Route 66 Series: Crazy Car Art
It’s a thing, I’m telling you. All along Route 66, from Chicago to LA, you will find it. Charming small towns, unique souvenir hunting, memorable stops, and… car art. Old cars that have outlived their usefulness on the road, that have rusted away to nothing but a hollowed-out hulk, but they still have that potent mix of charm and nostalgia. They can still draw crowds, and they still have something to give. What to do with these old hunks of junk that remind us what driving used to be like? The answer, according to many towns along Route 66, is to turn them into art.
It was one of my favorite things about traveling on the Mother Road. So many towns had old fashioned cars sitting outside of old fashioned gas pump stations. Hovering in the corners of old motels. Sitting happily in auto mechanic parking lots. In part thanks to the movie Cars, many of them had eyes put into the windshields to give them happy humanistic features, almost making them look like an old friend you could carry on a conversation with.
Like this stop in Galena, Kansas. A historic pump station that used to be owned by four women who called it “Four Women on the Route.” Now, the place is called “Cars on the Route,” and it pays direct homage to Pixar’s Route 66 masterpiece. When you stop at this little charming place in Galena, you can actually meet beloved Tow-Mater and Red, the shy, plant-loving firetruck.
But it isn’t only the movie Cars that has inspired the people along Route 66. In most cases, it is graffiti art that has given those old rusty cars a whole new look. The most famous example has to be Cadillac Ranch – an iconic line of old Cadillacs shoved face-down in the dirt, and then dabbled with spray paint and graffiti by several visitors over several years.
Cadillac Ranch can be found just outside of Amarillo, Texas, and it was brought to you in 1974, by an art-hippie group known collectively as the Ant Farm. That, and the funds of an eccentric millionaire named Stanley Marsh. Together, they decided they wanted to place a piece of art in the vast Texas fields that would baffle both the locals and the tourists. So they baked up the idea of burying some Cadillacs face-down in the dirt. Allegedly an attempt to show off the evolution of the Cadillac tail-fin, but probably more to just have fun burying some cars in the dirt. Sounds like a real gas (does that count as a car pun?)
Whatever their motives, once the artwork was in place, tourists and locals alike made quick work of coming out to the field and destroying the cars – either by adding their own graffiti gusto, or by ripping and pulling off pieces of the cars to take home as souvenirs. While the Ant Farm was at first annoyed by these juvenile stunts, they soon saw the beauty and bright colors the graffiti art brought to the old automobiles, and they eventually encouraged people to add their own personal flare to their work.
As the decades have passed, the Cadillacs have been painted over so many times, by so many people, that they’re absolutely covered in dry, cracked, spongy, and rubbery old paint. It’s not hard to imagine the paint layer being a few inches thick in some spots. And as for souvenir hunters, they’ve stripped the cars down to the bare minimum, although that doesn’t seem to have taken away from their immense appeal. Today, Cadillac Ranch remains one of the most iconic stops on Route 66, attracting people from all over the world for photo ops, Instagram selfies, spray painting, and all other kinds of roadside antics.
My husband and I had the great pleasure of visiting Cadillac Ranch in 2019. Although a cloudy day kind of messed up my chances for some of the more picturesque desert-y shots, it’s hard to get ugly pictures of Cadillac Ranch. Because the place is truly unique… if you can handle the spray paint fumes, which permeate the entire field.
And while Cadillac Ranch does have its own special kind of charm, it’s not the only place on Route 66 where one can find cars buried face-down in the dirt. Not far away from Cadillac Ranch, in the quiet town of Conway, Texas, travelers can also make a pit stop at VW Slug Bug Ranch. An obvious parody to its Cadillac counterpart, VW Slug Bug Ranch sits on a mostly abandoned property, with an empty, dilapidated motel and pump station nearby. It consists of about a half-dozen old slug bugs buried face-down in the dirt. The same rules apply. People can come spray paint and pose with the cars as they see fit (watch out for rattlesnakes though – they love to nest in those cars).
Despite its charms, the history of Slug Bug ranch is a bit clouded in obscurity (or spray paint). Some accounts credit the ranch to the Crutchfield family – a family who, in 2002, got pitted against corporate America when their two small businesses were overshadowed by a large travel plaza. In order to entice more customers to their shops, they came up with VW Slug Bug Ranch. It wasn’t enough to save their businesses, but the idea still stuck. While it never reached the level of fame as its Cadillac counterpart, VW Slug Bug Ranch still attracts a lot of photographers and curious travelers. Including my husband and me, who enjoyed this little stop every bit as much as we enjoyed Cadillac Ranch. Honestly, it was actually kind of nice to be able to get some pictures without having to dodge so many other tourists.
While VW Slug Bug Ranch and Cadillac Ranch might take the cake (as well as VW Rabbit Ranch, photographed below, which can be viewed at Henry’s Rabbit Ranch (click here)), there are lots of other shining examples of car art along the old Route 66. Some of them much more on the simple side. Like the colorful old cars in Seligman, Arizona. An old hippie van plastered with stickers and writing, a rusted old automobile from the 1920s, and lots of vintage pickup trucks round out some of the cheerful, happy displays on this cute little roadside town. Some of the cars there have even been turned into planters, bedecked with potted flowers and vibrant desert plants.
Then there are the cars that just sit silently underneath the faded neon signs of barely visited old hotels. Quietly reminding people what life used to be like when those lights shone brightly. When people swarmed these places. When the road was so much more alive. Also a reminder that old things don’t always have to be tossed aside and forgotten. They can be repurposed. They can still make people smile.
At the very least, it certainly made me smile. Not just because I have a taste for vintage things, but also because it’s just kind of neat, isn’t it? In a uniquely human way, Route 66 locals have turned something that others might deem useless, that others might have even tossed into a junkyard, into a priceless works of art. Art that has paid for itself time and again with making people who glance upon it happy. And in today’s world, smiles and happiness go a long way.
Route 66 may have been bypassed by the modern world, but its spirit lives on. Thanks in large part to the stunning car art, and the new life it has breathed into an old, forgotten road.
Route 66 Road Trip – 2019
The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas – J. Hinckley
Route 66 Road Trip – Moon & C. Taylor
Photos by M.B. Henry – for more from Route 66, click here.