Irreverence Has a Birthday: Cadillac Ranch Turns 50

Unsplash/Jarrett Mills

On June 21, 1974, which was 50 years ago this month, eccentric oil and gas millionaire Stanley Marsh 3 (as in “the third,” but that’s one of the things that made him eccentric) and the crew from the Ant Farm in San Francisco completed work on Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, Texas.

Along with The Big Texan Steak House—home of the “World Famous 72-ounce Steak Challenge,” where if you can eat the whole steak in one hour (along with the shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and a buttered roll) it’s free—the Cadillac Ranch has become one of Amarillo’s top tourist attractions, an admittedly short list.

Cadillac Ranch field wide
Unsplash/Sean D Auria

Really, that’s not fair. Amarillo was once known as the “Helium Capital of the World,” and it operates one of the largest meat-packing areas in the United States, and it’s also the home of Pantex, the only nuclear weapons factory in the country (thanks, Wikipedia!).

You have about as much chance of making sense of Cadillac Ranch as you do finishing a Big Texan steak which, incidentally, 11 percent of the people who attempt it actually do. Sort of a Texas tribute to England’s Stonehenge, except Stonehenge is about 2800 years older, Cadillac Ranch consists of 10 vintage Cadillacs (they weren’t “vintage” in 1974, they were just old) buried nose-first, at a 60-degree angle, in a field alongside Interstate 40.

Cadillac Ranch 1987 pre graffiti cars
Cadillac Ranch, 1987Flickr/Joe McGowan

That field was way out in the country when Cadillac Ranch was constructed, but as Amarillo grew, the Cadillacs were dug up in 1997 and planted in another field on I-40 two miles west of the original, and that’s where they are today.

The idea essentially belonged to the Ant Farm, formed in 1968 in San Francisco by architects Doug Michels, who died at age 59 in 2003, and Chip Lord. They were eventually joined by New Orleans artist Hudson Marquez. They called themselves the Ant Farm in recognition of the plan they made to become underground [as in “ants”] architects, “ready to restructure the built environment of the counterculture,” Lord wrote in an obituary of his friend Michels, who died while climbing to a whale observation point in Eden, Australia.

If you weren’t around then, the “counterculture” was big in 1968.

Cadillac Ranch black white sitting on top
Flickr/Megan Eaves

One columnist described the Ant Farm’s projects, including Cadillac Ranch, as “half art, half science, half social commentary and half outright prank.” They include “Media Burn,” in which a Cadillac Eldorado was driven through a pyramid wall of burning televisions, and “The Eternal Frame,” a surprisingly serious video reenactment of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, in which Michels, sporting a Jackie Kennedy wig, plays the First Lady. Stanley Marsh 3 even plays Texas Governor John Connally.

Marsh turned out to be the perfect partner for the Ant Farm. For the Cadillac Ranch project, the members of the Ant Farm mailed letters to various eccentric millionaires around the country, asking for funding. Marsh reportedly responded in a letter written in 36-point type, roughly the size of the headline on this story, saying that he was interested, but only if the project took place in Amarillo.

Cadillac Ranch Flickr entrance
Flickr/Mobilus in Mobili

This is a good place to mention that the Ant Farm members really liked cars in general, Cadillacs in particular. After all, counterculture or not, in August of 1968, Michels and his wife, Carol, arrived in San Francisco in a lime green Cadillac convertible. From an article in Texas Highways: ‘“At Ant Farm, we were car crazy,” Hudson Marquez recalls. “It was always drawing cars, collaging cars, making art with cars. I had an idea to make seed packs where you could plant seeds that would grow cars. You could have a field of ’49 Fords or ’59 Cadillacs that would grow out of the ground.’”

So the Ant Farm temporarily moved to Amarillo. Marsh would pay them $2000 and give them a budget of $3000 to buy 10 Cadillacs, plus $250 to rent a backhoe. The Ant Farm started looking for cheap Cadillacs. The 10 they found ranged from 1949 to 1964 models.

It took five days to bury the Cadillacs. According to the Amarillo Globe-News, Marsh—who lived with his attorney wife on a 262-acre estate he named Toad Hall, after the residence of Mr. Toad, the fictional character in the 1908 novel The Wind in the Willows—would show up with fried chicken and beer.

On July 21, 1974, and every 10 years since, there was a party at Cadillac Ranch. For that inaugural party, the Ant Farm members rented tuxedoes and celebrated with Marsh 3’s friends, then promptly returned to San Francisco to work on other irreverence.

Cadillac Ranch black white
Cadillac Ranch, 2022Unsplash/Random Thinking

To passersby on Interstate 40, Cadillac Ranch was an unbilled surprise. There were no signs, no explanation, no road to the unconventional art exhibit. Nobody outside of Amarillo knew what it was.

That changed when CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, who toured the country in a motorhome collecting stories for his popular “On the Road” segments that aired on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, discovered Cadillac Ranch, and made it famous in a 1975 broadcast.

Here’s a link to that story. It features Kuralt and Marsh 3, who is wearing his trademark “Mad Hatter” top hat, telling Kuralt that Cadillac Ranch is “the most important roadside attraction of our generation.” What’s amazing about Kuralt’s story is that it shows the Cadillacs as they were then, before tourists began bringing cans of spray paint and covering the cars with graffiti.

According to the Texas Highways story, Stanley Marsh 4, son of Stanley Marsh 3, has placed a merchandise truck at the site selling, among other things, cans of spray paint to tourists who forgot to bring their own.

Cadillac Ranch rain puddle
Unsplash/Steve Wrzeszczynski

In its 50 years, Cadillac Ranch has become a legitimate exhibit of abstract art, even spawning imitators, most notably Airstream Ranch next to Interstate 4 in Dover, Florida, where Frank Bates planted seven and a half Airstream trailers, as in 7.5, commemorating the 75 years Airstream had been in business. Bates, a Texas native inspired by Cadillac Ranch, was an Airstream dealer, known for ads that showed him dressed in a black and white cow suit, dancing and holding up cards that suggest you can save some MOO-lah at Bates RV. But neighbors complained, and Bates’ efforts to have Airsteam Ranch declared art, in the same fashion as Cadillac Ranch, failed. The county gave him 30 days to remove the trailers. He did. That was in 2008.

As for Stanley Marsh 3, he continued his puckish ways, like the time he interrupted a live Weather Channel broadcast from Amarillo when he performed a Native American snow dance in front of the cameras while wearing an Indian headdress and a fringed jacket. Here’s a link to it. He also had hundreds of diamond-shaped signs posted around Amarillo, an effort he called the Dynamite Museum, with a variety of often-nonsensical messages such as “The Wine Has Eaten Away My Brain,” and “Wild Packs Of Chihuahuas Dragged Conquistadors From Their Horses And Ate Them For Snacks,” and “His Father Was A Rancher But He Could Not Eat The 72 Ouncer.”

Cadillac Ranch winter
Flickr/Scott Beale

Despite his antics, he and his wife, Wendy, were highly regarded in the community for decades of philanthropy.

Marsh 3 suffered strokes in 2011 that left him incapacitated. Unfortunately, his legacy was tainted by a series of lawsuits first filed in 2012 that alleged Marsh paid at least a dozen underage male teens for sex. In 2013, he was indicted on eight felony counts of sexual performance by a child, four counts of sexual assault of a child and two counts of indecency with a child. It never went to trial. He died in a hospice in 2014 at the age of 76.

Cadillac Ranch, though, has a life of its own, though most of the cars are rusting into the ground, held together by coats of Krylon. And as for Marsh 3: In 1994, he was asked what he wanted on his tombstone. He said, “Thanks, everybody. I had a good time.”


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: The Secrets of a Transaxle Built for 550 MPH


    I always thought it was older. I wonder if those missing doors and glass ended up on other Cadillacs

    Kinda defeats the impact with all those swiped parts, but I suppose ‘arte ab absurdum’ can expect that? Probably now garage art in some yuppie’s ‘shop’.
    And everyone says CA is crazy! Crazy is bigger… where?

    Visited in 1979, while working at Cycles,Inc. Left July 13, from Arlington Virginia, Rode my 75 Honda Goldwing. All the cars were pretty whole back then, they had welded the wheel covers on, although all headlights were removed in the Inca Tradition of removing the eyes of the dead, so they can not see when they return. An epic trip.

    Stopped several times over the years while on NCRS cross country group road tours. To me it was a yawner other than the history of its connection to helium. We always hit the Big Texan and had a good meal and a great time if there were those brave enough to take the challenge. I never did as the 50 gallon trash cans next to each seat on the stage were a warning to me.

    Btw, thankfully I never witnessed what the Shea brothers refer to as a “reversal of fortune”.

    Late 70’s, full moon, light snow – Epic, after 18 hours on the road and a small steak at Big Texan. Yes, glass and doors were still present at that time.

    Never seen this but have gone to the Big Texan on a trip back from Colorado. My steak was only 18oz I think. I’ll never attempt 72.

    The guy this article about hs kind of annoying, but the Bates RV dealer who attempted to knock it off is a character, that article is hilarious.

    “The Cadillac Ranch recognizes that the Cadillac is a leading premium car,” Bates says. “And Airstream is the leading premium trailer. A lot of celebrities have them. Matthew McConaughey, the actor, has some. Sandra Bullock has one. Sean Penn has one. I just sold two to the lead singer of AC/DC.”

    I grew up here and it’s ridiculous. Now driving through Amarillo yesterday I saw The Big Texan RV ranch is copycatting by putting their limos in the ground and slug bugs out front and that is totally appalling and a stain on the undergarments of this panhandle. There’s other things of much beauty then people spray painting meaningless sayings that get covered up 15 minutes later and all the money being spent on spray paint.

    Stopped by the Cadillac Ranch in August 2017 while doing a Route 66 road trip with my wife and daughter -Illinois to California. Definitely a landmark on 66 to visit. For some reason, young people and kids love spray painting the cars. Breaks my heart, as a classic car guy. I was 60 yrs. old, so not my thing. By the way, the commentors seem to need to mention the Big Texan restaurant. Way overrated. We had a negative experience there in 2022. The Manager was rude when I spoke to him about my wife’s tough portion of meat that she had trouble eating. Oh well, I cannot recommend. I recommend checking reviews online before spending your hard-earned money there. The one and 2 star reviews generally give an accurate view of the place.

    I’m surprised that there is no mention of “Carhenge” in either the article, or the comments. Located in Alliance, Nebraska, it consists of cars that are laid out and planted to represent the actual layout of England’s Stonehenge. It is incredibly well done, and includes editorial comments on storyboards (ie: “The Ford Seasons” is an area devoted to Ford products. There is no admission, but there is a gift shop selling T shirts, etc. I’m trying not to compare, but I went to Carhenge first, and I was disappointed by the Cadillac Ranch. DON’T BRING SPRAY PAINT!!!

    Went by there in 77. Two 18 year old kids driving from California in a 73 Datsun 610 wagon. We did the Easy Rider thing stomping on a watch at Venice Beach. Venice to Daytona via 66. All the roadside “attractions “ on the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *