Rediscovering America from Behind the Wheel of your Hot Rod
Building your project is one thing, and there are many folks who get the most satisfaction out of putting a hot rod together. Once the car is completed, though, many of us will want to enjoy the finished product, knowing only too well the amount of blood, tears, sweat and money we’ve poured into it. Going to car shows, cruises, rod runs and gatherings are a great way to give the car a workout and share your experiences with other rodders, but in our opinion there’s nothing quite like taking an extended road trip.
In North America, we’re blessed with a great infrastructure and one of the most comprehensive and easily accessible road networks in the world. Although the most convenient and quickest route to get where you’re going is to simply plop yourself onto the interstate highway system, our culture is interwoven with stories about taking the road less traveled, wandering along endless ribbons of two-lane blacktop and exploring the sights and sounds this great land has to offer. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, this was the only way to travel. Considering that hot rods, for the most part, stem from this golden age of mobility, what better way to take a vacation than by rediscovering America from behind the wheel? For hot rodders who like the idea of an extended trip, we’ve attempted to pick three routes that might turn out to be some of the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have behind the wheel of your custom-built car.
There’s no question that, out of all the road trips you can take in North America, driving the hallowed “Mother Road” ranks up there. It’s true when people say that this famous stretch of blacktop, even today, has a special vibe and rhythm to it. Words cannot describe the experience as you pass through the small towns that pepper Route 66. Although it experienced a major decline during the late 1960s and 1970s, with many communities and sections of the route abandoned or falling into disrepair, in the last two decades, a preservation movement has begun revamping a number of communities. As time goes by, more of this iconic highway will hopefully be restored for future generations to admire.
Route 66 begins at East Lakeshore drive in Chicago and terminates at Olympic Boulevard, a few blocks from the Pacific Coast Highway, in Santa Monica, California. Between those two points lies an undulating stretch of road, some 2,448 miles of it, full of stories and characters. Route 66 was the first major road linking the cities of the east to the wide-open spaces of the west.
Completed in 1928 and fully paved a decade later, it became the symbol for those seeking a better life out west. From the dustbowl farmers of the 1930s to the Beatniks of the late 1950s, a trip on Route 66 signified freedom and opportunity, the cornerstones of the American Dream. As the Interstate system expanded, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s, sections of Route 66 were gradually bypassed and removed from maps, and the once proud national highway signs were taken down, making the road quite difficult to travel.
Today, thanks to preservation efforts, it’s actually easier to travel the great mother road than it was some 20 to 25 years ago. While some sections remain barely passable – little more than weed or dirt encroached tracks – others are freshly paved, and many states have declared sections of Route 66 as “historic highway.” As a result, you can drive as much as 70 percent of the original route, through some magnificent old towns that still capture the essence of 1950s and 1960s American culture.
Given the length of the route and the time it takes to travel (count around 10 days for a truly memorable trip), considerable planning is required before heading out. A good idea is to pick out places to stay on the route. There are some magnificent old motels that you can stay in, such as Vernelle’s Motel in Newburg, Missouri; the Desert Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, New Mexico; the magnificent La Posada in Winslow, Arizona (the same town of Eagles fame); the New Corral in Victorville, California and the Wigwam in Rialto, California (just outside of Los Angeles).
Because Route 66 encompasses eight different states, depending on where you live, you can also pick up and drive various sections at your leisure. Thanks to movies, music and books, many people equate Route 66 with the far western sections. Although among the most desolate, the stretch of this old highway from Kingman, Arizona to Victorville, California is one of the most atmospheric, littered with abandoned buildings and old cars, including gas stations, diners and motels. It also makes for some fabulous vistas and photo opportunities and gives you the feeling that you’re starring in your own road movie.
If you time it right, you can also coordinate your trip with some car shows held along the route. Remember that, on the western sections, it can be long distances between service stops, and if you are planning to take your trip at the height of summer, try to limit driving to the early morning or late afternoon. The hot temperatures (110 °F) in parts of Arizona and California can make driving in an old custom or hot rod unbearable at times.
PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY
Like Route 66, this is one of the most iconic roads in North America, with some truly spectacular scenery en route. The Pacific Coast Highway, formally known as California State Highway Route 1, begins in Capistrano Beach, where it diverts off from Interstate 5 and heads north through the picturesque seaside towns of Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, where it becomes the “Coast Highway.” From there, it continues up through Corona del Mar, Huntingdon Beach and onto Seal Beach. It then travels through Long Beach, where you’re greeted by a traffic circle, one of a very few in this part of the world. It continues up the coast, skirting by the edge of LAX airport in El Segundo. This isn’t particularly the most picturesque stretch of the route, but once you hit Santa Monica, where the 10 Freeway ends, it really begins to open up. At this point it’s called the “Palisades Coast Road,” and it skirts the coast for over 30 miles, right through swanky Malibu to Mugu Rock, where it turns inland to join up with State Route 101. From this point onwards, all the way to San Francisco, PCH meanders between 101 and the coast. What’s interesting is the scenery. If you’ve never traveled this section of road before, the changing landscape is quite something, and it’s almost like visiting four different countries in one day. You’ve got rocky coastal outcrops, golden sandy beaches, and, moving inland, Mediterranean-style farming with groves and vineyards, plus lush green hills that remind this author of parts of England. In the central California section, it’s worth taking the time to stop in Santa Barbara and then, further up the coast, San Simeon, site of the infamous Hearst Castle, before heading onto the Bixby Bridge and Big Sur, which offer some of the most dramatic vistas on the entire route.
A great idea when planning a trip up the Pacific Coast Highway is to time it with car activities. Part of the attraction in driving this route in your hot rod or custom is that you can time it with the West Coast Kustoms’ Cruisin’ Nationals. Billed as the biggest custom car show in the world, for years it was held in the quiet town of Paso Robles, just off Highway 101. For 2009, it has moved to Santa Maria, close to Santa Barbara, but remains a must-attend show. It’s so big, in fact, that people come from overseas, and some even bring their cars with them! Besides this, there are a ton of local cruise nights and events that happen on or close to PCH throughout the year. A good source to check is www.socalcarculture.com, which gives listings to what’s going on and where each month throughout the year. When we planned our trip, we set our ultimate destination as the Goodguys show in Stockton, CA, just east of San Francisco, but were able to take in a number of cruise-ins on the coast, including Cruz at the Beach, which happens each month at Ruby’s Diner in Redondo Beach, just north of Torrance.
Many people follow the Pacific Coast Highway up to Carmel and Monterey Bay, which, again, offers some spectacular scenery and surprisingly twisting roads, as does Half Moon Bay further north. PCH terminates in the small hamlet of Leggett in Mendocino County, some 230 miles north of San Francisco. For many, this last section of the trip can be tricky to complete, especially if your time is limited, though the scenery is rugged and beautiful. Even if you can’t make it far and choose to terminate your trip in the Bay Area, make sure you include driving across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County, stopping off to take in the view on the northern side – there really is nothing quite like it.
THE OREGON TRAIL
Perhaps the longest possible road trip of all in North America, this trip involves driving on Highway 20 from Portland, Oregon to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Although the entire route encompasses almost 3,400 miles, much like Route 66, you can pick up and drive certain sections depending on your ability and time available. Route 20 takes in such sights as Yellowstone National Park, Mount Rushmore, Iowa’s infamous Field of Dreams – where the skies seem to stretch forever – and Niagara Falls.
Driving much of this road is really like taking a step back in time, and, like Route 66, you can see the landscape change before you. The western sections, particularly Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska, with their endless skies and small towns, feel like the edge of the frontier, and there are some spectacular places for taking unforgettable photos. For hot rodders and nostalgia enthusiasts, there are many small towns housing mom & pop restaurants, old motels, service stations and 1950s style curios. There are also plenty of ghost towns with abandoned buildings and cars littering this part of the route.
As Highway 20 winds east, open farmland gives way to rust-belt cities and towns, with the highway passing right through Chicago before heading onto Cleveland and then the rolling countryside of upstate New York. The route ends in the seaside resort of Provincetown – fittingly, since this was the very first landing spot in the New World for the Pilgrim Fathers. Parking your rod at the end of the trip and gazing across the Atlantic is actually quite moving. Like the other trips mentioned in this article, you can make a car event the focal point of your trip if you so choose. Because Highway 20 skirts the southernmost part of the Great Lakes, it takes you close to Detroit, so, if you can time it right, it’s most definitely worth taking in the Woodward Dream Cruise (aka the World’s Largest Car Party) in August.
Road Trip USA www.roadtripusa.com
National Historic Route 66 Association www.national66.com