In 1987, Mike Ilitch began negotiations with the Arena Football League (AFL), to join for the 1988 season. The Drive began play in 1988 as a member of the AFL. Under head coach Tim Marcum, the Drive finished the regular season 9–3 after starting the season 2–3. Two of the Drive's losses came at the hands of the Chicago Bruisers, who finished the season with one loss. The Drive would get a chance at revenge when they advanced to ArenaBowl II against the Bruisers, and they were able to defeat the Bruisers 24–13.
With the AFL suspending operations prior to the 1989 season, the league was revived and decided to play a short season, but that forced the Drive to begin the 1989 season by replacing quarterback Rich Ingold, who didn't want to take the pay cut of the short season. The Drive won ArenaBowl III 39–26 over the Pittsburgh Gladiators.
Head Coach Tim Marcum stepped away from the Drive in 1990 to join the University of Florida's football staff, and was replaced by Perry Moss. The Drive bolstered their offense by signing quarterback Art Schlichter (Who would become the AFL's MVP in 1990). Moss lead the Drive to a 6–2 regular season record and they remained a dominant force, leading the going to ArenaBowl IV, where they defeated the Dallas Texans 51–27.
Ilitch sold the Drive so that they would not compete with the Tigers for attendance. Ilitch still claims that he only kept the Drive because they were constant contenders.
The Drive had, arguably, the best management team in the league. Owner Mike Ilitch, General Manager Gary Vitto, and Head Coach Tim Marcum are all in the AFL Hall of Fame. Following the 1992 season, Ilitch purchased the Detroit Tigers of Major League Baseball and Vitto was transferred to the Tigers front office. Marcum assumed GM duties for 1993 and led the team to its final Arena Bowl.
The team's on-field success did not mean equivalent business success; although the team was the most profitable in the AFL, setting attendance records, owner Mike Ilitch sold the team following his purchase of the Detroit Tigers in 1993. (There was speculation at the time that Ilitch did not want his old team competing with his new one, as they played at the same time of year.) The team competed in 1994 as the Massachusetts Marauders playing their home games at the Worcester Centrum, but folded after going 8–4 in their first and only season. Whereas the Drive averaged over 14,000 fans a game during their six seasons in Detroit, the Marauders averaged less than 7,400 a game.
Nearly three years after the Marauders folded, Dan DeVos purchased the franchise out of bankruptcy court, and in 1998 they became the Grand Rapids Rampage, who played until 2008.
While the Drive's history was relatively brief, they had an inarguable importance in the history of Arena Football, with ArenaBowl trips every year of their existence, and creating the first dynasty in the Arena Football League.