Ever wanted to drive Route 66 but didn’t know where to begin? You’re not alone, but thankfully there’s an easy alternative
Road trip are two words that put a smile on the face of any red-blooded car fanatic, and the ultimate road trip is of course Route 66 — the Mother Road of the USA. Many would be surprised to learn that Beach Hop’s Noddy Watts’ day job is tour leader for Kiwis on Route 66, a business that specializes in showing Kiwis, and a few Aussies, the real America along that historic and world-famous road.
Opened in 1927, the 2477-mile road played an important role in the development of the USA. During the Great Depression, many from Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas travelled Route 66 to escape the ‘Dust Bowl’ and to head to the greener pastures in California. During World War II, the road was used to move military personnel across country, and then in the ’50s and ’60s it became even more popular as vehicles became more reliable and people headed west for vacations to visit attractions such as Disneyland.
As the road became busier, it became more dangerous so the Interstate system was developed. Unfortunately, that took its toll on the many small towns that relied on the passing motorist for business, as portrayed in the popular animated movie Cars.
When the road was finally decommissioned in 1985, a group of concerned business people started the ‘Historic Route 66 Preservation Society’ and, thankfully, had the remaining sections of road classified as historic so they couldn’t be ripped up and lost forever.
Route 66 is no longer a complete, non-stop road, so five years ago Noddy worked with a US-based GPS company to put together a route from Chicago to LA that would follow as much as possible of the remaining sections of the road. Many parts are now on private land, built over, dead ends, or on Native American reservations and aren’t drivable, so Noddy’s route avoids these — and major cities, as Noddy prefers the country sections of the road and smaller towns.
Over the past five years, more than 250 Kiwis have been across the USA on the tours. “I believe you can’t experience the real USA in a couple of weeks, so our Route 66 tour is 28 days long,” says Noddy. “I work with Kylie Ward from The Travel Brokers, who manages all the bookings whilst I look after the tour party from the moment they arrive in Los Angeles. Each couple rents a late-model Mustang convertible from Hertz. We put decals on the cars — the Hertz general manager helps us do it, and wishes us farewell as we start the ultimate road trip. Each tour has a maximum of 40 people, which means 21 cars including mine. The sight of 21 Mustang convertibles cruising together sure does attract a lot of attention.”
The tour heads to Chicago via Bakersfield, Las Vegas, Wendover, Salt Lake City, Casper, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, and La Crosse. “We have structured the tours with alternate long and short days and we take in lots of attractions on our way to Chicago. We visit hot-rodding legend Gene Winfield at his workshop in the Mojave Desert, check out the Strip in Vegas, see Hoover Dam, Bonneville Speedway, Mt Rushmore, and Badlands, and enjoy an evening paddle cruise on the Mississippi River. I meet the group for breakfast each morning and give them their daily run sheet with instructions. Once people hit the road., they drive at their own pace. We all catch up at the hotel in the late afternoon, usually meeting at the pool for a swim, a drink, and to share the day’s adventures, before heading out for dinner. We do this every day, and the groups become very social as they get to know one another.”
Noddy has a saying “The Mother Road creates brothers and sisters,” and it’s very true, as there is nothing like a road trip to create a special bond between strangers.
Noddy continues “Chicago is a fantastic city, and that’s where our Route 66 tour officially starts as we head back to LA. Our hotel is right downtown, just two blocks from Adams Street and the official ‘Route 66 Begins’ sign, where, traditionally, we have a group photo taken. We then make our way out of Chicago and begin the journey west, through the small country towns and well-known Route 66 attractions. We pass through seven states on Route 66, and each one is completely different — the scenery and the people.
“After five years of doing the tours, I’m becoming quite well known by the locals along the road and they love Kiwis. We get special attention and get to experience things that others may not, including private car collections that are just mind blowing. Some women on the tour are concerned that the trip will be all about cars, but that isn’t the case at all. We have a nice balance of tourist attractions, such as the Grand Canyon, shopping, and car-related stuff. We even have a couple of boys/girls days where we do our own thing, and that is a lot of fun.
“Once back in LA, we have five nights to unwind, but still take in as much as we can. We actually drive on to the Santa Monica Pier and park up at the official ‘End of the Trail’ sign for another group photo, drive along Rodeo Drive and through Hollywood, visit Petersen Automotive Museum, and lunch at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard. Add Disneyland, car shows, and hot-rod shops to the mix and there is a lot to see and do over the five days.
“Most of our customers are car people, aged 40-plus, many of them Mustang Club and American Muscle Car Club members. Most tours see one or more cars purchased along the way and shipped back to New Zealand. It’s a great way to find, inspect, and test drive your new toy. I offer advice about the purchase and help arrange shipping as part of my job. It’s always a buzz to see the cars that have been purchased on the tours appear at Beach Hop at some stage,” says Noddy.
The tours have become so popular and the feedback so great that many people want to do it again. In Noddy’s words, “Last year, we introduced a new tour that starts and ends in Miami. Once again travelling in Mustang convertibles, we head up the east coast through Daytona Beach, Kitty Hawk, Washington DC, and New York to Niagara Falls, then across to Detroit and Chicago, before heading south via Indianapolis, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi to New Orleans, then back to Miami. That tour has fewer miles and a couple of more nights than our Route 66 tour, so it is a bit more relaxed. We call it the ‘Cars & Blues Tour’, as we’ve mixed car collections with the amazing music found in Chicago, Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. What we experience on this tour is mind-blowing: the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida Everglades, Daytona and Indianapolis speedways, Wright Brothers Memorial, Washington DC and New York City, dinner in Canada at Niagara Falls, Henry Ford Museum, Gilmore Car Museum, NSRA Street Rod Nationals, Jim Beam Distillery, Grand Ole Opry Honky Tonks in Nashville, Gracelands and Beale St in Memphis, Highway 61 (the Blues Highway) along the Mississippi River, New Orleans nightlife, Gospel church service, Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, and more.”
The 2015 Cars & Blues tour has already sold out, so a third tour has been added to cater for demand. As Noddy says, “Next year, we will do our first ever ‘West Coaster’ tour, where we will drive as much of the west coast of the USA as possible, from Seattle to San Diego on the Pacific Coast Highway. From San Diego the route travels north through Arizona. We have five nights in Colorado, with a drive to the top of Pikes Peak, before heading through Yellowstone National Park.”
If you want to take part, it sounds like you’d better get in quick, as already the tour is selling out. For more info, visit kiwisonroute66.com or give Kylie a call on 027 610 6041.