin' every year

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published June 4, 2014

 Howard Cunningham, of Eastpointe, poses for a portrait with his ’66 Chevelle SS 396 on May 29, 2014.

Howard Cunningham, of Eastpointe, poses for a portrait with his ’66 Chevelle SS 396 on May 29, 2014.

Photo by Sean Work

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EASTPOINTE — With the 16th year of Cruisin’ Gratiot coming up, at least one local man has the proof that he has been there every year since the cruise’s inception in 1999.

Howard Cunningham, of Eastpointe, has nabbed all 16 cruise T-shirts over the years as he has brought his vehicles out to Gratiot Avenue. The lifelong resident of the city said he always has had a love for classic cars, going back to when he was a kid growing up in the ’50s and ’60s.

His favorite remains a marina blue 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle, which he picked up when the car came out and still owns.

“November 8, 1965, is when I bought the Chevelle, and I took possession of it around 10:30, 11 a.m. that morning,” Cunningham said. “I am the original owner, but back in the ’60s, I couldn’t
buy a car at 19 years old — it had to be in the name of someone 21 years or older. So my dad was the original owner, but I am the original owner-owner.”

His dad was not a huge fan of the Chevelle, Cunningham said, and as a semi-truck driver, his dad was unimpressed with its four speeds. Cunningham himself loved the car, however, and remembers going around the area in it, occasionally running afoul of police.

“Roseville, at one time, it was in the old Federal store parking lot, a lot of guys used that (to hang out) on Saturday nights. Roseville cops were infuriated,” Cunningham said. “I remember one time I was at Federal buying some stuff, and a guy came up to me who I knew with his hot rod, and we started talking. And once two guys got together, a lot more started doing the same, and all of a sudden this Roseville cop saw us and came up and asked what we’re doing.”

The officer ended up writing Cunningham a ticket for loitering, which he then contested in court. The judge dismissed the charge after Cunningham explained what had happened, and he said the officer declared he would get Cunningham at some point, but they never saw each other again.

Cunningham said the area has definitely changed a lot in the years he’s lived here. He said he remembers when Gratiot reduced to one lane in either direction past the now-demolished Gratiot Drive-In when heading to Mount Clemens.

“It was no man’s land out there,” he said. “There were houses on the side of the street and everything. It just shows you how things have changed.”

As an adult, he worked as an industrial spraypainter for the now-defunct Mechanical Handling, but he now is retired. He continued buying and selling cars over the years and has worked with his brother to strip down some to their frames for a complete cleaning, refurbishing and rebuilding.

He currently owns another Chevelle, a red 1966 Supersport convertible, and he said that over the years he’s had several other vehicles, including a 1959 Plymouth, Chevy cars from 1955, ’56, and ’57, and an exceptionally rare prototype Z16 Chevelle.

The convertible and his Chevelle have both been featured in cruises, and he plans on bringing the former out for the 2014 Cruisin’ Gratiot. He said the only thing he wishes they could do is park their vehicles on the median and get off the street. One year, someone on a bike ran into his car and knocked off the remote mirror — an expensive replacement.

With a number of he and his friends’ favorite hang-outs closed, such as Eddie’s Drive-In and Panther’s Lanes — classic car events have been their go-to activity, and Cunningham said he’s been to all of the ones around here, from Cruisin’ Gratiot to events in Roseville, Clinton Township, downriver and the Woodward Dream Cruise.

While the bike rider who hit his car belittled the vehicle as a “piece of junk” on the road, Cunningham said that cruises are a time when people who really appreciate the old vehicles can share their interest.

“Some people just don’t care, but most other people out there on the Gratiot cruise, or any of these cruises? They care,” Cunningham said. “They like to see these other cars out there.”

Harvey Curley, president of the Cruisin’ Gratiot board of directors, agrees with that sentiment, telling the Eastsider in April that seeing all the other car enthusiasts out there is one of the best parts.

“I don’t have a classic car but I love them,” Curley said. “I love looking at them, talking to the drivers. There are really some fascinating people that come out every year. The classic car owners — they’ll come out and take out their cloth and shine it up, pop the hood, get the chair out of the trunk and sit out by the car and talk to people.”

The cruise takes place June 14 along Gratiot, between Eight Mile and 10 Mile.