A farewell to the front-engine Corvette on Route 66

Route 66 Illinois

Only a month remains before Chevrolet pulls back the curtain on its long-awaited mid-engine Corvette. It will mark the first time since the Corvette’s 1953 debut that it was anything but a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-seater, even if the mid-engine design has been in the works since Zora Arkus-Duntov began testing the first layout of the design in the late-’50s. For everyone who cares about Corvettes, this is a big deal.

To celebrate the last of these glorious high-tech fossils, I set out on a journey across another of America’s bygone icons: historic Route 66. Behind the wheel of a 2019 Corvette Grand Sport, I motored from Chicago to L.A. on a road that doesn't really exist anymore, in a car that almost doesn't.

Full disclosure: I don't fit neatly into the aged-in-place Boomer demographic that makes up the Corvette's core buyers. I'm 40—as old as guys who had Corvettes were when I was a kid. (Most Corvette owners are closer to 60.) As such, I'm not old enough to remember anything about Route 66 other than the nostalgic images flashed on television from time to time throughout my life. But I do know what both represent in the broader context of American culture. Route 66 is America’s road, and the Corvette is America's sports car. Just ask any of the dozens of foreign tourists I encountered along the 2448 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles.

Symbols of the American way

Route 66 Illinois
Benjamin Preston
Photo taken in Illinois

The Corvette became a Route 66 icon in spite of itself. The desperate Okie migrants in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath struggled along what Steinbeck called the Mother Road toward California in barely-functional jalopies two decades before the 'Vette hit GM's glitzy Motorama shows. Jack Kerouac spent plenty of time on 66, but the Beat novelist wasn't a Corvette guy either. Most vacationers during the highway's glory days were pre-Corvette, too. Clark Gable was known to drive a fast car between Hollywood and the rest of America on 66, but his ride was a '49 Jaguar XK120 roadster.

It was the Route 66 television series in the early ’60s that cemented the automobile’s place in the annals of America's Main Street. The premise was simple: Two guys drove around the country in a Corvette and got odd jobs, meeting people ensconced in obscurity and helping them through whatever problems they faced. The irony is that—unlike, say, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Rockford Files, or Starsky & Hutch—the car was only a bit player in the show, which almost never took place anywhere near 66. But that's all it took to crystallize the association. As I sped through crumbling, mostly vacant towns, I saw little Corvette logos sprinkled everywhere. I didn't see many other 'Vettes, though.

By the time the chrome-mawed '53 Corvette arrived on showroom floors, 66 had already hit its peak. Three years later, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act into law, sounding the death knell for old-fashioned highways like 66. The interstate system was born, gradually increasing the speed of traffic by sending it whooshing around all the little towns 66 had plodded through in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Limited-access highways raised speeds and Corvettes got faster. In 1963—the year the Corvette Sting Ray was introduced—it could be had with a 360-horsepower fuel-injected 327 cubic-inch V-8 that could get the little car to a top speed of 142 mph. By the late '60s, Chevrolet was stuffing big-block engines rated at more than 400 horsepower between the car's narrow fiberglass fenders.

Ebbs and flows

Route 66 New Mexico
Benjamin Preston
Photo taken in New Mexico

As muscle cars began to die after 1970, so too did Route 66. The interstate construction juggernaut was well on its way by then, chewing up everything in its path in the name of progress. Sections of old 66 remained, but where it was more convenient to tear it up and lay down high-speed asphalt ribbons, the Mother Road was subsumed. In 1985, ‘U.S. 66’ ceased to be an official route designation.

Fortunately, both Route 66 and the Corvette have rebounded since the dark days of Detroit malaise, albeit in different ways. These days, the base Corvette engine—including the one in the Grand Sport model I drove—is rated at 455 horsepower. On top of that, it handles as well as or better than many Italian and German sports cars that cost a lot more money.

For its part, 66 is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Keen attention from travelers foreign and domestic alike (it's one of the bucket list things to do) has led to a number of restorations among the old motels, diners, and gas stations along the route. Notable establishments include the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico; the Phillips 66 gas station, feed store, and cafe in Spencer, Missouri; the Tower Conoco & U-Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas; and the Arcadia Round Barn in Arcadia, Oklahoma. 

Add into the mix the attractions that have sprouted amid the ruins—Red Oak II, just outside Carthage, Missouri; the modern murals of Miami, Oklahoma; the McDonald's museum in San Bernardino, California—and you have a rich cultural tapestry that has to be the longest (by distance) living museum in the world. At the very least, it’s a testament to the uniquely American knack for roadside attractions and a celebration of nation of entrepreneurs who are willing to go to any length to bring in more customers (I’m looking at you, World’s (Second) Largest Rocking Chair, Leaning Tower of Britten, and Twin Arrows).

Route 66 New Mexico
Benjamin Preston
Photo taken in New Mexico

Even with the resurgence, things are changing. The old places are dying out. Even among the success stories, there are many other places that no one had the funding or the desire to bring back to life. On the more densely populated eastern end of the route, many old motels and defunct filling stations unable to turn a profit languish as truck parking or construction equipment storage. Nearby, abandoned lanes of the old highway hide in the weeds. Out West, the mass migration of so many Americans toward the same cities and suburbs is felt even more acutely, and signs of abandonment—even of structures built in recent decades, far after Route 66 withered from a state of practical use—are stark. 

The two giant arrows that once stood showed motorists the way to the Twin Arrows Trading Post outside Flagstaff, Arizona, are quietly rotting away. One day they’ll fall and that will be that. The Roger Miller Museum in Erick, Oklahoma shut its doors for good more than a year ago as the towns around it have lost their vital spark.

New things spring up where the old ones once were, though. In many places, weeds live where restaurant patrons once parked. There are less desolate examples, too, like the gleaming row of Tesla Superchargers standing behind the Tower Conoco in Shamrock, Texas. Although the building has been restored, complete with a mannequin-filled diner, it no longer sells gasoline.

Road tripping as a Grand Sport

Route 66 Texas
Route 66 Texas

As a platform for a trip down memory lane, the seventh-generation Corvette was something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was fast and comfortable to sit in for long stretches. On the other hand, it was difficult to get in and out of repeatedly (even for someone like me, who is in reasonable physical condition) when you want to see roadside curiosities every 15 minutes. It's a fresh-looking modern car, but it's also anachronistic––a computerized dinosaur that, when driven as it's designed to be driven, drinks a whole lot of dinosaur juice.

Still, it was the ideal car for a tour of America’s boom-years. After all, I was looking back at a time when the Corvette was the come-to-life concept some of this country’s most creative and industrious people were just dreaming up. Even in a car and on a road that had each run its course, the nostalgic energy was palpable. 

Plus, I had only a week to do the whole thing, so in typical American fashion it was a fast-paced trip—drive, stop, photos, drive, stop, photos. That's when modern interstate highways and a car designed to travel them quickly came in pretty handy. When the road turned to dirt for 14 miles after crossing the Texas border into New Mexico, that was fine, too—fat Grand Sport slicks be damned.

Chasing the horizon, evermore

Route 66 Oklahoma
Benjamin Preston
Photo taken in Oklahoma

More than anything else, a trip down old Route 66 was a chance to think about where things are headed. Not just with the Corvette, which is reinventing itself to compete with the European supercars that have been tempting the young-wealthy to give up their money for decades now.

Where are we headed? Looking for fragments of a now-obsolete roadway from the seat of an archaic kind of car puts things into perspective. We've been doing the same interstate highway thing for more than half a century, and if the traffic congestion and decaying roads we're seeing now is any indication, the system is showing signs of its age. Everyone likes to point toward technology as our ultimate savior—but whether autonomous cars and better battery technology will improve life or create more problems is very much an open question.

The Corvette thundered into Santa Monica at the end of my trip in the predictable fashion—too fast, covered with splattered bugs and looking a bit downmarket compared to the shiny Porsches and Lamborghinis you see scurrying all over the place in L.A. I didn't care. It’s a fantastic car and bore proudly the battle scars of a monumental trip down America’s memory lane. 

I thought of all the people who had made it across the parched hell of the Mojave Desert in the old days, without air conditioning or GPS, to the salty, welcome breeze blowing off the Pacific. After all, finally getting there, fundamentally changed, had always been the point of going west.