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September 12, 2010

News & Features

A trip for kicks: A local group drives the length of Route 66

Special to NWautos

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Gordon Thorne points to a leg of Route 66 while showing his 1957 Thunderbird at the Loganberry Festival on Whidbey Island in July. He is part of a group that will drive the historic roadway. (Jeff Layton)

Gordon Thorne has dreamed of driving Route 66 for years -- seeing weird and wonderful sights such as the world's largest ketchup bottle in his vintage T-Bird straight out of the roadway's heyday.

But when he brought up the idea to other members of the Puget Sound Early Birds car club, he was surprised by how many were interested in joining him.

"I came to realize that the same fascination and lure Route 66 had on me was shared by millions of others -- literally from around the world," he says.

This fall, 10 drivers from the area will caravan to Chicago, where they will begin driving the entire length of historic Route 66, ending in Santa Monica, Calif. They'll travel in four restored 1957 Ford Thunderbird convertibles and one 1956 hardtop Thunderbird.

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Gordon Thorne and a local group are driving their T-Birds the entirety of Route 66 this fall. (Jeff Layton)

"This is a quest, an adventure," Thorne says. "It's letting the road talk to us. We're going to go with the flow."

To that end, the group plans to take it slow, averaging only 160 miles per day. Route 66 veterans have also advised them to avoid making reservations and just let things happen on their own.

"The point is not to rush things," says Thorne, who is membership chairman for the Early Birds club.

Nicknamed "The Mother Road," Route 66 was the nation's main cross-country route from the late 1920s to the 1950s before it was replaced by the interstate road system.

The T-Bird drivers will need to pick their way along fragmented sections of the original route, many of which now serve as country lanes or frontage roads for interstates. In many spots the road is only two lanes wide, Thorne says, with a 35-mph speed limit.

Route 66 facts
  • Route 66 travels across parts of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
  • The narrowest section, in Oklahoma, is only 9 feet wide. The longest intact section is in Arizona and runs just over 150 miles.
  • The original highway spanned about 2,400 miles. About 85 percent of it is still drivable.

"In some places, Route 66 travels only nine to 14 miles, and then it dead-ends," he says. "Our rule of thumb is to always travel the oldest, original part of the route whenever possible."

Along the way, the group will stay in historic motels that were known as "tourist courts" and once rented for only $2-$3 per night. "It's a glimpse of a bygone era -- a kinder America," Thorne says.

The T-Bird owners will put their vehicles to the test, covering an estimated 5,800 miles during the course of the trip.

To help prepare for the odyssey, several of the cars have been overhauled with new air-conditioning systems, big electric fans, 100-amp alternators, new transmissions and front disc brakes.

The drivers will assist one another with the breakdowns they expect to encounter, and one T-Bird will pull a small trailer full of tools and spare parts such as belts, hoses and water pumps.

To help them decide on the best stops, they have constructed a state-by-state list of towns with funky attractions (such as the world's biggest ball of barbed wire), Art Deco diners and renowned ice cream stands.

They plan to sample some of the world's best mom-and-pop diners, eating lots of chicken-fried steak and fresh pies.

"The Mother Road, America's Main Street, has the same cache and mystique about it as our classic T-Birds," Thorne says. "And to combine the two just adds to the joy of the journey on the most celebrated highway in the world."

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