USA Coast to Coast 2014: Driving the Old Route 66 (Part 1)

1. Ram 1500 Albert Route 66Albert on the Route 66 in Tucumcari New Mexico. 

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This is it! After stopping in Oklahoma City, we are now on one of my most anticipated stretches of road in this entire trip: the Old Route 66, or the Mother Road as it is fondly called. Even though I didn’t have enough time to drive Route 66 in its entire length from Chicago to Los Angeles, I still managed to hop on it for a good 1/3 of its length, all the way from Oklahoma City OK to Gallup NM, driving alongside Interstate 40 which ended up replacing it and visiting places such as Clinton OK, Texola OK, Shamrock TX, Amarillo TX, Tucumcari NM and Albuquerque NM. We will hop back onto Route 66 later in this Coast to Coast trip in California. A thorough visit of this part of Route 66 full of photographs as well as my impressions on the vehicle landscape in this region of the United States are below.

Route 66 mapThe stretch of Route 66 we are following

This part of Route 66, arguably the most ‘historic’ as this is where it all started, sweeps through 3 states: Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Although New Mexico car sales data will be covered in more detail in my next Report, it is worth noting that looking at the Top 5 best-sellers in each of these states, a passenger car only appears once: the Toyota Camry at #4 in Texas. Indeed the entire Top 5 in both Oklahoma and New Mexico are monopolised by full-size pickup trucks, the first two states displaying this since the start of my Coast to Coast trip.

Ford F150 F250 Route 66Ford F150 and F250 Super Duty in Sayre OK

Best-selling light vehicles in Oklahoma – 2013:

Pos Model 2013
1 Chevrolet Silverado 13,994
2 Ford F-150 11,517
3 Ram Pickup 9,762
4 Ford F-250 Super Duty 4,932
5 GMC Sierra 4,712

Source: JATO

Ford F250 x 2 Route 662 x Ford F-250 Super Duty in Elk City OK

Chevrolet Silverado Route 66 1A Chevrolet Silverado in our mirror near Elk City OK

Best-selling light vehicles in Texas – 2013:

Pos Model 2013
1 Ford F-150 96,663
2 Chevrolet Silverado 78,047
3 Ram Pickup 67,378
4 Toyota Camry 36,953
5 Ford F-250 Super Duty 33,305

Source: JATO

Ram 2500 Route 66Ram 2500 in Elk City OK

Ford F250 Shamrock 2Ford F-250 Super Duty in Shamrock TX

Best-selling light vehicles in New Mexico – 2013:

Pos Model 2013
1 Ford F-150 4,757
2 Chevrolet Silverado 3,601
3 Ram Pickup 3,368
4 GMC Sierra 2,214
5 Ford F-250 Super Duty 1,837

Source: JATO

Matt Route 66You know you’re in full-size pickup heartland when the squeegees are also full-size.

If the Ford F-150 dominates in Texas and New Mexico, the Chevrolet Silverado, #2 in both states, takes the lead in Oklahoma, kicking the F-150 to #2 there. The Ram Pickup, my very own Albert, remains very stable in third position of all states explored here while the Ford F-250 Super Duty manages the very impressive feat of ranking inside the Top 5 in all of these states as well, peaking at #4 in Oklahoma. The GMC Sierra appears twice: at #4 in New Mexico (its best state ranking so far in this trip) and #5 in Oklahoma, and finally as I mentioned above the Toyota Camry makes a lonely appearance at #4 in Texas.

Dodge Pickup Route 66Vintage Dodge Pickup near Foss OK

That is for official stats, but what does real life observation tell us? Having the opportunity to slow down and take the secondary road that the remnants of Route 66 have become enables us to take in the sleepiness of most towns we crossed. This is the heartland of pickup country, 2 or 3 pickup trucks of various ages parked in front of each house and no sedan in sight isn’t rare. The 2-door white ‘tradesman’ Ford F150 rules here, the F250 Super Duty is even over performing on its Top 5 ranking in the parts of the states we crossed, I would put it on the podium and even potentially in first place in Elk City OK. Even though we were in Texas for part of the journey, the locally-produced Toyota Tundra is much less frequent on this stretch of land as is the Nissan Altima, reversing a trend we have seen since Tennessee and as we approached the Mexican border.

7. Chevrolet Impala Route 66Chevrolet Impala rental in Elk City OK

Being a particularly touristic part of Route 66, the ratio of rental cars is on a steep rising curve, with the favourites being the Chevrolet Suburban, Tahoe and Impala. This isn’t any different to what I have seen on American roads since my departure from New York City.

Now that we have cleared the vehicle landscape in this part of the country, let’s get straight into Route 66 highlights, starting with a bit of history on this legendary stretch of road, courtesy of the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton OK, a very authentic, thorough and friendly-manned little museum way more interesting than its larger, commercial and fake-looking counterpart a few miles further down the Route in Elk City OK.

Route 66 ca. 1920Road conditions on Rock Island railroad crossing OK ca. 1920 (Picture courtesy ODOT)

The beginning

The numerical designation 66 wasn’t assigned to the Chicago-to-Los Angeles route before 1926, but the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum traces the history of the first paved road system in Oklahoma, the foundation of what would become U.S. Route 66. $1 million was allocated in 1917 for the construction of the Oklahoma state road system, with the first paving laid in 1918 on a stretch that would later be Route 66. From the outset, public road planners intended U.S. 66 to connect the main streets of rural and urban communities along its course for the most practical of reasons: most small towns had no prior access to a major national thoroughfare.

IMG_9968Paving an Oklahoma section of what would become Route 66, ca. 1920

Paving and traffic growth

U.S. 66 was first signed into law in 1927 as one of the original U.S. Highways. Much of the early highway was gravel or graded dirt. Due to the efforts of the U.S. Highway 66 Association established by Tulsa businessman Cyrus Avery, Route 66 became the first U.S. highway to be completely paved in 1938. Traffic grew because of the geography through which it passed: much of the highway was essentially flat and made it a popular truck route. In the aftermath of the Great Depression of 1929, a large part of unemployed workers found their salute in the construction and paving of Route 66, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s saw many farming families, mainly from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Texas, heading west on the Route 66 course for agricultural jobs in California.

AAA service station Route 66 1930AAA Route 66 service station in St James MO ca. 1930

Being the first truly long distance highway in the U.S., Route 66 encouraged the development of more than a few iconic highway habits that are still at play today…

The filling station

One of them is the filling station: on a road that stretched for over 2000 miles, gas stations became a necessity. Before the establishment of dedicated gasoline stations, fuel was purchased at liveries, repair shops or general stores. The drivers poured gas into buckets and then funnelled it into their gas tanks. By the 1920s, with the growing popularity of the automobile, filling stations became the lifeline of Route 66. One could not travel along Route 66 without stopping at a filling station approximately every 70 miles because cars had smaller gas tanks then. Between 1920 and 1930 the number of gas stations in the U.S. increased from 15,000 to 124,000. They evolved from the simplest concept, a house or shack with one or two service pumps in front to a more elaborate model with service bays and tired outlets, selling a particular brand of gasoline.

First Parking meter Oklahoma City 1935The first parking meters in the world were installed in Oklahoma City on 16 July 1935 (above).

The parking meter

With the increase of traffic generated by Route 66, businesses began to develop along Main Street and the need for parking became an issue. In order to control parking and to encourage turnover of users, a method of device had to be created to curb the problem. Two professors of engineering from Oklahoma State University devised the parking meter as a viable solution to the increasing need for Main Street parking control. The first of their meters was installed in Oklahoma City on 16 July 1935 as part of a 175-meter experiment. They proved very successful and were soon implemented all over town. The rest is, well… history. Because it was relatively easy to abuse a parking meter system, many town established patrolling meter person which became a hot topic along Route 66.

Truck Route 66 1940Capital Steel & Foundation truck in a no passing zone of Route 66 east of Oklahoma City ca. 1940

Commerce

One of the earliest arguments for new and better roads such as Route 66 was commerce, and it did not take long for truckers to take advantage of new opportunities. With the inability of the railroad system to handle the growing volume of traffic during World War II, over-the-road trucking traffic increased. Paved roads opened small towns and rural consumers to efficient and low-cost truck delivery. Of the 25.000 trucks registered in Oklahoma in 1926, most used the paved highways and competed directly with the railroads. Responding to complaints from railroad companies the state legislature passed a regulatory law in 1929 that set truck rates and routes.

Oklahoma buses 1940

Bus travel

The bus industry, born in the early 1920s, boomed during the 1930s and 1940s. Bus lines had to get permits from the State Corporation to operate over fixed routes. Bus stops were located at gas stations, hotels, grocery stores and restaurants. The bus driver stopped if a flag was hanging outside, the flag later replaced by a light. Bus traffic increased dramatically during World War II and peaked after the war. In 1944, Oklahoma was served by 31 bus companies, with the heaviest traffic located along Route 66. Several towns on the Mother Road, such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa, had as many as eight different bus companies serving their area.

Burma-Shave advertising Route 66Iconic Burma-Shave advertising signs on Route 66

Snow Cap Drive-In Route 66Snow Cap Drive-In in Seligman AZ

Blue Swallow Motel 1939The Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari NM was created in 1939

Oklahoma Roadside Park Route 66Route 66 sign for Roadside park in Oklahoma

Motels

Route 66 was affected by the expanding economy and middle-class vacationers. This led to several changes – the most dramatic was the expansion of the variety of overnight accommodations. In the 1920s, local merchants had set aside campsites near downtown business districts to keep potential customers nearby. Entrepreneurs quickly developed additional camp areas with services, on the edges of towns. Campsite cabins were soon equipped with cots, chairs, and camp stoves, costing from 50c to 74c per night. By 1926, most cabins included a bed, table, benches and water pitcher. Check out my review of the best motel chains in the U.S. as part of this Coast to Coast series here.

Route 66 sign

The end

The beginning of the end for Route 66 came in 1956 with the signing of the Interstate Highway Act by President Dwight Eisenhower who was influenced by his appreciation of the German Autobahn network as a necessary component of a national defense system. Super highways, with divided lanes, limited access and no Stop signs were first built along Route 66 in California and Illinois. In 1976, when the states of California, Illinois and Missouri removed the old 66 shields from the road, the Mother Road ceased to exist as a continuous stretch of highway. In 1984, Arizona also saw its final stretch of highway decommissioned with the completion of Interstate 40 just north of Williams, Arizona. The U.S. Route 66 officially ceased to exist in 1985, with no single interstate route designated to replace it. Within many cities, the route became a “business loop” for the interstate. Some sections became state roads, local roads, private drives, or were abandoned completely.

Today, it requires careful planning to follow Route 66 on the part I travelled along, with many ‘jogs’ across Interstate 40 required, and a mile-by-mile map sometimes necessary. Next I will go into the detail of the most interesting stops along Route 66 from Oklahoma City OK to Gallup NM, including:

1. Texola OK

2. U-Drop Inn and Tower station in Shamrock TX

3. Magnolia gas station in Shamrock TX

4. Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo TX

5. Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari NM

6. Main street in Tucumcari NM

7. Albuquerque NM

8. Gallup NM

… so stay tuned for Part 2 of this Route 66 section of my US Coast to Coast 2014 Photo Report!

The Full Photo Report continues below.

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