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Route 66 with Nissan, Day One: From Chicago to Cuba… Missouri

For the second time in five years, Nissan Canada has organized a journey along the fabled Route 66 for a small gaggle of automotive journalists. The program includes visits of historic spots, an extended drive in three of the automaker’s models, and the opportunity to interview Nissan technology specialists. These experts will join us at various points on the trip.

Auto123 accepted the invitation with enthusiasm to live the full experience of what Route 66 has to offer, and to see just what Nissan has planned for us of course. For me, this is my second time around on the route, but this time the difference is in the structure provided by Nissan. Obviously, with a dozen vehicles driving in a convoy, you’re less free to go off on a wander and choose your own schedule! No way around it, the schedule put together by Nissan must be respected.

On the other hand, Nissan has organized, well, everything for us. At the start of each day, we know exactly where we’re going to stop. And of course, the places they’ve chosen for us are must-sees, exactly what those who are partaking of this journey for the first time would want to discover.

Over the next eight days, we’ll be providing you with a daily diary of the day’s driving and sights. The idea, of course, is to give you a sense of what it’s like to drive this epic road.

And… off we go.

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1 — Chicago

Photo: D.Rufiange

Route 66 is a 3,940-km designated road that connects Chicago, Illinois with Santa Monica, California. Our intrepid Auto123 colleague is preparing a piece on the history of this celebrated route so I’ll skip the details here, but a quick word on the departure city of Chicago is in order.  

And that’s because when the route was first created in the 1920s, the Windy City was the central hub of the American rail network. Everything that traveled on rails to any American city originated in or passed through Chicago. New York was a hub as well, but it was from Chicago that the tentacles of the network reached all corners of the continent. And that is why the route that was designed to link east and west started there.

Fun fact: in the city’s downtown area where the route begins, there are actually several signs that proclaim the “start” of the route. In fact, city authorities wanted to avoid traffic jams of tourists in one particular spot, and sticking a bunch of signs in various places was a convenient way to “disperse” the hordes.

2 — Launching Pad
Photo: D.Rufiange

One stop that directs its aim directly at those traveling Route 66 is the Launching Pad diner, located in Wilmington, Illinois. Inside there are quantities of Route 66 memorabilia and decorations, but first visitors are beckoned to the spot by a gigantic statue out front. This is an example of what’s commonly called a Muffler Man, one of those fibre-glass sculptures so in vogue during the 1960s. Companies used them mainly to promote their products and attract customers. The Muffler Man name came from the fact that most of them were for service centres specializing in mufflers.

In the case of the Launching Pad, which has been in operation under that name since 1965, standing guard outside the establishment is the Gemini Giant, a giant astronaut holding a rocket in his hands. To understand its significance, recall that at that time America was in the grip of a big fascination with space travel and the race to reach the Moon. The older among us will recognize the Gemini name as belonging to an early space mission that predated the Apollo program.

Tourist trap? Of course. But that is part and parcel of the true Route 66 experience.

3 — Station-service Standard Oil

Photo: D.Rufiange

In Odell, Illinois, one can find a number of vintage-era service stations that have been restored to their original state thanks to funds provided by a Route 66 preservation society. This station was in operation from 1932 to 1975.

4 — Motorheads Bar & Grill

Photo: D.Rufiange
Photo: D.Rufiange

When Route 66 ceased to exist as a specific designated route in the mid-1980s, it very nearly fell into oblivion. Thankfully, a group of dedicated automotive enthusiasts united their efforts and stubbornness to breathe new life into it. Motorheads Bar & Grill, for one, has been around for a mere 18 months; it’s the project of a certain Ron Metzger, who took time to have a little chat with us when we stopped in. We had a hearty lunch of what we’ll call typically American food, with all the good – and the bad! – that entails, and dropped in to the little museum packed with artifacts and a souvenir shop.

5 — Chain of Rocks Bridge

Photo: D.Rufiange

For our last stop of the day, Nissan organizers took us to the Chain of Rocks Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River. Cross it and you leave Illinois and enter Missouri – or vice versa. Completed in 1929, it became the official passage way of Route 66 between the two states in 1936. Its goose was cooked with the completion in 1967 of Highway 270, which runs not 2,000 feet away from the bridge. Though today it is officially closed to cars (pedestrians and cyclists can still cross it), Nissan obtained special permission to have us cross in our vehicles.

A few hundred kilometres driven after sunset brought us to our destination on this day. End of the line was the Wagon Wheel Motel located in Cuba, Missouri. Take note that at the end of our eight-day trip, we’ll be doing a onceover of the celebrated establishments that hug Route 66 along the way – and one of those is the Wagon Wheel.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a summary of day two of our adventure.

Photo: D.Rufiange