In October 2000, after a longer lay-off, I decided to make another vacational trip to the holy land of hot rodding.
I knew upfront that this 5-week trip would be something special, the main reasons being the route i had chosen, which should take me 5000 miles from L.A. to Houston and back, and also the idea of buying my own car instead of taking the usual Alamo/Budget/Hertz/Dollar...-Corolla.
I already had made up my mind about the kind of car I intended to look for. Considering my financial capabilities, the current market and last but not least my taste, my options were quickly reduced to several mid-sixties full-size Chryslers, Buicks, Mercs and the like.
Soon after my arrival in L.A., I had to realize that with a budget of about $1500, I had to rely on some luck to find a roadworthy candidate for my trip within 2 weeks time. So I took a renter and after a weekend at the California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersield, spent the first week of my vacation studying the latest ads in Autotrader, Recycler and on the internet. Some of the ads looked promising, but all had to be passed upon a closer inspection, like a ´65 Imperial (too dented), ´63 Mercury, ´65 Buick (too rusty), or a ´66 Chrysler 300 (smashed front end and windshield).
Because of the tight schedule of my vacation except for the first 2 weeks, my probably last chance to find a car was the Pomona swap meet, one week before my planned trip to the NHRA drag race in Houston.
It takes an early bird to have a good chance to see and especially buy something at the swap meet, so we (my good friend Stefan, who was looking for some parts for his Corvette and me) arrived at the Pomona fairgrounds at 6.30 AM and immediately started our search for a car.
After a little over an hour of really fast walking I had found 2 candidates that seemed somewhat suitable: A black ´64 T-Bird for $1800 (after bargaining) and a 1966 Chrysler 300, looking nice but with an advertised price of $2800 absolutely out of my price range.
Since the owner was nowhere to be seen, I decided to take a break and go look at the "rest" of the swap meet.
Several hours and many miles later I again arrived at the Chrysler and finally managed to talk to the owner, a 50-something year old man with a white beard looking to finance a hot rod - project with the sale of the 300.
To my surprise he immediately agreed to sell the car for a third less then advertised and after a short test-drive through Pomona and a little financial help from Stefan (I didn´t have enough cash on me) the deal was struck:
I had found a solid and rust-free vehicle with new tires that could be trusted to take me to Houston and back.
Until then, I had one more week to have the car inspected for any problems and to take care of all the pink-slip and insurance paperwork. Several rubber bushings in the front suspension were replaced as well as all the fluids, spark plugs and ignition wires. A trip to Memory Lane (huge classic-car salvage yard) yielded a spare wheel and tire, the AAA took care of the registration and a friendly insurance broker sold me a 1-month insurance for $150.
I would strongly advise against omitting these last two steps, since the California Police is known to be very strict with bums driving around without insurance or title.
Anyway, the Chrysler absolutely proved to be as good as it looked at the first glance, never missing a beat throughout the whole trip.
The only thing that was somewhat disturbing were the front shocks, which became quite noisy after my first trip to the Hollywood hills and stayed that way untill the end. I deciced against buying new shocks since I had already spent more on the car than I initially had planned and bought a CD-player instead (Yeah I know it´s more expensive than the shocks, but it was more important to me).
Loaded with spare fluids, books, roadmaps and CDs I finally started my trip to the East, following the I-10.
Without any incidents I arrived in Phoenix late at night, and misjudging my gas gauge, stranded on an exit ramp on the outskirts of the city.
Without a mobile phone, I was forced to wait for about 30 minutes, until finally a large pickup truck stopped and two dark skinned gentlemen offered to push my car off the ramp to the next gas station. I didn´t see any other options, so I decided to forget about the possible damage to my bumper and accepted the offer.
With a full tank of gas I continued my search for a camping ground and at about 2.00 AM followed a sign somewhere in the Gila River Indian Reservation.
Finding that the Camping-sign lead to nowhere (the camping ground had ceased to exist some years ago), I tried to turn around and got stuck in the mud, which had looked more solid than it was in the pale moonlight.
I got lucky again, though, and was towed back onto the road by a friendly Indian Patrolman and his Ford Bronco within 10 minutes. I followed his advice and slept in the car on the parking lot of the only store in the area and was really happy that I had bought a full-size boat and not some pony-car.
The next day, I had a troublefree drive to El Paso, stopping at the Texas border to look at the 2 huge stars on each side of the Interstate, showing off the great pride of the Texans and notifying each visitor of which state he/she is about to enter (or leave).
In El Paso I soon found a big R.V. park that let me stay overnight for the paltry sum of $15. Being somewhat tired from last days adventures, I chose to skip the planned sightseeing tour in favor of a good nights sleep and went to bed (read: car) rightaway.
Well rested, I continued my journey the next morning, driving through the great plains to Sonora. Shortly after passing Van Horn I had to drive through a short but intense rainshower, but the Chrysler stayed surprisingly dry, despite the poor condition of its weatherstripping. It was also much cleaner afterwords.
This thunderstorm was obviously nothing compared to what must have come through this area the days before, since some of the towns I drove through were literally flooded.
In Van Horn I had to turn my car into a real boat, driving through up to 2 feet of water.
Being ahead of my planned schedule at this point, i decided not to spend the night in Sonora and to drive all the way to San Antonio instead. It took me a while, but I finally found a huge R.V. and trailer park where I parked the Chrysler and spent a quiet and cheap night.
Now I had only a 200 miles drive to Baytown/Houston ahead of me, with an already reserved room in a Motel 6, just 5 min. from the racetrack, waiting for me.
I spent most of the following 3 1/2 days at the dragstrip, with almost no time for sightseeing. A couple games of pool at a local billiards room in the evenings and some quick dinners at the nearby steakhouses and IHOPs were all I actually saw of this City.
Monday morning after the race I left Houston for the longest part of my journey, a 600 miles drive waiting ahead. Leaving the Skylines of Houston and Dallas behind, I followed the Interstate northbound towards the legendary Route 66/I-40, finally reaching the mother road late at night and in total darkness in Shamrock.
Not really hard to find a cheap motel here, but not much going on. I don´t know whether it´s the time of year (early November), but the town seems almost dead. Most of the cafes and souvenir-shops mentioned in my Rte-66-books are closed and the cold and damp weather doesn´t really raise the mood, either.
I stayed at the Route 66-typical Texas Motel for $24, shot a couple of photos and headed west. Pretty soon I was reminded that the 66 isn´t really meant for my Chrysler´s shot front suspension: The shocks squeak as soon as the speedo falls under 50mph and I´m pretty sure not out of joy. I stop in colorful McLean to have a look at the restored Phillips 66 gas station and several junked cars from the 30-ies to the 60-ies that are scattered almost everywhere.
Then I alternate between the 66 and the I-40, passing through Groom, driving by the famous water tower and finally Conway, taking some more pictures of old cars in the fields alongside the road.
The weather got better and I could look ahead to a good steak at the reknown Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo. This really big restaurant and motel is known for its huge 72 oz steak which is served for free, when consumed within one hour together with a baked potato, salad, shrimp cocktail, and roll.
Being health-conscious, I chose a smaller, but also very tasty steak instead.
My next stop was, of course, the Cadillac Ranch (what else is there to see for a car nut in Amarillo), and I finally had some sun (along with a stormy wind), helping me to raise the quality of my photos to new heights.
Along the road you can find many wrecked sheds and also old cars, especially on the outskirts of the towns, but the desert-like landscape seemingly stays the same for miles on end.
I stay overnight in Santa Rosa, which with its many motels and cafes appears a lot friendlier than most of the towns on the 66.
Most motels here charge between $18 and $25 for a night and after some consideration I finally stop at the Tower Motel.
Leaving the town next morning, I drive by an unfinished ´37 Chevy parked on the side of the road and after a short stop there, continue towards Las Vegas, NM.
This colorful town is located not far off the original 66 (before 1937) and is really worthwhile to visit. The restored old buildings around the Plaza and the antique stores and cafes are a welcomed change from the otherwise rather dull monotony alongside the historic road.
Despite the cold morning, I am enjoy the opportunity to leave the car for once and take a walk through the town, which seems perfect for this.
After a shot breakfast in a mexican cafe, I leave Las Vegas behind and drive farther west, towards Albuquerque.
A great steak in Bennigan´s restaurant, then back on the I-40/66 through Mesita, Laguna, Grants,...
The many trading posts along the road are very kitschy and tourist-oriented, but still offer enough souvenirs even for my rather strict and simple taste.
Especially in Gallup, NM, there is literally one souvenir store on top of the next and at night, the city looks more like a smaller-scale Las Vegas (the one in Nevada).
My next stop for a night is due in Holbrook, but suddenly at about 7.00 PM with less then 20 miles left, I am forced to stop because of a huge traffic-jam right in the middle of the desert.
There is no way to get around it, it´s freezing cold and after about an hour of complete standstill one of the many truckdrivers around me finally tells me the reason for the mess: About 2 miles ahead of us, a truck had collided with a camper and burnt out. The debris from the two vehicles now blocked both lanes and with the rather heavy traffic, even the rescue and police cars had troubles to get to the accident. The trucker had heard on his CB that it would take at least one more hour to clean the mess up enough to open at least one lane.
Over 3 hours and some interesting talks with the co-sufferers around me later they finally open one lane and I manage to arrive in Holbrook.
I have to dish my plan to stay at the famous Wigwam Motel since the reception is closed after 10.00 PM and stay at a regular Motel nearby, where I am told that other people were stuck on the highway for over 4 hours.
I estimate the traffic was backed up for about about 20-30 miles, just like when the Germans have their holidays and head south.
The next morning I drive over to the Wigwam Motel to take a closer look at the wigwams and especially the old 50-ies and 60-ies cars, parked beside them as decoration.
My Chrysler fits that picture perfectly.
Holbrook is probably one of the most interesting towns along the 66, the Petrified Forest with its ancient tree remains, many souvenir shops and cafes making a visit worthwile.
I continued my journey and was very happy that my cars heater worked a lot better than the air condition - in Flagstaff I was greeted by snow for the first time in the last 4 weeks. Luckily the road was clean and dry, and I did my best to leave Flagstaff behind asap.
The road betwen Ash Fork and Kingman is one of the most attractive parts of the Route 66, taking the traveller through a gold and yellow colored scenery dotted with bushes and wild flowers. In Seligman the mother road roars back to life with souvenir-shops, cafes and gas stations, but also becomes a bit too kitschy for my taste. Peach Springs, Truxton und Valentine are all small towns with some abandoned cars embedded in a somewhat romantic-looking western scenery, but not much else.
The visitor center in Hackberry is interesting, though, offering many curiosities from days gone by.
Leaving Kingman, I decided to stay on the old 66 through Oatman and Ed´s Camp before getting back on the Interstate in Needles. After a couple of miles I started to regret my decision, reminded of the poor condition of my cars suspension, and suddenly becoming aware that the mountain road I took was pretty, but never meant for a 2-ton boat with worn out shocks.
With the caucious driving style of someone who has lived in the Austrian Alps for the last 19 years of his life and always accompanied by my vehicle´s squeals and squeaks, I managed to arrive in Needles and was actually glad to have seen the great scenery now lying behind me. Doing myself and my car a favor and also because I had already seen the Californian part of the 66 on a previous visit, I stayed on the Interstate from Needles on.
Late at night, after a nice dinner in the Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant in Barstow, I was finally back in L.A., where I had started on this journey 2 weeks ago.
Within 3 weeks, I had put on over 6000 miles on a 34+ years old car without any major problems and was very happy with the way everything had turned out.
It sure is something else than buying a used American car in Europe and I loved every minute of it.