It was 40 years ago that I was first captivated by McLean, Texas.
Tony DeLorenzo and I were driving a 1973 Corvette cross-country, roughly following Route 66, for an article I was writing in Road Test magazine. We had just come from the Daytona 24 Hours where Tony had qualified his Budd Corvette on the GT pole and was leading the GT class after some 10 hours when the car's huge 454-cubic-inch engine suffered catastrophic failure. But that's another story for another time.
The idea was to revisit Route 66 nine years after the eponymous CBS television series had gone off the air: to take the temperature of the automobile industry and maybe the country as a whole. And what better way to do it than in a Corvette (then celebrating its 20th anniversary): the same car driven by the TV series characters Tod Stiles and Buzz Murdock?
At the time, the Interstate Highway System was nearing completion and Route 66 was in the early stages of being decommissioned as a U.S. highway. Many of the small towns that had clung to Route 66 for sustenance were struggling as the tourist and trucker traffic moved from the main streets that made up the Mother Road — as John Steinbeck memorably called it in The Grapes of Wrath — to the modern highways.
McLean was one of those towns. When Tony and I pulled off Interstate 40 in the Texas Panhandle to do a quick drive-through in February 1973, I was immediately struck by its Main Street: one stoplight and paved with red bricks. And then we saw the Avalon Theater. Abandoned and forlorn, it seemed the perfect metaphor for what was happening all along America's Main Street, Route 66. Not to mention that it literally exuded the pathos of the then recent movie The Last Picture Show, filmed in not-faraway Archer, Texas, which spoke of changing times and lives in small-town America. And in which, coincidentally or not, we all, or at least those males among us of a certain age, fell in love with Cybill Shepherd.
I have never forgotten that moment.
My article, which ran in the June 1973 issue of Road Test, was the first of what would be many Route 66 revisited stories by seemingly countless authors. As it turns out, a highway that was being decommissioned and bypassed during the '70s was to become the center of a cottage industry: Route 66 Nostalgia. In 1973, there was almost no information available on the road. Go on Amazon today, enter Route 66 in the search box, and literally hundreds of results come up. Books, videos, guidebooks, maps, calendars, postcards, CDs: You name it, there are Route 66 versions aplenty. Tony and I have joked through the years that our trip and my article were the genesis of all this. Hey, it makes a good story...and I'm sticking to it.
With Chevrolet celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Corvette in 2013, and considering that this year also marked the 40th anniversary of our initial Route 66 sojourn, Tony and I thought, why not travel the road again in a new 2014 Chevy Corvette Stingray to see how the years had treated the road, the towns and the car.
Our ride was a new 2014 Corvette Stingray coupe equipped with the Z51 performance package. Its 6.2-liter V8 LT1 engine produces 460 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 465 pound-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm. Our car also had the optional performance exhaust that adds 5 hp and sounds terrific. Complementing the LT1 were a paddle-shifted six-speed automatic transmission, a 2.73:1 final drive, dry-sump oiling, Brembo brakes, Michelin Pilot Super Sport Tires (P245/35R19 in front and P28530R20 in the rear) aluminum wheels, an electronic limited-slip differential, and transmission and oil coolers.
In addition to an interior that is leather-wrapped and carbon-fiber everything, the 3LT package adds GPS, OnStar, a Bose radio system, Sirius satellite service, blah, blah, blah, on and on. All of this was wrapped in startling Velocity Yellow and carried an MSRP of $68,135.
By contrast, in 1973 the Corvette we drove, also a coupe, came with the 275-hp LS4 454-cubic-inch V8, close-ratio four-speed manual transmission, 3.08 final drive, GR70/15 steel-belted radial tires, aluminum wheels, power steering, air-conditioning, AM/FM stereo, custom interior with leather seats, power windows, tilt steering wheel, T-tops, and don't forget the map light. Standard MSRP on the car was $5,634.50, and as equipped the price ran out to $6,788.50.
That would be close to $40,000 in 2013 dollars, so you can see that the new Corvette's advanced technologies come at a price, as do the increased government regulatory burdens placed on cars since 1973.
You have to remember that 1973 was the beginning of the Dark Ages in the United States for automobiles, especially performance automobiles like the Corvette. Emissions and safety laws were about to banish all cars to a decade-long death march through the wilderness of government regulation and an anti-performance public mindset.
Just two years earlier in 1971, the Corvette's 454 engine, then in its LS6 iteration pumped out 425 hp. By 1973, the big-block V8 had been castrated with an 8.5:1 compression ratio, and saddled with smog pumps and exhaust gas recirculation. From a car that did the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at 106 mph, the 1973 Corvette big-block could barely muster a time of 15.5 seconds at 94 mph.
Those were times and the facts we were dealing with when Tony and I set out on our Route 66 trip in 1973.
Route 66 is mythic. So many stories have grown up around it that sometimes it's hard to know what is true and what isn't, starting with its name, which is not Route 66. Officially, the road was commissioned November 11, 1926, as U.S. Highway 66. And even that was not the first choice for the road's designation. Cyrus Avery, an Oklahoma highway commissioner and entrepreneur widely considered to be the "Father of Route 66," promoted the idea of an interregional highway link between Chicago and Los Angeles. He lobbied hard for the number 60, but that was usurped by a road from Virginia through Kentucky to Springfield, Missouri. The numbers 62 and 64 were bandied about until someone on Avery's staff mentioned that 66 was unassigned.
The story goes that Avery thought about it and said, "Hmmmm, 66, I like the sound of that. It's easy to remember and pleasant to the ear." However, it was U.S. Highway 66, not Route 66. It was left to musician and composer Bobby Troupe to forever enshrine the colloquial name for U.S. 66 in the public's mind with the hit song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" that he conceived while driving the highway from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1946.
Nor is Route 66 the first transcontinental highway. That honor goes to the Lincoln Highway that traveled from New York City to San Francisco and was commissioned in 1913. To pick nits, U.S. 66 is, technically, not even transcontinental, since it runs from Chicago, in the Midwest, to Los Angeles. Neither was the highway created by a massive construction project, like today's interstates. As with many highways of the day, it was cobbled together from existing local, county and state roads, most of them with origins as Indian trails, and many unpaved. In fact, U.S. 66 was not fully paved until 1938, almost 12 years after its creation. As such, it tended to run through the center of the towns on its route. This is why one of Route 66's nicknames is the Main Street of America.
Because of its essentially flat geography, U.S. 66 was a popular truck route, while its western terminus in Los Angeles made it a natural for tourists as well. However, it wasn't until the 1930s that the road really hit the national consciousness, when it became the aortic artery of the western migration as people sought to escape the Dustbowl and Great Depression by using it to reach the perceived golden shores of California.
My mother's family was among these souls, moving from Arkansas to Los Angeles in 1939, after having first driven what would become Route 66 on a trip in 1923 in their 1917 Maxwell. On that first trip, my Grandmother Schlinger kept what is now a most interesting journal to read.
On the Road
In February 1973, Tony and I slipped, quite literally, out of Chicago in the wake of a major winter storm that had deposited more than 2 feet of snow the night before, conditions we would continue to encounter all the way to Oklahoma, and then again from Albuquerque, New Mexico, past Flagstaff, Arizona. The new Stingray's traction control system would have been most welcome back then. We hit Interstate 55 in Chicago as soon as possible, ducking off only occasionally to check some of the small towns, and didn't stop until we reached Tulsa.
October 2013 was a different matter entirely. Brilliant blue skies and warm temperatures all the way from Chicago to Santa Monica, rendering the Z51's traction control unnecessary. Tony and I had already decided to take more than the three days of our 1973 trip and drive as much of the original road as was practicable, so we were going to leave Chicago using the streets that made up the original route.
From the highway's eastern terminus at Jackson Boulevard and Lake Shore Drive, Historic 66 — remember U.S. 66 is decommissioned and the official designation is Historic 66 Byway — runs west on Adams before exiting Chicago on Ogden Avenue. What we discovered almost immediately is that using the manual paddle shifting mode of the automatic transmission is not advisable in city traffic, the downshifts banging annoyingly into gear. So after a few attempts, we were content to leave the transmission in Auto mode, something we did, with only a few exceptions, for the remainder of the trip.
As soon as we cleared the broad shoulders of Chicago and its immediate suburbs, we found ourselves among Illinois' beautiful cornfields and farmland, a welcome landscape that would stick around for a while. One thing you rapidly learn as you pass through towns like Godley, Braceville, Dwight, Odell or Chenoa, among so many others on old 66, is that there is a whole world out there not touched by the interstates. Driving Route 66, you will come to love small-town America, as you experience the endless examples of the variety, and commonality, of the American spirit.
At this point, the road is heading more south than west, a direction it maintains until reaching Oklahoma City, which is why 66 is sometimes referred to as the Great Diagonal Way. The rolling prairie of Southern Illinois affords you the opportunity to stretch the Corvette's muscles on Route 66's two-, and occasionally four-lane sections. You pull out to pass another car, press the accelerator, and suddenly you're doing 90 mph or more.
Passing through Lincoln Country around Illinois' state capitol of Springfield, we made St. Louis the first evening and did the obligatory Gateway Arch visit the next morning. We decided to forego the surface street route out of town and took I-44 instead as far as Exit 266, where we got off to resume the old road, and to see Missouri's Route 66 State Park. One of the first parks devoted to the highway, Route 66 State Park, is an example of what is being done to memorialize, and capitalize on, the Mother Road.
With the old road meandering back and forth over I-44, and with so many previous alignments of 66 being detailed in our guidebook instructions without necessarily telling us which ones were dead ends, it was at this point that we developed a healthy respect for the Corvette's easy-to-use navigation system.
Ozarks to Oklahoma City
Approaching southwestern Missouri, 66 begins to run through the northern reaches of the Ozark Mountains. This is an area, continuing through a corner of Kansas and into Oklahoma, where the road twists and turns in concert with the terrain. On some segments you can put the Corvette's drive mode into Sport configuration and have some real fun experiencing a taste of the suspension's performance capabilities.
The '73 Corvette was not particularly happy on roads like this, preferring a steady rate of driving rather than the more exuberant style. This is definitely not the case with the 2014 Corvette. The new C7 eats big helpings of road and asks for more, causing you to keep one wary eye on the rearview mirror and local constabulary on patrol for fast yellow Corvettes.
After a stop to pay homage to the Route 66 Drive-in Theater in Carthage, Missouri, we spent the night in Joplin. The next morning we did the 12 miles of Route 66 in Kansas, through Galena and Baxter Springs, before dropping into Oklahoma. In Commerce, Oklahoma, we passed Commerce High School, home of "The Commerce Comet," the great Mickey Mantle, who is immortalized by a statue at the school's baseball diamond, outside center field as is only appropriate, and which is, of course, right on Route 66.
From here clear into Oklahoma City is one of the longest continuous stretches of old Route 66, 260 miles from the Kansas border. It is a good road, used by the locals to avoid the tolls on I-44, the Will Rogers Turnpike. One wonders if Mr. Rogers, being a man of the people, would really cotton to the idea of his name being attached to a toll road. In any event, the "free road," as 66 is known in these parts, is easy to follow through Vinita, Chelsea, Busyhead and Sequoyah. Like I said, you learn to love small towns.
Among the many enjoyable parts of this section of 66 is that it tends to run parallel, and sometimes directly adjacent, to the toll road. This also occurs as well at other points along the highway. Speed limits are similar, so you can find yourself on the old road, traveling at or above the speed of traffic on the interstate but without the traffic hassles. At one point going into Tulsa, I chose to take I-44 after it ceased being a toll road. By the time I got back on Route 66, I was fatigued from the traffic and more than happy to be back on the old road.
It's also along this stretch of road, and all the way through to the California border, that you notice another huge difference between 2013 and 1973. Back in 1973, when you were between cities, you had best been a country music fan, because that's about all there was to be heard on the Corvette's AM/FM stereo radio. Today, with the C7's Sirius Satellite Radio and Bluetooth audio, we didn't have to go without our favorite hits and political pundits at any point during the drive.
This time we made it a point to stop at the Oklahoma State Capitol building to see if there really are oil wells on the lawn (there are, but if they're working or not is a matter of conjecture) before heading on west. Again, Route 66 parallels the interstate all the way to the Texas border, where we chose to spend the night in Shamrock.
When Tony and I drove through Shamrock in 1973, it was struggling to stay alive, with many of its businesses boarded up. It has made a comeback. Several old buildings have been completely restored, including the classic art deco U-Drop Inn, and there is a healthy tourist business, judging by the number of major motels and long waiting lines in the restaurants. Whether this is because of Route 66 nostalgia or the shale oil boom is hard to say, but either way, or both, it's good to see.
The next day we made our way into McLean and the Avalon Theater and then continued on to Amarillo and the Cadillac Ranch, which never gets old: It just gets more graffitied. Then it was on to Adrian and lunch at the MidPoint Café, which marks the supposed halfway point between Chicago and Los Angeles, before crossing the New Mexico state line.
From Amarillo virtually all the way to California is wide-open space, with Route 66 usually doubling as a frontage road for I-40. Traffic on the old road is minimal here, allowing appropriate speeds without the worry of traffic or much police activity, although one has to be on alert for the sudden speed zones for small towns, like Bard, San Jon, Montoya or Cuervo. We can attest to the effectiveness of the Corvette's Brembo brakes in repeatedly hauling speeds down from the triple digits to the mere pedestrian with neither sweat nor trauma.
Since the original Route 66 went through Santa Fe, we chose to do the same, and discovered that my Grandmother Schlinger was right in describing the capital of New Mexico in her 1923 journal as having "such queer narrow streets." Not to mention all the adobe-and-tile-roof architecture. The next day we headed for Albuquerque where, due to an anomaly caused by changing alignments of the road, Route 66 actually intersects Route 66 at the corner of Central and 4th. We crossed the Continental Divide west of Thoreau, New Mexico, and continued on into Gallup before entering Arizona.
Old 66 continues off and on as a frontage road in eastern Arizona, which means exiting and re-entering I-40 numerous times, something we didn't mind at all since it gave us a reasonable excuse for some full-throttle acceleration. Hearing the throaty Z51 exhaust note when in Sport mode never got old.
Following the old road brings you through Holbrook and the iconic Wig Wam Motel before reaching "The Corner" in Winslow, Arizona. There the city has created Standin' on the Corner Park to capitalize on both the Eagles' hit song and Route 66.
That night was spent in Flagstaff, from where we set off early the next morning, eager to drive the last three long uninterrupted sections of Route 66. The first begins at Seligman, which was not much more than a wide spot in the road 40 years ago. However, Route 66 nostalgia and it being one of the gateways to the Grand Canyon have brought the tourists back to town, as was witnessed by the busloads of German travelers at the Snow Cap café, all of whom stopped buying souvenirs long enough to take SD cards full of pictures of our Velocity Yellow Corvette.
Welcome to California
From here, 66 sets off on an unspoiled section of road through Peach Springs, Truxton, Hackberry and Valentine before dropping into Kingman. From there, 66 snakes its way uninterrupted toward Oatman, summiting the Mohave Mountains at Sitgreaves Pass, and gave us the chance to put the C7 into Sport mode, activate the manual paddle shifter and have some fun despite the rough pavement. From Oatman the road heads south to Golden Shores where you pick up I-40 and cross into California at Topock.
West of Needles is the last section of unspoiled Route 66, looking much as it did 90 years ago, except now it is paved and not a one-lane track in the dirt and sand. It's 100 miles of classic desert road, laid down over the terrain like a gray ribbon, passing through Arrowhead Junction, Goffs, Fenner, Essex and Amboy.
With almost no traffic, the urge to do some high-speed motoring was almost irresistible, but after reaching Goffs, we had to restrain ourselves, realizing we hadn't gassed up since leaving Flagstaff that morning, and there weren't going to be any gas stations until Barstow. So I dutifully put the drive mode selector in Eco and watched the display as the engine seamlessly shifted between four and eight cylinders according to power requirements. It all worked as advertised and we reached Barstow with over a gallon to spare, having achieved, as it turns out, the best fuel mileage of the trip, over 25 mpg, despite the spirited driving into Kingman and Oatman.
From Barstow, it's over the Cajon Pass into San Bernardino, where Route 66 becomes Foothill Boulevard for the run through what is now called, in the parlance of Southern California, the Inland Empire. Thanks to traffic, it took almost seven hours to make the 110-mile drive from Barstow to Pasadena, and we had to laugh since that was almost identical to the time it took my mother, grandmother and grandfather in their 1917 Maxwell to make the same drive in 1923, albeit in the reverse direction. So it seems that 90 years and probably at least 400 more horsepower have not succeeded in the speeding up of the transportation system in Southern California.
In Pasadena, Colorado Boulevard is Route 66 and leads to Arroyo Seco Parkway, which becomes the Pasadena Freeway toward downtown Los Angeles. Since the initial alignment of 66 ended in the old theater district of L.A., Tony and I opted to do that loop first, swinging past the road's original terminus at Broadway and 7th St. before picking up the later route along Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards, through Beverly Hills, to the present end of the highway at the former Penguin Coffee Shop on the corner of Olympic and Lincoln Boulevards, 2,448 miles from Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
Strangely enough, there is no sign at the corner marking the end of America's most famous road (although there is one about a mile away at the Santa Monica Pier). Nor is there one at the eastern end in Chicago. Virtually every town on Route 66 has signs and markers denoting and celebrating the highway, except the two cities where the road begins and ends. Something should be done about that.
The End and the Beginning
In 1973, both the car and road were suffering the depravations of the time. The road and its towns were being bypassed by progress. The Corvette's best days seemed to be behind it, and worse were to come. Just as U.S. 66 was eventually decommissioned, the Corvette would face cancellation at least twice in the ensuing years.
Forty years later, things could hardly be more different. The Corvette has become the greatest sports car value in the world and its continuation is assured for years to come.
Time has also treated the road well.
Whether presaged by my 1973 story or not, nostalgia for Route 66 and the things it stands for have caused tourist traffic to flow back to the road. All the way across we ran into people doing what we were doing, driving Route 66 simply to experience Route 66. People like the two guys from Australia and New Zealand we met in Odell, Illinois, who were taking four weeks to tour the road. The two couples and their 1950s Fords at the MidPoint Café in Adrian, Texas. Or the woman at the end of the road in Santa Monica who had just driven in from Albuquerque.
Forty years ago the small towns along its length were struggling, their raison d'etre sucked away by the new, more direct, interstates. In 2013, though, the tourists have come back, looking to gain some taste of what cross-country travel once was, and the towns are capitalizing on this. Not only are buildings being restored, but modern Route 66 kitsch is being built, like the World's Largest Rocking Chair in Fanning, Missouri, erected in 2008. So you now have the odd juxtaposition of ghostly ruins from yesteryear mixed in with new tourist traps, both adding to Route 66 lore.
There is hardly a small town, or even a large one, that doesn't have its restored gas stations, motels, cafés and theaters. Visitor centers and museums abound, all proudly wearing the "U.S. 66 Roadside Attraction" marker. It seems every business along the road is now called Route 66 Hardware, or Route 66 Garage, or Route 66 Barber Shop. It wasn't like that 40 years ago.
Although officially decommissioned, states have designated the old route, of which 90 percent is still drivable, as a historic or scenic byway, complete with official signs. Some towns, like Shamrock, Texas, have rejuvenated themselves. Others have done their own 66 "branding" in the manner of Winslow, Arizona. Sadly, McLean, Texas, is not one of them.
Oh, McLean's one stoplight and red bricks are still there. But more and more of the buildings are boarded up and there doesn't seem to be much life along Main Street. And the Avalon Theater? Well, it stalwartly bears its Route 66 Roadside Attraction marker, but its neon sign is gone, the marquee is bare and the rear wall has collapsed, exposing the wooden seats and ornate trim inside to the devastation of the Texas Panhandle weather. I guess nostalgia can only do so much. However, it must be said that in its decrepitude, the Avalon has its own brand of Route 66 nostalgia, perhaps more compelling than if it was restored. And, honestly, I'm not really sure I'd want that, or McLean, to change. Or maybe I just prefer to think that I'm still 26 and Cybill Shepherd is forever 21.
Forty years ago I concluded my story by paraphrasing a great American writer, saying, "Tom Wolfe was right; you can't go home again. At least not on Route 66 in a Corvette." After driving the Mother Road in 2013 in a new C7 Corvette Stingray, experiencing the renewed second life of the highway and so many of its towns, along with the absolute transcendent excellence of the car, I'll end this article by quoting another great American author, William Faulkner, who wrote in Requiem for a Nun, "The past is never dead; it isn't even past."
The car and the road endure.