Monday, December 05, 2005

Route 66 the smart way

Rare brick stretch of Route 66 near Auburn, Illinois.

Smartimes Magazine, November 2005
An ex-pat Brit has shown the Americans that size isn’t everything, and bigger is not always better.
Former Sussex resident Rupert Lloyd Thomas, with his Canadian wife Annette, has driven the smallest car the US has ever seen across the 2,300 miles of Route 66 - and more. Said Rupert ‘Here’s the lowdown: Drive the smart car down old-time Route 66 in the US of A to see what the good old boys think about this small wonder. The trip is a kind of antidote to gas guzzling in the land of pickup trucks and enormous sport utility vehicles.
Rupert and Annette missed the smart car they had in Lewes when [they] move[d] to Canada four years ago. Therefore, when it was announced the smart was Canada bound – they purchased a hot, phat red coupĂ©.
‘Starting from Toronto we crossed the US border in the town of Sarnia, located in the province of Ontario. We then drove through Michigan and Indiana to the start of Route 66 in Chicago, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. In the faded Chicago suburb of Cicero an old black fella pulled up alongside at a stoplight – “I like your car man” – our smart, an instant ice breaker.
Folks were intrigued and enchanted although some laughed at the car so hard they couldn’t speak. The message to them was that 50 miles a US gallon is possible and most people got it loud and clear.’
‘The “muffler men” are a feature on Route 66 – originally they held a muffler - hence the name - but have been adapted over the years. We took in the “Gemini Giant” spaceman in Wilmington, Illinois, and the “Lauterbach Giant” in Springfield, who now holds an American flag in front of Lauterbach’s Tyres.
‘We visited the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas - a truly spiritual experience. There are no opening hours, admission charge, concession stand or anything else - just a bunch of old Cadillacs nose down in a field.
‘At the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas, half way along Route 66, the lady owner rushed out to photograph our little chariot in front of her sign. We backtracked a short way and headed south on a straight, deserted country road on the high plains of the Texas Panhandle to Clovis, New Mexico, on the trail of Buddy Holly.
You need an appointment to visit the Norman Petty Recording Studios at 1313 W. 7th Street but the “just show up” philosophy worked as we were greeted by Ken Broad, who showed us round after lunch. We went down the street to the Foxy Drive-In, “where Buddy used to hang out.” It hasn’t changed a bit and Rupert and Annette snacked on a chicken burger waiting to get indoors at the studio.
‘The studio is in a time warp with all the original gear on display – and Rupert says that he freaked out as he listened to Buddy through the original sound system while sitting in the chair in the control room - all the hits were recorded here. Roy Orbison was here and the smash hit “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, a New Mexico band, was recorded in this studio. What a blast they both say!
Adds Rupert: ‘We were mobbed everywhere. A lot of women think the car is cute. In Gallup, New Mexico, a Navajo woman was practically in tears because she wanted the car so badly. “We made common cause with the bikers who were hip to our minimalist approach and tended to come alongside at campsites.”
‘Endless freight trains, each with up to four diesel engines, pulling double-stacked container-cars. The train whistle is the signature tune of the tour coupled with the background music of American country radio.
Stopping in Winslow, Arizona for the usual photo shoot at the “corner” made famous in the Eagles’ song “Take it Easy” was fun and exciting.
Crossing the Continental Divide at 7,245ft, the Mojave Desert was driven in the daylight hours. The smart took everything thrown at it - hitting the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica, California where Route 66, the “mother road”, runs out.
‘We covered 8,984 miles in 35 days, heading home via the Pacific Coast Highway and the Trans-Canada.’ they say.
‘Route 66 is everything it is cracked up to be and I could do it again tomorrow. I was in kitsch heaven with Americana run riot - old cars, motels, neon signs and gas-station memorabilia.’
Note: Rupert Lloyd Thomas has a blog at

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