I’ve lived on Route 66 in Tulsa, OK my whole life, but it wasn’t really until my first trip to Disneyland that I got inspired to drive the full stretch of historic Route 66.
I know Pixar’s 2006 Cars brought a huge resurgence in interest to Route 66 and while I did love the movie, it wasn’t until I stepped into Carsland in Disney’s California Adventure that the little town of Radiator Springs, once a :glorious jewel strung on the necklace of Route 66,” really came alive. And I was hooked!
During the summer of 2020 when far flung travel ground to a halt, I carved out day trips to drive portions of Route 66 through Oklahoma, Kansas, and parts of Missouri that were close to home.
It wasn’t until 2022 that I fully committed to driving THE WHOLE THING. 2500 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
And it was quite the trip. There’s nothing like seeing America…from the wheatfields of the midwest to the ranches of Texas and Oklahoma to the vast western landscapes of New Mexico and Arizona…through the windshield of your car as you roll through small town after small town.
Let the rest of them “fly over.” I’ll take the Mother Road.
Cars Route 66 Road Trip
Now I’m not going to lie…the whole time in my mind I had this vision of taking a trip back to Disneyland after I finished Route 66 to see Carsland again. Comparing all the beloved spots in Radiator Springs to the real life inspiration along Route 66 and taking in all the little details.
And I did! And now I’m going to take you with me.
I spent a LOT of time researching, watching the movie, documentaries, pouring over photos, and reading articles of the places that inspired the Pixar filmmakers. And I used a lot of that to shape my Route 66 trip.
So whether you’re planning your own Route 66 road trip and you want to visit all of the places that inspired Cars, or you’re just curious about what was real and what was made up…this post is for you!
Is Radiator Springs a real town?
That’s the first question most people ask…where is the real life Radiator Springs? Well, it doesn’t really exist, but instead it’s a composite of a lot of different places along Route 66.
When the Pixar animators and story developers were researching Cars, they actually took a couple of Route 66 road trips (led by Route 66 historian Michael Wallis who ended up voicing the Sheriff in the movie). Their trips mostly explored the stretch of Route 66 between Tulsa, OK and Kingman, AZ which is the more “western” portion of the route.
While the name “Radiator Springs” may draw inspiration from places like Baxter Springs, KS or Peach Springs, AZ, the physical setting of Radiator Springs seems to be placed somewhere in Arizona. The scenery is pretty iconic, especially when Sally and Lightning McQueen go for their drive on the open road. They pass places that seem reminiscent of Havasu Falls and Monument Valley, neither of which are on Route 66 but they’re both popular side trips from the route in Arizona. And Ornament Valley likely seems to refer to real life Monument Valley.
But while Radiator Springs is fictional, it’s rumored to be most closely based on Seligman, AZ. Seligman was once a thriving Route 66 town that all but withered away when it was bypassed by the interstate.
When Sally takes Lightning McQueen for a drive and they end up on top of a mesa looking down on the twists and turns of Route 66 as it runs through Radiator Springs with the interstate stretching out forever in the distance, this scene unfolds:
Lightning McQueen: Whoa. Look at that. They’re driving right by. They don’t even know what they’re missing!
Sally Carrera: Well, it didn’t use to be that way.
Lightning McQueen: Oh yeah?
Sally Carrera: Yeah. 40 years ago, that Interstate down there didn’t exist. Back then, cars came across the country a whole different way. The road didn’t cut through land like that Interstate. It moved with the land, you know? It rose, it fell, it curved. Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.
[ We see Radiator Springs as a bustling little town in its heyday. Busy with visitors from dawn to dusk. ]
Lightning McQueen: Well, what happened?
Sally Carrera: The town got bypassed just to save ten minutes of driving.
[ We see the interstate finally open and the town excited to greet the new travelers. But nobody comes. Radiator Springs disappears from the map. Businesses start to close and friends have to leave town. Some are able to stay open, hoping to hang on as long as they can. ]
Lightning McQueen: How great would it have been to see this place in its heyday!
Sally Carrera: Oh, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamed of that. One of these days, we’ll find a way to get it back on the map.
Lightning McQueen: Yeah. Hey, listen, thanks for the drive. I had a great time. It’s kinda nice to slow down every once in a while.
For me, that scene is the emotional heart of the movie. And it’s almost entirely based on Angel Delgadillo’s story. He’s interviewed in a behind the scenes Making of Cars documentary that was featured on the Cars DVD.
Angel Delgadillo was a barber and business owner in Seligman for decades (his brother opened the famous Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In). In an interview with John Lasseter, he tells the story of how Seligman went from seeing 9000 cars a day to just a few as soon as the interstate opened. It dried up their town and they sat forgotten and wasting away for almost 10 years.
But Delgadillo decided to do something about it. The few visitors they were getting every day seemed to appreciate the history of the road and he realized that there were people who still wanted to drive it as a holiday, stopping at all the old places.
Delgadillo rallied small business owners along the route in Arizona to draw more attention to their stretch of old Route 66 and founded the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. The state of Arizona designated the 159 miles of uninterrupted road as Historic Route 66 in 1987 and in 1988 it was officially dedicated in Seligman with a ceremony full of pomp and circumstance in true Route 66 style…everybody turned on their neon and classic cars drove up and down the street ; ) Sound familiar?
But they didn’t stop there! Delgadillo and his band of supporters were instrumental in getting the ball rolling to get ALL of Route 66 declared a historic highway. It brought back the visitors and saved countless little small towns across America that still have the claim to fame of being on the Mother Road.
So while Radiator Springs doesn’t look just like Seligman (it draws inspiration from sooooo many real life places), the Seligman story is the heart and soul of “the cutest little town in Carburetor County.”
Radiator Springs \\ Carburetor County \\ Ornament Valley
There’s a reason they call it “the cutest little town in Carburetor County” and it’s got to partially be because of the setting…it’s just so iconic!
They call this “Tailfin Ridge” and it’s easy to see why….the shape for the peaks of the mountain range closely resembles the profile of Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, TX.
You’ll recognize Tucumcari Mountain (New Mexico) pretty distinctly (they swapped out the “T” for “RS”.
Radiator Springs Racers is built back into the mesa in a way that reminds me of Chief Yellowhorse Trading Post in Lupton, AZ. I don’t have a great photo of the Radiator Springs Racers area because it was closed during my last trip (of course!), but it looks carved out of a cliff like this.
I think Yellowhorse Trading Post was also the inspiration for the abandoned Wheel Well Motel outside of town (not featured in Carsland), although the name seems to be a nod to the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, MO.
And you can’t forget about those classic Burma Shave signs! These small red signs with their catchy jingles were a staple up and down Route 66 back in the day. There are a few places to see them along the route now mostly in historic parks, but the BEST place to see them “in the wild” is coming into and leaving Seligman, AZ.
They don’t photograph well because they’re so spread out, but here were a few of the jingles around Seligman:
“If hugging on highways is your sport, trade in your car for a Davenport…”
“If daisies are your favorite flower, keep pushin’ up those miles-per-hour…”
And a few more from a museum exhibit in Kingman, AZ:
I think it makes sense for these to be in Seligman as a nod to Angel Delgadillo and his work reviving the route (he was a barber and Burma Shave was a shaving cream). There are 3 or so sets of signs on each side of Seligman that stay maintained.
The ones outside of Radiator Springs Racers are for “Rust-eze” (one of Lightning McQueen’s original sponsors.
“Mind your speed as you go, sheriff is old, but he’s not slow…”
“Dang near fainted, looked like he had just been painted…”
Cozy Cone Motel
Okay! Let’s start with what’s arguably the best part of Radiator Springs (at least my favorite ; )
The Cozy Cone Motel! Sally Carrera’s place is the perfect example of an old Route 66 place that’s been lovingly restored and kept up and running.
The Cozy Cone Motel draws inspiration from quite a few actual places on Route 66…some obvious and some more subtle.
The most obvious is the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. The Blue Swallow is probably the most iconic motel on Route 66. It’s been immaculately preserved and maintained in its original 1939 condition even as it has passed from owner to owner.
The lobby of Sally’s Cozy Cone Motel is a near replica of the front of the Blue Swallow.
Sally’s “Cones” are surely a nod to the two Wigwam Motels that call Route 66 home. There used to be seven Wigwam Motels across America, but now only three remain. The two on Route 66 are located in Holbrook, Arizona and San Bernardino, California. The third is somewhere in Kentucky.
I think the name “Cozy Cone Motel” is likely a reference to the Cozy Dog Drive In in Springfield, Illinois that’s been serving Cozy Dogs (aka corn dogs) to Route 66 travelers since 1949.
While the Blue Swallow Motel certainly has some of the most phenomenal neon on Route 66, I think the style of the Cozy Cone Motel sign reminds me more of the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Missouri.
Or even TeePee Curios in Tucumcari, New Mexico.
And then we’ve got the inspiration for Sally herself! Sally Carrera, a shiny blue Porsche from California who visited Radiator Springs, fell in love, and never left seems to be based on Dawn Welch who owns the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma. While Welch is a native Oklahoman, she went out to see the world before coming back to settle down on Route 66.
Welch bought the historic Rock Cafe (originally built in 1939) in 1993 and it’s a must stop for Cars fans. They’re closed on Sundays and Mondays, but stop by any other day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And don’t miss the Cars memorabilia on the walls including a signed sketch of Buzz and Woody by John Lasseter!
Ramone’s Body Shop
I think Ramone’s Body Shop is the most fantastic example of the Pixar crew just lifting a real life Route 66 place right off the Mother Road and plopping it down in Radiator Springs.
Ramone’s is a nearly identical copy of the U Drop Inn in Shamrock, Texas which just so happened to be one of my FAVORITE stops on my Route 66 trip. Going back through my photos, I surprisingly didn’t get many full shots of Ramone’s, but boy do I have plenty of photos of the U Drop Inn ; )
The old diner/service station was built in 1936 and has fabulous art deco details.
Today, the service station side is home to the Shamrock Chamber of Commerce where they host a lovely visitor center and gift shop and the original cafe has been restored to serve lunch and ice cream. The cafe has limited hours (when I was there in June 2022 they were serving lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11-2 with ice cream/shakes available later in the evenings) but it’s definitely worth planning around. Call ahead to verify hours during your trip!
Lizzie’s Curios Shop
Curio shops were once a dime a dozen on Route 66…selling every little tchotchke you could think of and there are still a handful left.
Lizzie’s seems to be most closely modeled after the Hackberry General Store in Hackberry, Arizona with its wild collection of memorabilia covering every square inch of the outside and inside. Hackberry is still a going concern and it’s situated on a stretch of Route 66 where there isn’t a lot else to see so it’s definitely worth a stop. You’ll find plenty of souvenirs, trinkets, and snacks.
The Sandhill Curiosity Shop in Erick, Oklahoma has also got to be on the shortlist for inspiration. Harley Russel is a character in himself (possibly part of the inspiration for Mater) and if he’s around he’ll invite you into the store to look around and be entertained by one of his “bits.” It’s a shop in name only, there isn’t anything for sale here so if you do get a “show” a tip is appreciated.
One of my favorite touches in Carsland is the “here it is” sign with the tractor on it. This is a direct nod to the Jack Rabbit Trading Post in Joseph City, Arizona. You’ll find the original billboard out in front of the store.
Back in the day, the Jack Rabbit Trading Post had a series of billboards along Route 66 from Missouri to Arizona with the silhouette of a rabbit and a mileage number counting you down until you got to the trading post and the big “here it is” sign.
Jack Rabbit is still an operational curio shop.
And I just have to mention my FAVORITE curio shop along Route 66 here…TeePee Curios in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Lizzie’s doesn’t seem to draw inspiration from it directly, but it’s totally worth a stop.
Flo’s V8 Cafe
Flo’s is the hub of activity in Radiator Springs in the movie and also in Carsland where it’s the land’s main dining establishment.
Flo’s character is reportedly based on Fran Hauser who owned and operated the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas for years.
Adrian is the midpoint of Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles and the diner sits right on the line. The outside doesn’t resemble Flo’s much, but the spirit of the place does. You’ve got to stop in for a piece of pie.
The inside of Flo’s looks like every classic 1950s diner you’ve ever seen. Chrome, bright colors, neon, vinyl booths, a jukebox.
And the gas pumps outside remind me dozens and dozens I saw at restored and decaying service stations up and down the route. Here are some of my favorites:
Mater just might be the most lovable car in Radiator Springs!
The inspiration for his character allegedly came from a rusty tow truck spotted in Galena, Kansas.
The whole town has really embraced their connection to the movie and you can now visit Cars on the Route which features three different spots in the small town where you’ll find replica cars from the movie.
And we can’t forget about the little tractors in the movie (that you’ll find at Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree in Carsland) that seem to be based on the Oatman burros!
This tiny little town on the other side of Sitgreaves Pass between Kingman AZ and the California border is famous for their wild burros who are very comfortable greeting visitors in hopes for a little food.
The road through Sitgreaves Pass is called the Sidewinder for all its twists and turns and I think it’s one of the most magnificent stretches of old Route 66. It’s hard to imagine driving this in an old car in the 30s and 40s.
Fillmore’s Taste In
Fillmore’s Taste In is most likely based on Meteor City, AZ. A geodesic dome that I didn’t stop to take a photo of because it’s getting pretty crumbling and it’s in a sketchy spot along the road, but Fillmore himself is famously based on artist Bob Waldmire who famously traveled up and down Route 66 in his old VW van.
The van is now on display at the Illinois Route 66 Museum in Pontiac, Illinois which is a great stop.
Luigi’s Casa Della Tires
Luigi’s tire shop brings a bit of European flair to Radiator Springs and it just might be the snazziest spot in town.
While the leaning tire tower obviously is reminiscent of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, maybe…just maybe…it’s also a tiny bit inspired by the leaning water tower of Groom, Texas.
More Route 66 Inspiration
Those are all of the “big” places and references I’ve got for you, but there are a TON of tiny details you’ll notice sprinkled into Radiator Springs…
There’s a drive in theater that’s shown in the post credit scenes of the original movie that’s a reference to the MANY drive in theaters that sat on Route 66. It’s probably most closely based on the Route 66 Drive In in Carthage, Missouri, but my favorite is the newly reopened TeePee Drive In in Sapulpa, Oklahoma that has an AMAZING new neon sign.
The scene I described at the beginning of this post about business closing down and people moving away also references the many ghost towns now found along the route. “Glenrio” is shown on one of the windows and it was by far the most interesting ghost town that I encountered on my trip.
Also, while he’s not present in Radiator Springs, “Tex Dinoco” seems directly inspired by the Cadillac Coupe de Villes with longhorns outside of the Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas. The ones currently outside of the Big Texan seem a little newer, but this one I saw at the Fort Worth Stockyards is a dead ringer.
We’ve got Route 66 signs on the pavement!
And of course…my favorite part of Route 66 and Carsland…all the neon!!
A few favorites from the route:
Want more Disneyland posts? Check these out…
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