The Main Street of America: Still Getting “Kicks On Route 66”

Howard Koby

When I noticed the advertisement for the Cruisin’ Route 66 Reunion, I couldn’t resist reminiscing about the days when I was accepted to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, California, and started packing up my black 1950 Chevy Sedan with three-on-the-tree and getting ready to set sail from Brooklyn, New York, along Route 66 to California. My father told me he never thought I’d leave. Since he was a sign man, he made me a plaque reading “California or Bust” for my window, and I still have it to this day.

Yes, those were the days when you would pull into a service station and an attendant would happily greet you, fill up your tank, put air in your tires, wipe your windshield, and check the oil and water. There are plenty who remember those days, so to bring back to life the significance of the nation’s first all-weather highway linking Chicago to Los Angeles, the 8th Annual Cruisin’ Route 66 Reunion ignited full-throttle cruising 22 blocks down tree-shaded historic Euclid Avenue in downtown Ontario, California. The drive took place on September 17–18, 2021.

The music-filled two-day event was free to the public and was created and produced by the Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau—a non-profit endeavor to promote the region and teach about a piece of Americana that was once a shining example of “free-spirited independence.” Michael Krouse, President and CEO of the Bureau once said, “This is a chance for folks from everywhere in the world to gather and enjoy the nearly mystical passion that is shared by so many and embodied in Route 66. Southern California thrived because of its rich love affair with the automobile.”

Route 66 Reunion williams arizona
Howard Koby

Two days of festivities included nostalgic cruising, contests, live music (Johnny Cash Tribute, The Eagles Tribute, Queen Tribute and headlining Don McLean …”American Pie,” food vendors and nearly 1000 classic cars showing off their shine in display off the curb, then revving up, rolling, growling and whirring up and down Euclid Avenue not far from Historic Route 66. Glittering chrome and steel-bodied Mustangs, Chevys, Plymouth Barracudas, Dodge Chargers, Fords, classic trucks, hot rods, motorcycles, and customs fabricated from the dedicated work of the hobbyists—all of it kept thousands of families and friends flowing into Ontario in a steady stream. One exhibitor said, “I restored this Camaro with my daughter for her and now I have two more cars in the garage that I’m working on for the other two.”

For the first time, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles announced a partnership with the Cruisin’ Reunion and provided an educational platform at the event. Road Trip Across America presented an oversized map of the U.S. so little ones could learn about the glory days of a Route 66 road trip along with a hot rod pedal car and clay materials to create automotive forms.

Route 66 Reunion kids route map
Howard Koby

Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985, but the enduring importance lives on in the imagination of millions of people around the world. For example, the British Get Their Kicks on Regent Street event in the U.K. paid tribute to Route 66 in 2018, a day before the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run (oldest running motoring event in the world).

Route 66 offered freedom for motorists who wanted to explore the country, but it started as a trail for Native Americans and was later developed as a stage line before the Civil War. John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath dubbed Route 66 “The Mother Road” in his tale about Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s. In 1960, Route 66 was once again immortalized with the Route 66 TV series starring Martin Milner, George Maharis, and Glenn Corbett; it presented two young drifters wandering the U.S. in a Corvette convertible, encountering various situations surrounding their journey. Then, the pop culture piece that perhaps made the road most famous occurred in 1946 when singer Nat King Cole recorded a hit song, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” written by former Marine Bobby Troup.

Route 66 Reunion neon sign
Howard Koby

Taking Route 66 in its heyday effectively reduced the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles by more than 200 miles, which made the highway into a driving force for the American far west’s transformation from a rural frontier to developed metropolis. For returning American servicemen and their families, Route 66 represented a postwar optimism for the economic recovery of America and brought the freedom of mobility for all citizens who had the means to travel by car.

Now, in the 21st century, traveling Route 66 is a popular driving vacation for Americans and international travelers from the U.K., New Zealand ,and Australia. Many of these international visitors rent cars or motorcycles in Chicago and drive the entire length of Route 66, taking in historical sights on the way to its terminus at the Santa Monica Pier in California.

We approached some apparent baby boomers at the Cruisin’ to ask them about a popular trend: celebrating their 66th birthday with a road trip on Route 66.

“I’d like to plan a 66th birthday road trip on Route 66 for my dad,” said Robin from Covina, California.

Debbie and Melvin showed a ’65 Karmann Ghia that says, “My husband rebuilt this car from a ‘mess’ that we found in a barn about a year ago. He took it down to bare metal and located a 1600 engine and brought it back to life. This is our fourth year here and next year he will be 66 years old and I’m actually planning a trip on Route 66 from Santa Monica to maybe Illinois, since I’m from Missouri. It would be a life experience for him. He’s been a car geek since he was 13 and had his first shop when he was 14 with an old guy that taught him working on Model As and Ts. We would probably take my ’72 AMX Javelin and maybe our RV and trailer. Or we just make the whole trip in the Javelin. We belong to Coast to Coast Travel Group so we could have a plan worked out to visit all the neat Route 66 sights along the way. Even the wild burros in Oatman that come out of the dessert looking for food handouts.”

Route 66 Reunion wigwam motel
Howard Koby

Danny showed off his shiny ’57 Chevy Nomad that he owned for about three years. “The car was not running at the time but it was that same striking color. I made it my own by changing the wheels, modifying the exhaust, I color sanded and buffed the paint out to bring it to the shire it has. I cleaned and tuned up the 350 motor and the Camaro rear end. I would pack up the Nomad and my wife and I would set sail from Santa Monica and maybe take about two months on the Route 66 road. I’ve been on Route 66 before and remember some of the old towns with neon signs where there’s a lot of history. We’d stop and talk to people and hear the classic stories about the old cafes and motels on Route 66 and experience that Wigwam Motel—a bunch of tee-pee-shaped rooms I’ve heard so much about.”

Santa Monica pier
Howard Koby

Eric was dusting off his ’56 Chevy 150, an all-original car he and purchased about three years ago. “The car was sitting in a garage for 20 years so I was very lucky to discover it,” he said. Eric isn’t quite 66 years old yet but told us he “would like to go on a Route 66 trip to experience the history and to preserve the heritage of the U.S. to young people. I’d love to see all the landmarks that have been preserved along Route 66 and the only way to do it would be to start at the Santa Monica Pier and hopefully the Chevy would make the entire trip,” says Eric with an excited smile.

A 1947 Rat Rod Fire Truck caught my eye so, I talked to Grant, its owner. “I built it from a ’73 Ford F250 frame and engine and put the ’47 body on it,” he told me. “I had to widen it 10 inches and shorten it about 30 inches to make it fit. I never did anything like this so it was a real learning experience.” For the Route 66 trip he said, “I would look for a good running ’67 Camaro and definitely take a few weeks to check out all the historical sights and probably go as far as Illinois. I think it’s important to experience the history of the ‘Mother Road’ and the way life was back in the day. It gives us more of an appreciation and understanding of life in the present.”

Route 66 Reunion rat rod fire truck
Howard Koby

Many of the exhibitors told us that one of the goals of a car show it to teach their children to respect and enjoy each other’s cars through a common bond.

Some of the awards were:

Mayor’s Award – 1952 Chevy Styleline Deluxe – Larry & Belinda Trinidad

Petersen Automotive Museum Youth Award – 1956 Chevy Bel Air – Joe Lozano

’50s Modified – 1951 Mercury Coupe – John Zepeda

Best of Show – 1931 Packard Super 8 – Jose Chacon

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