Route 66 and Vintage Cars

The Road

1959 corvette
1959 Corvette

There may be no other highway in the United States that is as nostalgic as the old Route 66. This was the ‘Mother Road‘, the great highway to the southwest that offered adventure and new landscapes. It was a highway that called out to those wanting to see and experience new places. From Chicago Illinois to Santa Monica California, this new highway would be the trail of the 20th century pioneers. In fact, Route 66 had been in existence for only about ten years when thousands of people took to it’s road heading out of the 1930’s dust bowl to California. It was the highway taken west by the people that the author John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. The road, to many, led to a new start in life.

Improvements and Realignments

Route 66 came about at the time that the federal government decided to use a numbered highway system. The route itself was cobbled together from many existing roads and trails, many unpaved. It would be years later that the entire route was a paved highway. Topography changed dramatically when the route entered New Mexico. Route 66 in New Mexico as an example, follows the traditional east-west transportation route through the state. It travels through the center of the state along the 35th Parallel. The topography of this route had always presented special challenges to New Mexican road builders even before the coming of Route 66 in 1926. New Mexico’s elevation along this route changes quite a lot. You’re looking at elevations of about 3,800 feet near the border with Texas to over 7,200 feet at the Continental Divide near Thoreau New Mexico. During the time of unmechanized road building where work was done by humans and animals, the construction was difficult to say the least. Unlike the plains states, the New Mexico route consisted of climbs, descents and switchbacks. In the original New Mexico alignment, the La Bajada Hill switchbacks south of Santa Fe presented one of the biggest challenges.

New Mexico Route 66 became fully modernized during the Great Depression. It was in this era that the government spent massive amounts of money to infrastructure projects. Route 66 improvements of course were just one example. The coast highway in California, Hwy 1, also saw enormous construction dollars spent with the building of a series of concrete spanned bridges.

ford thunderbird car
1957 Ford Thunderbird

The original Route 66 went through several realignments during it’s earlier lifetime. Most were minor but a few were major. One major realignment took place when the highway bypassed the city of Santa Fe New Mexico. It’s an interesting story exactly how and why that came about. One version portrays the decision as purely political having to do with a lost gubernatorial race. Another has more to do with cutting down mileage, which in fact it did. Rather than the roadway heading northwest to Santa Fe, it was realigned in a relatively straight east-west line from Tucumcari to Albuquerque. This is pretty much how today’s Interstate 40 runs now.

The Arizona Segment

Many people today feel that the best remaining stretch of old Route 66 on a scenic standpoint runs through a part of northern Arizona. In the western part of the state, between about Seligman and the Colorado River lies about 165 miles of the original Route 66. In the eastern part of Arizona, Route 66 generally In Kingman Arizona, Route 66 still remains it’s Main Street. Another example is Williams Arizona, about due south of the Grand Canyon. While Interstate 40 runs directly past Williams, the old Route 66 still travels through the center of town. In the eastern part of the state, Route 66 generally goes off and on Interstate 40. It’s the western part of the Arizona where the old highway goes off and assumes it’s original route. Many people who travel through the western part of Arizona, if time permits, exit Interstate 40, and take this historic and scenic old route.

You’ll also want to see our site AutoMuseumOnline that has a gallery of vintage and classic car and truck photos along with their history.

California, Oklahoma and Missouri Route 66

1955 ford fairlane sunliner
1955 Ford Fairlane Sunliner

When you enter California today from Needles on the Colorado River, the route today through the Mojave Desert to Barstow is much about Interstate 40. With that said, there is a particularly good old Route 66 museum located in Barstow California. Located at 681 N. First Avenue, the museum is open free to the public.The museum is named “The Route 66 Mother Road” Museum. Opened in the year 2000, it’s located in the historic Casa del Desierto, which was the old Harvey House in Barstow. Here you will find all kinds of Route 66 artifacts as well as a lot about the desert communities Route 66 passed through. Some of the best points on old Route 66, in addition to the western Arizona stretch, are found at the very western end of the road near the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles was actually the original terminus of Route 66 until it was lengthened to Santa Monica right on the Pacific Ocean. What is amazing in California is that some 95% of the original highway is reported still drivable. There are several additional first class Route 66 museums spread along the old route. One is the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton Oklahoma. Another is the National Transportation and Route 66 Museum in Elk City Oklahoma. Another interesting one is the Route 66 Museum in Kingman Arizona. The Kingman museum is located in the “heart” of the longest “remaining stretch” of the 2400 miles that was Route 66.If you’re passing through Missouri there is a fine Route 66 Museum in Lebanon Missouri. Lebanon Missouri has the distinction of having one of the very first motels along Route 66. The name was Camp Joy and opened in the year 1927 as a tent camp. The initial rate for lodging at camp Joy was fifty cents per night.

Renewal Initiatives

An interesting side note is that California is one of the most active states in pushing for a renewal of Route 66. As an example, one group right now is promoting renaming Interstate 40 to “Route 66” between Needles and Barstow California. Whether that ever comes to be remains to be seen but the interest in preserving the heritage of this famous highway remains very strong. In New Mexico there has been an effort to restore the neon signs that were a trademark of Route 66’s heydays. So far, the efforts of this project has resulted in the restoration of nine classic neon signs in the communities of Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Moriarty, Albuquerque, Grants, and Gallup. These towns and cities cover almost all of the old Route 66 from east to west through the state of New Mexico.

1955 ford fairlane
Ford Fairlane Sunliner

The entire Route 66 highway from Chicago to Santa Monica eventually filled with motels. The original mom and pop motels have almost all disappeared. Every so often I find out about one that is still in operation from the old days. In almost all cases ownership has certainly changed but there are two I’m aware of which have remained in business for decades and decades. One is located in Cuba Missouri named the Wagon Wheel Motel. The other one I’m aware of is the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari New Mexico. No doubt that restorations and upgrades have taken place (such as air conditioning) but it’s remarkable that these two motels are still in existence after the Interstate highway system came into being. The Cuba Missouri motel dates back to the 1930’s and the Tucumcari motel to about 1941.

There are numerous Route 66 automobile clubs spread across the country and they are very active. Several of these clubs feature events where members travel Route 66, or at least some of the parts that currently remain, and enjoy the fun of driving on a scenic two lane highway and taking great pictures along the way. As the years pass by, interest in the old Route 66 heritage seems to keep increasing. Because this historic highway was such a part of so many people’s lives, I would expect this trend to continue.

(Photos are from author’s private collection)