Updated Nov. 9, 2011
If you just saw the “Cars” movie and want to find more information about Route 66, welcome.
First, the Radiator Springs shown in “Cars” is a fictional town. Historic Route 66 exists. On the real Route 66, there is a Baxter Springs in Kansas and a Peach Springs in Arizona. But Radiator Springs does not exist, except in the imaginations of Pixar’s artists and writers. However, many of the characters and places shown are based on real characters and locations on Route 66, the Mother Road.
Let’s introduce them, shall we?
For instance, Sally the Porsche, portrayed in the film by Bonnie Hunt, is based primarily on Dawn Welch, owner of the historic Rock Cafe in Stroud, Okla. Welch’s restaurant is one of the road’s most acclaimed, as Michael and Jane Stern of Roadfood.com will attest. If you plan to visit the Rock Cafe for a meal, it is advised that you be there during off-peak hours. The restaurant tends to get very crowded during the lunch and dinner rush on weekends.
The Sheriff is portrayed by the distinctive baritone voice of Michael Wallis, who also served as a Route 66 consultant for the film. Wallis has written 14 books, including the bestselling “Route 66: The Mother Road”, which catapulted him to national prominence in 1990. Wallis also guided the Pixar crew on two Route 66 tours for its research for “Cars,” and he and his wife, Suzanne, wrote “The Art of Cars,” a behind-the-scenes look at the film. They reside in Tulsa.
Fillmore, the VW microbus voiced by George Carlin in the film, was unofficially inspired by Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire. I say “unofficially” because Waldmire refused to lend his name for the film. He’s a strict vegetarian, and he was bothered by “Cars” toys with his name on them would be in McDonald’s Happy Meals. Waldmire lives a hippie lifestyle, driving up and down Route 66 in his own VW microbus (complete with a solar panel for supplemental power), and selling his intricate artwork. Waldmire died of cancer on Dec. 16, 2009. His microbus is currently displayed at the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac.
By the way, Fillmore’s geodesic dome home in the film looks a lot like the dome at Meteor City in Arizona. Waldmire has a connection to Meteor City; he painted the massive mural of Route 66 there.
Tow Mater the tow truck, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy in the film, is a composite of NASCAR superfan and non-Route 66er Douglas “Mater” Keever of North Carolina, Dean Walker (lower left), a mover and shaker at the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association; and Harley Russell, co-owner of the Sandhills Curiousity Shop in Erick, Okla. Walker can turn his feet backwards and frequently can be found at the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum in Baxter Springs, Kan. Russell, who for many years was a professional musician, and his wife, Annabelle, performed music and offbeat comedy as the Mediocre Music Makers at their shop in Erick, which he describes as the “Redneck Capital of the World.” Harley and Annabelle have taken time off because of her recent bout with cancer, but they plan to eventually resume their tourism music gig. Harley Russell’s speaking voice, by the way, sounds very much like Mater’s.
Ramone’s body-art shop in the film is directly inspired by the U-Drop Inn, a recently restored Art Deco gasoline station and restaurant complex in Shamrock, Texas. The U-Drop Inn now serves as a tourism and chamber of commerce office.
Sally’s Cozy Cone Motel in the film is a composite of the historic Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M., and the teepee-shaped Wigwam Motels, with one in Holbrook, Ariz., and the other in San Bernardino, Calif. All of these motels are restored, well-maintained, and worth seeking out for a night’s sleep. Also, the name of Cozy Cone Motel is probably a nod to the Cozy Dog Drive-In restaurant on Route 66 in Springfield, Ill.
The mountain shaped like a radiator cap that overlooks Radiator Springs is inspired by Tucumcari Mountain in Tucumcari. The mountain is the dominant feature in that region for miles around. Local high-school students repaint the town’s initial on the side of the mountain each year. (The lower image, by the way, is from an old postcard.)
Lizzie’s Curio Shop in Radiator Springs resembles the crazy Route 66 jumble of memorabilia and knickknacks at Hackberry General Store in Hackberry, Ariz., and the Sandhills Curiousity Shop, aka the City Meat Market building, in Erick, Okla. I suspect other stores are included in the mix, including several in Oatman, Ariz. Lizzie seems patterned after Dot Leavitt of Dot’s Mini-Museum (not pictured) of Vega, Texas, although there may be a bit of Lucille Hamons, the late owner of the now-closed Lucille’s gas station of Hydro, Okla., (not pictured) mixed in as well.
The “Here It Is!” sign near Lizzie’s shop is directly inspired by the historic “Here It Is!” billboard near the Jackrabbit Trading Post in Jackrabbit, Ariz.
The Casa Della tire shop’s Leaning Tower of Tires is obviously inspired by the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy or the half-scale replica in Niles, Ill. — take your pick. But there also is a leaning water tower near Groom, Texas, that probably sparked imaginations in Pixar.
Flo’s V-8 Diner in Radiator Springs basically resembles an air filter found in many cars. However, the canopies at Flo’s resemble the this old canopy at a gas station on Route 66 in Needles, Calif. There are others sprinkled across the country, but are rapidly disappearing.
I suspect Flo herself was partly inspired by Fran Houser, owner of the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas, who’s well-known for her food and hospitality. But there are plenty of small, friendly restaurants along Route 66 that could have provided ideas to Pixar.
When Sally and Lightning McQueen drive into the country along old Route 66, the forest road resembles the highways winding through the Kaibab National Forest west of Flagstaff, Ariz., and the twisting, turning road that leads to Oatman, Ariz.
When McQueen drives through a tunnel that resembles the tunnels on the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles County (not pictured), he encounters a gorgeous waterfall on the other side. This appears to be inspired by Havasu Falls, which is not on Route 66 but is near the Grand Canyon, a destination for Route 66 travelers.
The bridge that McQueen sees Sally driving on resembles several bridges on Route 66, including the Cyrus Avery Route 66 Memorial Bridge in Tulsa (second photo), the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, Calif. (third photo; postcard image), and the now-closed bridge over Diablo Canyon at Two Guns, Ariz.
One of the wide desert vistas of Route 66 seen in the film resembles the view from La Bajada Hill, a very old alignment of the Mother Road about halfway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Don’t try to drive up La Bajada Hill, though. It’s narrow, severely eroded, and boasts about two dozen switchbacks that provided a challenge to drivers even during its heyday. It’s best to drive to the base of the hill and hike up the remnants of the old gravel highway instead.
The tractors seen wandering through town and invading a store in Radiator Springs are a likely homage to the wild burros that roam Oatman, Ariz. The animals are descendants of the burros once used in the gold mines there. The burros are a tourist attraction unto themselves, although the locals get irritated when the animals barge into stores and hassle tourists.
One of the closed businesses seen in Radiator Springs bears the name “Glenrio.” This refers to the ghost town of Glenrio, which is on old Route 66 at the Texas-New Mexico border off Exit 0 on Interstate 40. One of the Radiator Springs businesses is nearly identical to the long-closed Little Juarez restaurant in Glenrio (above).
When Lightning and Sally visit the ruins of the Wheel Well Motel, it reminded me of a composite of the wonderfully restored Wagon Wheel Motel (above) in Cuba, Mo., the now-extinct Wishing Well Motel in Countryside, Ill., and the rock overlook at the old Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post at the Arizona-New Mexico border.
There’s also a short glimpse in the film of a neon “EAT” sign. There’s a similar sign at the site of a long-defunct restaurant near Cajon Pass in Southern California. Clanton’s Cafe in Vinita, Okla., also has one.
Among the deserted businesses in Radiator Springs, you see a shuttered “Budville” building. This is in reference to the Budville Trading Post, west of Albuquerque on old 66.
If you decide to travel Route 66, it is recommended that you pick up a Route 66 Dining & Lodging Guide from the National Historic Route 66 Federation. There are several excellent guidebooks to help you find your way, including “Route 66: EZ Guide for Travelers,” Bob Moore and Rich Cunningham’s “Complete Guidebook and Atlas to Route 66” and the “Here It Is!” map series of every state the Mother Road traverses. Scott Piotrowski wrote an excellent Route 66 guidebook to the Los Angeles area, and David Clark recently published a guidebook to the Mother Road in Chicago. And if you are traveling with children, you can download a free guidebook to kid-friendly attractions on the Mother Road here.
If you are able to drive to only one Route 66 city that best resembles Radiator Springs, I recommend Tucumcari, N.M. It’s a small town that boasts a bunch of vintage motels, a Mexican restaurant shaped like a sombrero, lots of neon lights, a Route 66-themed grocery store, Tucumcari Mountain and the well-preserved Odeon Theatre, which still shows first-run movies.
If you seek to visit a city on Route 66 that’s bigger, Albuquerque has done the best job of the major metropolitan areas in keeping its Mother Road flavor, especially with its abundance of neon lights along Central Avenue.
So get out there and discover the Mother Road for yourselves. As Wallis would say, “Life begins at the off-ramp. Travel well.”