Automotive Traveler's Rich Truesdell assembles four muscle cars from the era's golden age--representing AMC, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. Then, with eight strangers, he sets out on the drive of a lifetime on the Mother Road.
By Rich Truesdell
Steinbeck immortalized it as the Mother Road in The Grapes of Wrath. Bobby Troup's 1946 musical composition suggests we get our kicks on it. In the early 1960s, it became a cultural icon as a popular TV show. Route 66--the very definition of America at the midpoint of the last century. It's the perfect road for a period-correct, cross-country blast from Chicago to Los Angeles in four classic muscle cars dating to the years Detroit dominated the automotive landscape. In other words, the mother of all road trips.
Five summers ago, I had the opportunity to participate in two extraordinary road trips. One, a week driving a Ferrari 599 Fiorano from Lima, Peru to Quito, Ecuador The other, serving as the guide for four muscle-car owners on a six-day drive from Chicago to Los Angeles along historic Route 66.
The story of our trek along the Mother Road was originally published in the first itineration of Motor Trend Classic in the spring of 2007. And while it was an outstanding presentation over eight pages in the magazine, I always felt that I ended up leaving a lot of great material, especially photographs, on the cutting room floor. Here, then, is a fresh interpretation of our experience with a slice of America that continues to vanish from the national landscape.
Day One: Chicago to Litchfield, Illinois (250 miles)
If you plan to drive Route 66 East to West, start to finish, it's essential to set out from under the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. Brown-and-white signs designating sections of the Route were preserved here after it was formally decommissioned.
Begin with a hearty brunch at Lou Mitchell's, an integral landmark on the Route for well over a half century. You'll get complimentary Milk Duds with your meal, and find a long line of patrons out the door. Over coffee and a hearty meal, our participants got acquainted.
From California came a stunning 1970 Ford Mustang Mach 1, a 10-year-old restoration owned by Arnold and Jann Marks. With the exception of a fresh set of tires, the Mach 1 was ready to run when the call came to represent the Blue Oval. Arnold is the owner of Mustangs Etc., a California-based specialty restoration shop.
Next, a 1969 AMC SC/Rambler, which had been assembled from more than 20 boxes of parts just two weeks earlier. Owner Mark Fletcher couldn't make the start of the trip (he'd join up in Winslow, Arizona). So he designated Aaron Green and Brian Heitkam of Arizona Autocraft to shepherd the car for the first 2,500 miles.
From the Detroit area, Brian Veit and his friend (and mechanic) John Nicles brought a 1967 Dodge Charger that's been in the family since it was new. Brian inherited the black-on-red 383-powered Charger when his older brother passed on the opportunity.
Also from Michigan came Kenny Walters. His 1969 Camaro SS/RS benefited from some judicious suspension modifications by a prior owner, a GM engineer, who gave his Camaro the most contemporary ride and handling characteristics among this group. Kenny's wife Gina opted to stay at home. Spying the functional, factory air-conditioning system aboard, I decided to ride shotgun.
As often happens on road trips, we started out later than anticipated. This would be an issue that dogged us most mornings, as we tried to get to breakfast and back out on the Mother Road as early as possible.
What is it about old gas stations that make them such a draw for car enthusiasts? Two excellent examples just happen to be on Historic Route 66 in central Illinois: In Dwight, an old Texaco station has been returned to its former glory. In Odell, a preservation effort is making serious headway in restoring a 1920s-era Standard station. Odell also is where we picked up our first refugee Route 66er, Dave Jostes, who crashed the party with his 1970 Chevelle. Its speedometer had just crossed the 300,000-mile threshold.
The first day's drive gave us the chance to sort out all four cars. The SC/Rambler had more than its share of teething problems, thanks to the fact that it had literally been finished as it was pushed on to the transporter back in Arizona. And running 4.10 to 1 gears cruising at 70 m.p.h., the fresh 390 was running at more than 3,500 r.p.m. So the Rambler team was quite happy when we decided to call it a day in Litchfield, Illinois, rather than pushing on to St. Louis as planned.
Day Two: Litchfield, Illinois to Tulsa, Oklahoma (450 miles)
Overnighting in Litchfield gave us the opportunity to photograph Kenny's Camaro at first light in front of the historic Ariston Cafe, a fixture along Route 66 since 1931. The rest of the group arrived at eight sharp, and we were off to St. Louis and its magnificent Gateway Arch. Although not technically a part of the Route 66 experience, we certainly couldn't miss the symbolic front door to the American West.
Then we stopped at Ted Drewes, a frozen-custard emporium on Chippewa Street that's been a Route 66 institution since 1941. General manager Travis Dillon treated us to our choice of frozen confections. We tanked up at a pristine 1950s-style Sinclair station. Also on Chippewa Street, it's been run by the Weisehan brothers for the past 55 years.
Next stop after St. Louis was Devil's Elbow, a stretch of Route 66 I've missed on four previous drives. Newer roads have bypassed the two-lane bridge over Big Piney River twice. In 1943, a four-lane section of Route 66 was built to accommodate military traffic from nearby Fort Leonard Wood. The 1970s brought the opening of Interstate 44.
At the Elbow Inn, we indulged in BBQ ribs and brisket as Jann took stock of the hundreds of bras hanging from the ceiling. She declined to add to the collection.
We arrived in Tulsa just as the famous Metro Diner was closing for the night. Sad to say, the University of Tulsa has purchased the property, and the diner is slated for destruction. It's not the first time we learned about the demise of yet another beloved Route 66 landmark.
If you're seeking traditional lodging in Tulsa, try the Desert Hills Motel. Its rooms are spotless, close to period correct, and the place is way more fun to stay in than a run-of-the-mill chain motel near the airport.
Day Three: Tulsa, Oklahoma to Amarillo, Texas (380 miles)
The day began with breakfast at Tally's Good Food Cafe. The portions are huge, and the hometown atmosphere authentic. Then it was on to the Rock Cafe in Stroud, where we met Dawn Welsh, the inspiration for the Sally Carrera character from the movie Cars.
Farther west in Davenport, we spotted a building with more than a dozen Mustangs parked around back. Pulling over, we found three Shelbys inside--including a 1969 powered by a 4.6-liter supercharged V8 running an independent rear suspension and painted by custom-car legend Gene Winfield. Dubbed the GT690GW, it's said to be the first of what will be a series of 20 similar cars.
Crossing into Texas in late afternoon, the mercury was approaching 100 degrees. We landed in Shamrock, home of the U Drop Inn. Built in 1936, this art-deco gas station and cafe is one Route 66 landmark that won't be disappearing anytime soon. It recently received a $1.7-million federal restoration grant.
We continued to McLean, which was like driving into a ghost town. Despite an early preservation effort, it's been ravaged by vandalism. McLean is a perfect example of what's happened to dozens of once-vibrant Route 66 towns bypassed by the Interstates. Kenny described it best, saying it looks like someplace in a Stephen King novel.
Our main destination for Wednesday night was the famous Big Texan Steak Ranch and Hotel, home of the free 72-ounce steak. Free, that is, if you can eat it and all the trimmings in an hour or less.
Day Four: Amarillo, Texas to Albuquerque, New Mexico (380 miles)
Just west of Amarillo is the famous Cadillac Ranch, home to 10 of America's finest mid-century luxury cars buried up to their A-pillars.
We exited I-40 to pick up a great stretch of Route 66 in Vega. There we met Harold and Tresa Whaley, who gave us a tour of their Vega Motel. Unlike many motor court owners along Route 66, they've resisted the urge to convert the garages into rooms and are working to return the motel to its former glory. The effort has been helped by the establishment's recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places.
The next stop was across the New Mexico state line in Tucumcari. Well-known for the billboards that once proclaimed "Tucumcari Tonight" (referencing the 2,000 hotel rooms within its city limits), it afforded us two great photo opportunities. The first was the famous Blue Swallow Motel, where I photographed the Mach 1 with the legendary neon sign.
The second was at Mesa Motors--in another life, an Oldsmobile and AMC dealership. I photographed all our cars under the AMC Select Used Cars sign and canopy. You can almost imagine you're looking at Mesa Motors circa 1975, when four such vehicles would have been unwanted used cars in the aftermath of the first OPEC oil embargo.
After lunch at Del's Restaurant, we headed west to Albuquerque, our schedule forcing us to miss the sight of Tucumcari's collection of neon at dusk. Traditional Route 66ers opt for the El Vado Motel on the city's west side. It, too, is slated to meet its destiny with the wrecking ball unless local preservation efforts prevail over the interests of condo developers.
Day Five: Albuquerque, New Mexico to Williams, Arizona (360 miles)
With the racing Unsers calling Albuquerque home, it's almost impossible to escape their presence on the west side. Across from the Unser Children's Center on Central is the Unser compound, home to Bobby and Al Sr.
A few miles west of Budville, in the hamlet of Cubero, is the Villa Cubero. Now a gas station and general store, it once was a popular motel. Ernest Hemingway wrote portions of The Old Man and the Sea here. In keeping with the day's literary theme, the next highlight on our map was Thoreau, where our caravan crossed the Continental Divide.
After entering Arizona, we detoured through Holbrook, site of one of two remaining Wigwam Motels, where guests can sleep in a teepee. We pressed on to Winslow, an archetypal Route 66 town along the old Santa Fe railroad, and the SC/Rambler was reunited with its owner. And there we landed at "the corner" made famous by the Eagles's 1971 hit Take It Easy. As you can see, Winslow even provides a flatbed Ford. We blew through Flagstaff at sunset on our way to a night's stay in Williams.
The gateway town to the Grand Canyon offers two exceptional lodging opportunities. For Mark, Aaron, Brian (SC/Rambler), Kenny (Camaro), Brian, John (Charger), and me, the choice was simple: the Canyon Motel and RV Resort. This lodging establishment is actually a collection of 18 1940s-era motel units, two 1929 caboose suites, three Pullman Grand Canyon Railcar suites, and 47 full hook-ups in the resort's spacious RV park.
If you ever wanted to sleep on a train without actually going anywhere, this quirky stop along old Route 66 is a must-visit destination.
Jann and Arnold wanted something different and headed to the Red Garter Bed and Breakfast just down the street. A onetime bordello now reported to be haunted, the place nonetheless afforded our friends no examples of paranormal activity. A group from Germany was also staying at the Red Garter that night, on the hunt for the resident ghost.
Day Six: Williams, Arizona, to Rialto, California (400 miles)
Saturday dawned bright for our last full day on Route 66. First stop was Seligman, the primary inspiration for the fictitious Radiator Springs in Cars. At Delgadillo's Snow Cap, a quirky drive-in restaurant festooned with kitsch, doo-dads, and knickknacks, Kenny and John spied an unrestored but complete 1969 Pace Car edition Camaro. It's been in the Delgadillo family for decades. And don't ask: It's not for sale.
The stretch of Route 66 between Seligman and Kingman is one of the best remaining. The Hackberry General Store provided us with yet another vintage gas-station photo op.
We bypassed the Kingman-to-Needles section of the Route, a decision that turned out to be wise with the temperatures well over 110 degrees. As it was, the Charger popped its radiator cap, its first malfunction in almost 2,000 miles.
After our dash across the California desert, we made a beeline on I-40 and I-10 into San Bernardino for our final overnight at the Wigwam Motel in Rialto. It's the Ritz-Carlton of teepee accommodations, having benefited from its own million-dollar renovation.
Day Seven: Rialto, California to Santa Monica (100 miles)
Our final day's agenda was simple: a stopover in Pasadena for lunch and then on to the Santa Monica Pier. En route to Pasadena, we stopped in Monrovia at the Aztec Hotel and Elephant Bar and Restaurant. This landmark Robert Stacy-Judd hotel opened in 1926 and is another example of roadside heritage saved from overzealous developers.
We arrived at the Santa Monica Pier at dusk, positioning each of our muscle cars to snap them under the famous sign leading to the pier's midway. It was a fitting end to a trip spanning seven days, eight states, and an official total of 2,448 miles.
What most surprised this group of muscle-car enthusiasts--beyond the universal friendliness we encountered--was the number of people from outside the United States who were making their own Route 66 pilgrimages. As we traveled the Mother Road, we met tourists from Canada, England, Germany, Norway, Italy, Australia, and Japan, each with their own reasons for exploring this unique slice of Americana.
And, yes, all seemed envious of our group--and of the four seriously cool machines we drove.