One of the more unique American traditions along the Less Beaten Paths is the recycling of auto parts for art. Indeed, a couple of the most famous roadside attractions in the US are made from cars. This post will look at a few pieces of “car art” that I have seen over the years and, then, at the end, I will note a few others that are out there and worth a visit from all of us — some that I hope to get to over the next couple of years.
Probably one of the two most famous Car Art pieces that I am aware of, this car shish-kabob called “Spindle” and created by artist Dustin Shuler (1948-2010), became ultra famous after being featured in Wayne’s World. It has also been featured in on the cover of a book (called Oddball Illinois: A Guide to Some Really Strange Places), on postcards, state tourist brochures, and maps. It was originally commissioned by the shopping center owner, David Bermant, who donated his BMW car to be placed second from the top of the sculpture.Shuler himself owned the red 1967 VW Beetle that crowned the sculpture.The foundation of the sculpture reached nearly 30 feet into the ground; the cost of erecting it was over $75,000.
The cars on a spike never did res well with some of the citizens of Berwyn, Illinois, and thus in 1990 they voted overwhelmingly for it to be removed. Nevertheless, the Mayor argued that it drew tourism to town and had become an icon. The owner of Cermak’s Shopping Center argued the same. But, alas, in July 2007, it was announced that the shopping center was to be redeveloped and that the site of the sculpture was earmarked for a new Walgreens store. New controversy ensued and finally, in May of 2008 the structure was taken down.
The impaled cars on the spindle, from top to bottom, were:
1967 Volkswagen Beetle, red
1976 BMW New Class, silver License Plate reads “DAVE”
1981 Ford Escort, blue
1974 or 1973 Mercury Capri, green
1978 Ford Mustang, white over blue
1981 Pontiac Grand Prix, maroon or burgundy
1980 or 1979 Ford LTD, light yellow
1981 or 1979 Mercury Grand Marquis, black
When I was at Cermak’s in 2007 I actually made a video of Spindle along with some of the other art at Cermak’s. Here it is….
Perhaps just as famous is the “Cadillac Ranch” near Amarillo, Texas. Like the “Spindle“, this site has had controversy and has been featured in movies, advertisements, comics, etc. It is most certainly one of the most well known Roadside Attractions in the U.S.
It was created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, who were a part of the art group Ant Farm, and it consists of what were (when originally installed during 1974) either older running used or junk Cadillac automobiles, representing a number of evolutions of the car line from 1949 to 1963, half-buried nose-first in the ground, supposedly at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.
The cars have gone through numerous iterations…completely black, completely white, stc., when used for ads and commercials. But, soon thereafter, the tourists with the spray paint cans make their way to make their marks on the cars. So, this ends up being a “stationary attraction” always in a state of change.
Due to the popularity of Cadillac Ranch, there have been a few imitators, none of which I have been to yet, but hope to get to sometime in the near future. These include:
This place even has their own website (see combinecity.com). According to their site, “Combine City began with one Combine Harvester planted in the ground. Over time, that solitary Combine has welcomed 13 more. In total, 14 Combines are planted, standing as a tribute to the great nature of the West Texas farmer.” Unlike Cadillac Ranch and Slug Bug Ranch, Combine City does not allow folks to come in and spray paint.
Indeed, this is not cars…it is Airstreams, but these are a great addition to this collection. These are located at Bates RV in Dover, Florida and have been the subject for many photos in the past. My good friend, the musician Antsy McClain has actually done a photo shoot here for some Trailer Park Troubadours stuff (see below).
Like Cadillac Ranch and Slug Bug Ranch, the Airstream Ranch has not been without controversy. Neighbors have argued that it was unsightly, but, ultimately, the Tourist Attraction and Art Factors won out.
Like the other sites, this attracts tourists from all over and has been used in advertisements, etc.
The historic value of Airstreams in travel always leads to an interest in these aluminum domiciles on wheels. There are rallies all over the country and one can always see them on the road. Indeed, many are happy to be “Living in Aluminum” and following the Aluminum Rule – “Thou Shalt Enjoy the Ride”
Henry’s Rabbit Ranch is one of those iconic Route 66 stops on the back roads of America. Located just west of Interstate 55 in southern Illinois (and a short drive north of St. Louis), it lies along the old Route 66. Along with tons of Route 66 memorabilia, they have a set of buried cars.
As with the others above, there are buried cars, but, in this case the creators of Carhenge tried to emulate the famed Stonehenge of England. They too have their own website, including a history of the Jim Reinders creation. This 1987 piece of Car Art has 38 automobiles and there are other pieces of Car Art on “Car Art Reserve”. Like the locations above, Carhenge has been the subject of numerous commercials and film productions.
All of the locations above are big tourist attractions for the back roads adventurer seeking the offbeat and quirky. But, there are many other smaller pieces of car art and/or “car displays” around the country, many of which I have had the opportunity to see. Here are a few.
The flattened car (called “Pinto Pelt“) is another creation by Spindle artist Dustin Shuler and is also located in Cermak’s Plaza. This too went the way of the world apparently in the reconstruction project in Berwyn’s once famous shopping center.
The Art Car Museum in Houston, Texas is dedicated to true Art Cars, those cars that have had art added to them. According to the “Art Car Manifesto“, “an art car is a motor-driven vehicle which a car artist alters in such a way as to suit his own aesthetic. In other words, the artist either adds or subtracts materials of his own choosing to or from the factory model or he may renovate an earlier model to revive a beauty and style that once was. The result is a vehicle which conveys new meaning through design, mechanical or structural changes, renovation, and/or the addition of new images, symbols or collage elements.”
The Art Car Museum website has a great Photo Gallery of some of the more unique cars featured at the museum. When I visited in 2010 the museum was not open so I didn’t get a chance to get any good car shots. But, along the way I have found a couple on my own…
Some of the more unique pieces utilizing cars as art that I have come across in my travels:
“The Smoke Sax” was built in 1993 by artist Bob Wade of Austin, TX. It is 70 feet tall and is made of an oil field pipe, an upside down Volkswagen Beetle, beer kegs, canoe, hub caps, a surf board and chrome. Until March 2013 this was located at the Horn Bar and Grille on Richmond Avenue in Houston, TX. However, in March 2013 it was disassembled and will be eventually added to the unique folk art center called the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. They also are the sponsor of the Houston Art Car Parade.
Clear across the country in Wolf Creek, Oregon an artist has created two Spider Bugs out of old Volkswagens. Roadside America covered these and, it turns out that these are not the only ones around. There are actually dozens of them. The website Weburbanist has a fine page dedicated to a number of these from around the U.S. including Oklahoma, Idaho, California, Ontario, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa and even in the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Heading back eastward one can venture into Kadoka, South Dakota, near the Badlands National Park and see a unique piece of art made from car parts, including a smashed car as a base…
Then there is the old truck with a Giant Potato on it at The Spud Drive-In in Driggs, Idaho
More emulation of Cadillac Ranch can be found at the now closed down Rio Brazos Music Hall in Granbury, Texas
Commerce, Oklahoma, one of those Route 66 touristy towns has used parts of cars for advertising
Then there are the places with Cars on roofs and signs and walls to draw people in:
Big Daddy’s is located in the heart of NASCAR Country in North Carolina. And to prove it they have a number of cars on their roof and on their lot.
The Route 26 Mart in Scottsbluff, Nebraska touts itself as an Americana Convenience Mart and has on old finned Chevy on its roof to pull you in….
The Pioneer Auto Show in Murdo, South Dakota tries to draw you in with advertising some of the unique cars…
Angel’s Diner in McAlester, Oklahoma uses old cars to advertise their 60’s themed restaurant and Happy Days Motel.
Of course, what would a Car Art post be without limos with Longhorns on their hoods??
I have run across a couple of places where cars have been integrated into the buildings. Here is one example from western Oregon:
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the iconic and well known Nash AirFlyte that sits outside of Antique Archaeology in Le Claire, Iowa, better known as the home of the History Channel’s American Pickers.
The only Corvette Factory in the world is in my home state of Kentucky, in Bowling Green. They are also the home of the Corvette Museum and they have a nice one on a pedestal…
Finally, there are all of those old trucks and cars that scatter the landscape in yards and fields around the U.S. These can be seen on back roads and some are obviously used as yard decor…
I have a dozen more of these, but I think you get the “pictures.” So, get out and Enjoy the Ride and be on the watch out for those old vehicles that helped someone else Enjoy the Ride in the past!!!
I began Day 2 of my trip from Idaho to Dallas with an early morning in Eagle, Colorado. It would turn out to be a long day and I would actually end up stopping overnight in Wichita Falls, TX due to the length of the day. Following is the route all the way to the Dallas area.
After a late night into Eagle, I had no idea what I would see when I awoke. I had an early start, at about 6:30 AM and when I walked out of the hotel, this is what I saw…
From Eagle I had to back track on I-25 heading east to Vail in order to get on US Route 24 heading south. Along the way I made a quick stop at a viewpoint in Edwards, Colorado.
I made it to US 24 south and drove through the small mountain town of Minturn, Colorado….followed a motorcycle all the way through town.
US Route 24 actually gets its start (really is the terminus) of US 24, which is predominantly an E-W highway of 1,540 miles beginning in Clarkston, Michigan and progressing west through Toledo, Ohio then through Illinois, Missouri and Kansas and eventually into Colorado.
Near Redcliff, Colorado US 24 crosses over the Eagle River on the Green Bridge, a beautiful span.
I drive into Redcliff just to see what it was all about. A nice quiet little town in a valley. A few artists and some hotels and restaurants. At 8,650 feet above sea level, Red Cliff boomed at the turn of the 20th century as a mining town with saloons, a bank, sawmills and even an opera house. The town was mapped and patented in 1883 by the U.S. government.
US 24 follows the Eagle River for many miles. When I was driving the rover was rough with all of the spring runoff. Really a wonderful sight to see.
The drive through the White River National Forest is beautiful and truly, US 24 is one of Colorado’s great scenic routes. Following are a few scenes from the drive.
Tennessee Pass is at an elevation 10,424 ft and was probably the highest point of any of my trips this year so far. The pass traverses the continental divide north of Leadville in a gap between the northern end of the Sawatch Range to the west and the northern end of the Mosquito Range to the east. It connects the headwaters of the Arkansas River to the south with the upper valley of the Eagle River to the north. The summit of the pass is the location of Ski Cooper, a ski area in the San Isabel National Forest. Most of the area is above the tree line, providing a panoramic view of the peaks of the Sawatch Range to visitors. The area was also formerly a World War II training ground for U S Army troops of the 10th Mountain Division from nearby Camp Hale. A memorial to the troops of the division is also located at the summit of the pass just a few yards from the sign pictured above.
The Sawatch Range includes eight of the 20 highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, including Mt. Elbert, 14,400 feet; Mt. Massive, 14,428 feet; Mt. Harvard, 14,421 feet; La Plata Peak, 14,368 feet and more.
After coming down into the valley I approached Leadville, Colorado. Situated at an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city and the second highest incorporated municipality in the United States (Alma, Colorado is the highest municipality). Leadville was a Silver Mining town and still houses a number of historic buildings. I spent a while driving around this beautiful town.
The Leadville Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1961. It includes 67 mines in the mining district east of the city up to the 12,000 foot level, and a defined portion of the village area, with specific exclusion of various buildings. Principal historic buildings in the district are: Tabor Grand Hotel, St. George’s Church, Annunciation Church, Tabor Opera House, City Hall, Healy House, Dexter Cabin, Engelbach House, and Tabor House, as well as mining structures and small homes.
Heading south out of town I came across some unusual rocks with Boom Days written on them. I took a few photos of them, but really had no idea what it was until I was researching for this post. “Leadville Boom Days” is a Colorado Mountain Festival and historical celebration of the Old West, with gunslingers, burro races, contests of mining skill, and a street fair with over 100 food and craft booths. This annual event was selected by Colorado for documentation and preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress as a Local Legacy of national interest. It appears that the rocks are part of the Mining Skills events.
Route 24 heads west and then south out of Leadville as it continues through the mountains, with the Sawatch Range on the west and the Mosquito Range to the east. The drive heads toward the source of the Arkansas River just south of Buena Vista, Colorado.
Buena Vista is a small town but seems to draw a ton of visitors due to the thrill seekers that want to raft the rough waters of the Arkansas River.
But the main reason Buena Vista is busy, as noted above, appeared to me to be the river rafting…
There are many historic buildings in Buena Vista, but the courthouse was most scenic
And then there is the really unusual shop in the middle of town…a hoarder’s paradise. Every so often I come across these types of places and have to get a couple of shots due to their unique quirky nature…
Couldn’t resist this unique and offbeat shop….next it was south to Salida as US 24 turned into US 285 and then onto Colorado Hwy 291.
Where Buena Vista seemed like a party town – rafting and drinking – Salida, Colorado seemed more of a town focused on unique art shops and other touristy things.
According to the Salida website, the “charming downtown area, the largest historical downtown district in Colorado, is home to blocks of Victorian buildings with fantastic restaurants, inspiring galleries, tempting boutiques, outdoor sports stores, and an array of shops for kitchen, kids, books, knitters and quilters. It’s a great place to stock up or find a unique gift to take home.” And, indeed, I saw some unique things in Salida, including a giant dragon!!
And then, like so many towns, there are the old wall advertisements
From Salida it was south on US Route 50 continuing along the Arkansas River. Along the way I passed a nice buffalo statues and an elk, by a taxidermy place.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains run north and south along the east side of the Rio Grande Rift in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. In 1719 the Spanish explorer Antonio Valverde y Cosio named the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) mountains after being impressed by the reddish hue of the snowy peaks at sunrise. Blanca Peak is the highest of these mountains at 14,345 feet.
I followed US 50 all the way to Cotopaxi. This particular weekend saw much of US 50 south of here closed due to major forest fires near Canon City and the Royal Gorge. At Cotopaxi, I took a small county road (CO Cty Rd 1A) southeast across to CO Hwy 69. I am glad I did too…it was a beautiful drive along the ridges of the Northern Sangres de Cristo range. Wildflowers were in bloom everywhere and there were some spectacular mountain views.
From here it was on to Westcliffe, Colorado
Westcliffe, Colorado is a quaint little town at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The town has a population of a little over 500 and is at 7,888 feet.
Out of Westcliffe CO Hwy 69 heads south towards the Wet Mountains.
There are apparently buffalo ranches nearby, but I saw no buffalo. This was the only sign of buffalo…
I entered the small town of Gardner, Colorado. This is another historic little town. It has a unique little food store known as the “H Food Store” short for Huajatollas Foods.
I continued southeast on Highway 69 and ran across this old building near Farisita. Not sure it was a church or a school. Could have been both. The windows certainly hint that it was an old church.
From Farisita the highway continued towards Walsenburg, but I chose to hop onto I-25 (The John F. Kennedy Memorial Freeway) and head south east towards Trinidad and Raton, New Mexico. After all of the nice weather, I hit the freeway and some typical afternoon desert showers.
On the approach to Trinidad, Colorado, the view of the buttes and the mesas was spectacular. The rain had left a bit of a haze in the sky and the air was still quite warm. As I drove through Trinidad, I saw things I would have liked to have stopped for. Unfortunately, I chose to zip through. I most certainly will plan a stop here if I am ever in the region again.
Continuing south took me over Raton Pass (7834 feet) which is on the Santa Fe Trail along the Colorado-New Mexico border. Raton Pass is a federally designated National Historic Landmark. Ratón is Spanish for “mouse.”
After entering New Mexico, the freeway snaked down from Raton Pass into the historic town of Raton. This area was along the Santa Fe Trail and eventually was a stop on the Santa Fe railroad, which was the catalyst to bringing this town into existence.
Many “Route 66” type of motel signs and neon can be found in Raton, though Raton was not on Route 66.
From Raton I headed east on US 64 towards Texas. This was a nice highway and it went past the Capulin National Monument (a large volcano).
I did not have time to stop at the Capulin Volcano National Monument, but I did get the nice shot above. If you look carefully you can see that there is a road that goes to the top…the road to the top of was first constructed in 1925 by Homer J. Farr. This volcano is one of many in the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field. The Raton-Clayton volcanic field is best known to historians as the site of some of the best preserved segments of the Santa Fe trail. Famous landmarks on the trail such as Round Mound, Wagon Mound, and Rabbit Ears Mountains are all volcanic centers.
Continuing east from Des Moines, NM towards Clayton the landscape turned into what I consider normal New Mexico landscape, flat with lots of tumbleweeds.
Upon entering Clayton, NM I was reminded of my visit to Salina, Colorado earlier in the day. I think I saw this dragon before….
Clayton, New Mexico is practically on the border of Texas near the panhandle. It is also just a few miles from the Oklahoma panhandle. It was really hot when I got here…but it was a dry heat (ha-ha). Clayton has long been a major stop on the trails of the west. Coronado passed through here on his way to Kansas. The Goodnight-Loving Trail with its large cattle drives, used Clayton for a stop over and resting place for the many herds of cattle driven over the famous trail. In the latter days of the Santa Fe Trail, freight lines from the railroads in Kansas passed through here. Soon after the railroad reached Santa Fe, another railroad came to Clayton. The arrival of the railroad in 1887, probably signaled the birth of Clayton.
Nearby is Clayton Lake which is also known for its “Dinosaur Trackway” – a number of fossilized dinosaur tracks. The town has some quirky dinosaur statues to celebrate this area.
Then there is another large metal sculpture, also probably from the same folks in Salida, CO
The horse above was apparently done by Albuquerque artist Bennie Duran who has a “Yard Art” shop called Desert Blooms.
From Clayton I continued east into Texas, first hitting the border town of Texline.
From Texline I continued into Dalhart, Texas.
From Dalhart I proceeded southeast on US 385 towards Channing, Texas and then would venture east on TX Hwy 354 towards Four Way, Texas.
Four Way, Texas, situated four miles north of Masterson, is named for its position on the spot where U.S. Highway 87 from Dumas to Masterson crosses the route from Channing to Lake Meredith and Stinnett. According to one history I found, “after natural gas was discovered in the vicinity in the late 1920s, a man named Anthony and his wife opened a grocery store, filling station, and dance hall. Music for this popular roadhouse was furnished during the 1930s by “Little Ham” Hamilton’s band from Amarillo. Later, after the highway was paved, a family named Atchison opened a store and cafe on the east side of the road. The dance hall expanded into a cafe and tourist court. By the early 1970s only one store and service station remained. The community was still listed in 1990.”
Heading south on US 87/287 thru Masterson I was soon getting close to Amarillo, Texas. I had not been in Amarillo since about 1968, when my family moved from Albuquerque to Dallas. We stayed overnight in Amarillo. My goal in Amarillo was to get to the famous “Cadillac Ranch” before dark and I was gonna do it!!
And I did make it!! The famous Cadillac Ranch – one of the most famous Offbeat Roadside attractions in the U.S.
What more can be said about Cadillac Ranch other than it is an icon in roadside quirkiness matching the twine balls, giant fish statues and Hell, Michigan as must see places. Indeed, while I was there I saw well over thirty people, all stopped on the I-40 side road and walking the walk, many to play the spray.
After the walk up the path to the 10 car set, I saw spray paint lids and cans strewn all over the field. The real focus now appears two fold – spray the cars and get a photo. I didn’t bring any spray paint (c’mon folks, I just drove nearly 12 hours from Eagle, Colorado!!).
So what is this place and why is it? According to Wikipedia, “Cadillac Ranch is a public art installation and sculpture created in 1974 by Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez and Doug Michels, who were a part of the art group Ant Farm. It consists of what were (when originally installed during 1974) either older running used or junk Cadillacs, representing a number of evolutions of the car line (most notably the birth and death of the defining feature of mid twentieth century Cadillacs; the tailfins) from 1949 to 1963, half-buried nose-first in the ground, at an angle corresponding to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.” Until 1997 it was located in a wheat field closer to Amarillo, but was moved to its current location in a pasture west of Amarillo. (Best to take I-40 exit 60 and then take the frontage road along the freeway heading east towards Amarillo. Cadillac Ranch will be on the right.
Cadillac Ranch is visible from the I-40, and though it is located on private land, visiting it is tacitly encouraged. In addition, writing graffiti on or otherwise spray-painting the vehicles is now encouraged, and the vehicles, which have long since lost their original colors, are wildly decorated. The cars are periodically repainted various colors. The cars were briefly “restored” to their original colors by the motel chain Hampton Inn in a public relations-sponsored series of Route 66 landmark restoration projects. The new paint jobs and even the plaque commemorating the project lasted less than 24 hours without fresh graffiti.
I had hoped to make it to a couple of other similar places nearby, including “Slug Bug Ranch” in Conway, Texas and “Combine City” in Canyon, Texas. But alas, no time on this trip. Check out the links above courtesy of Roadside America.
Now, if you recall that sign (above) near Raton advertising Free 72 Oz Steaks…. I deided to swing by this tourist attraction. Typically you don’t see advertisements like this hundreds of miles away, but there are a few including Wall Drug (South Dakota), Little America (Wyoming), Ruby Falls (Tennessee), The “Thing” (Arizona) and a number of caves around the country. So, I had to make a visit…to the Big Texan Steak Ranch.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch became one of those Route 66 icons back the 1960. At that time, R. J. “Bob” Lee opened The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo on Route 66, the “Mother Road”. Its distinctive architecture soon became recognized across the Mother Road as a good stopping place for great steaks grilled over an open flame. The towering neon sign of a long-legged cowboy that Bob erected next to the building became a major landmark on Route 66. From the beginning, the Big Texan welcomed weary travelers and migrating families whose roots spread all across America.
In the 1970s as freeways pushed Route 66 into the history annals, Lee bought land along the I-40 route and built a bigger and better Steak Ranch. He even moved the iconic sign from the old location by helicopter. Like any tourist attraction of this nature, there is glitz, whimsy and offbeat quirkiness.
Of course, the drawing card is the FREE 72 ounce steak dinner (and — in small print — “if eaten within an hour. Many have tried, many have failed”). I had no time to even think about it and the place was packed (it is open 24 hours and also serves breakfast), and, honestly, there is no way I could do that. Ultimately, you have to eat the following in an hour: Shrimp Cocktail, Baked Potato, Salad, with Roll, Butter, and of course the 72 oz. Steak. (see complete rules here). If you fail — you lose and must pay for the meal (not sure how much). They have a 38 page pdf file of their “Hall of Fame” including names from 1965. Apparently over 48,000 have tried and only 8000 have succeeded. The Man vs. Food series actually filmed its first episode here and Adam Richman, the host, finished off the meal in less than an hour. (See the video here)
Oh well, I still had to move on. By this time I realized I wouldn’t make it to the Dallas area, so I set my sights on making it to Wichita Falls, Texas for the night…another three hour drive from Amarillo.
I went southeast on US 287 towards Childress and through other small towns like Quanah and Vernon before making it to Wichita Falls.
After a nice (but short) night’s stay in Wichita Falls, it was back on the road. I had to make my first stop along the way in the small town of Jolly…needed to be Jolly first thing!! A post office began operations there in 1891 and was named for William H. Jolly, an area rancher and farmer. In 1895 Jolly had seventy-five residents, six businesses, two churches, and a school. From the mid-1920s through the mid-1960s it reported a population of sixty-three. Its post office ceased operations sometime after 1930. There are about 200 residents now.
The drive into Dallas from Wichita Falls was quite nice most of the way as I stayed on US 287/81 all the way to Decatur. The roadsides were carpeted in wildflowers of purple, red and yellow.
I soon approached the wonderful traffic congested, always under construction Dallas freeways…and this ends this long trip
And THIS is why I prefer the open roads along the Less Beaten Paths of America….