Those that may not have driven Route 66, the 2451 mile road trip from Chicago Illinois to Los Angeles California, possibly don’t realise just how clever and well researched the Disney Pixar ‘Cars’ movies are. When the idea for the Cars movie first came up, John Lasseter, a filmmaker and animator, drove the Route and spoke to as many people as he could to learn about the history of Route 66 and took inspiration from the real life locations that they passed!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links
Updated: November 2019
Route 66 Cars
Even if you’ve seen the film a million times, this scene is still worth rewatching!
There’s a scene in the original Cars movie where Lightening McQueen and Sally are sat on a road that’s quite high up, over looking the valley floor. Sally tells Lightening about how before the Interstate was built, Route 66 used to be ‘buzzing’. People would travel following a road that curved with the land (rather than cutting across it in a straight line) and would stop at ‘Mom and Pop’ cafes and gas stations and talk to the people along the Route. Gradually the small towns started to ‘die off’ because the trade route just wasn’t there any more.
This was said to have been inspired by Lasseter’s meeting with Angel Delgadillo. Angel founded the Historic Route 66 Association after experiencing first hand how almost all traffic disappeared from the town of Seligman Arizona when Interstate 40 opened. He introduced giant billboards and tried to turn the town into a tourist attraction in attempt to bring the traffic back. Angel is quite the character, the toilets at the Snow Cap Drive In have a (fake) CCTV camera on the back of the door stating ‘smile you’re on camera!’
Radiator Springs Route 66
One question that gets asked a lot is where is Radiator Springs in real life. There isn’t actually a ‘Radiator Springs’ along Route 66. The fictional town takes its inspiration from several different real life locations:
But first. Lets start with the name. Obviously there is not an actual town called Radiator Springs on Route 66, HOWEVER, there is a Peach Springs and a Cool Springs.
The businesses and people that inspired the characters and businesses can be found spread out across the length of Route 66!
Radiator Springs Drive In Theater
(66 Drive In Theater – Carthage, Missouri)
This is mainly shown in the credits of the Cars movie during the outtakes but it is very much a real location. The 66 Drive In Theater is located in Carthage, Missouri. I was lucky enough that my Route 66 trip coincided with the release of ‘Cars 2’ so we got to watch it at the Drive In that was featured in the first film! On opening night (the week before), Larry the Cable Guy, voice of Mater was there to introduce the film!
The inspiration for Tow Mater
(Cars On The Route – Galena, Kansas)
Just down the road from the 66 Drive In Theater is ‘Cars On The Route’ (previously 4 Women On The Route) in Galena, Kansas. This is an old converted gas station which is now a gift shop, but parked on its forecourt is ‘Tow Tater’ a rusty old mining truck. This became ‘Tow Mater’, however the personality for the character was based on a Route 66 local who can turn his feet backwards…which is why Mater is so good at reversing!
The people that call Route 66 their home really are the proudest and friendilest people. We were there quite early and just wanted a couple of pictures of Tow Tater, when the owner saw us and opened the shop up for us and showed us all her scrapbooks about the garage and the Route! Since I visited, there is now a replica of Tow Mater that sits alongside Tow Tater!
Ramone’s Body Shop
(‘U Drop Inn’ Tower Conoco – Shamrock, Texas)
Ramone’s Body Shop is almost an identical replica of the ‘U Drop Inn’ Tower Conoco gas station in Shamrock, Texas. The building is currently home to a tourist information centre and the town’s chamber of Commerce.
Tex – Character in Cars 3
(The Big Texan – Amarillo, Texas)
One of the newer characters in Cars 3 called Tex has bullhorns on the bonnet/hood, just like the cars that are used as part of the limo service at The Big Texan in Amarillo, Texas. They offer a complimentary service and will pick up (and return you) to almost any hotel, motel or RV park in Amarillo. The Big Texan has been on the likes of ‘Man Vs Food’ thanks to the 72oz steak challenge, where if you eat the whole lot (plus sides) in 1 hour, you get the meal for free! This was one of my favourite stops on the Route. We stayed at The Big Texan Motel next door that looks like a Wild West Village and even has a horse hotel and a Texas shaped swimming pool!
Disney Cars Cadillac Range – Radiator Springs Landscape
(Cadillac Ranch – Amarillo, Texas)
If you’ve seen the Cars movies, you will probably be familiar with the landscape that surrounds Radiator Springs. In Cars, this is ‘Cadillac Range’ but in real life the inspiration comes from Cadillac Ranch also in Amarillo, Texas. Cadillac Ranch is now a public art installation where visitors can walk around 10 Cadillacs buried nose first in a field and spray paint over them. I loved the creativity of it but some people aren’t a fan because of the fumes and all the spray cans that are littered around. Be sensible and either pass your can onto another visitor that may want to paint after you or take it with you and dispose of it properly, it’s no excuse to litter.
When Lightening and Sally go for a drive in the mountain range on the outskirts of Radiator Springs, the road is very similar to that you’d find driving the Sitgreaves Pass in Arizona. The real life road winds through the Black Mountains, with steep drops often just inches from the main road!
Flo’s and the V8 Cafe
(Midpoint Cafe – Adrian, Texas)
Another Route 66 Cars character inspired by a real life person was Flo who was based on Fran Houser who used to own the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas. They were famous for their Ugly Crust Pie which as far as I’m aware the new owners carried on this dessert! The Midpoint Cafe is the centre point of Route 66, 1139 miles from Chicago, Illinois and 1139 miles from Los Angeles, California. Of course there is a sign for a photo opportunity!
Arizona (& California)
The Cozy Cone Motel
(Wigwam Motel – Holbrook, Arizona & San Bernardino, California)
When doing my Route 66 research I was ridiculously excited that I’d be able to stay in ‘The Cozy Cone Motel’! It actually exists! Well, almost! The cones are actually wigwams and there are 2 ‘Wigwam Motels‘ along Route 66, one in Holbrook, Arizona and the 2nd in San Bernardino, California. I stayed at Holbrook’s Wigwam Motel, which consists of 15 wigwams, laid out around a reception area (in an old Texaco garage) and each wigwam has an old fashioned car parked outside it. In the Cars Movie the cones are bright orange road cones and is where Lightening McQueen stays while in Radiator Springs!
The wigwams either have 1 or 2 double beds inside and a small toilet and shower area…and by small I mean REALLY small. The shower is in the sloping part of the wigwam, I’m 5ft 4 and struggled to stand up straight, let alone get my arms above my head! It’s all part of the fun though!
The name COZY Cone, took its inspiration from the Cozy Drive In, in Springfield, Illinois. The Cozy Drive In is said to be the birth place of corn dogs…plus their fries are awesome!
HERE IT IS
(Jack Rabbit Trading Post – Joseph City, Arizona)
Eagle eyes are needed for this one! A big yellow HERE IT IS billboard with a ‘tractor’ on advertising the Radiator Springs Curios, is an almost duplicate version of the Joseph City Jack Rabbit Trading Post billboard in Arizona (but with a rabbit rather than a tractor)! The Jack Rabbit Trading Post has been in operation since the 1940s and was known for its hand painted rabbit billboard along Route 66 which ended with the big HERE IT IS sign outside the store. As well as it being a convenience store and gift shop, there’s a big fibre glass rabbit outside it for visitors to climb on and have their photo taken!
Fillmore the VW Bus
(Meteor City Trading Post – Meteor City, Arizona)
I have a soft spot for Fillmore because he’s a Volkswagen Bus and I’m obsessed with them. Plus he’s covered in stickers and drawings! Fillmore was inspired by Bob Waldmire, who was famous for his Route 66 artwork often driving around in an orange VW Bus. He also had a converted school bus that he sometimes lived in which is a piece of artwork on its own! These can be found in Pontiac, Illinois.
Fillmore’s ‘dome’ in Radiator Springs was inspired by the Meteor City Trading Post in Arizona. The trading post was home to the ‘world’s longest map of US Route 66’, painted by Bob Waldmire himself. However the map and the doomed trading post were vandalised after standing empty for a while. The Meteor City Trading Post has recently been bought by a couple who plan on renovating the dome and bringing it back to life so hopefully it’ll be in business again soon.
Radiator Springs Curios
(Hackberry General Store – Hackberry, Arizona)
The Hackberry General Store in Arizona inspired Lizzie’s Radiator Springs Curios. The real life front of the store looks just like the one in the movie with lots of old signs and gas pumps decorating the outside. The inside is a gift shop packed with lots of Route 66 souvenirs.
Disney Cars Tractor Characters
(Wild Burros – Oatman, Arizona)
It is said that the wild Burros in Oatman, Arizona inspired the Disney Cars tractor characters, although the tractors have a very cow like nature (including when they go ‘cow tipping’ in the first Cars movie) but the burros are a kind of donkey! Oatman is like a proper little Wild West town that’s well worth a stop (if you like tourist traps), it used to be a mining town back in the day.
The Oatman Highway between Kingman and Oatman is also an AMAZING stretch of Route 66 that’s well worth travelling on (I dare you to try and find the Shaffer Spring Goldfish Bowl on the side of the mountain…it actually has goldfish in it but beware of the bees)!
The Burros in Oatman literally roam the streets throughout the day. The adults can be fed but the babies have little ‘stop’ stickers stuck on their heads because they can’t digest the adult food! Apparently the locals find the Burros a little annoying because they get in the way and wander into the gift shops, we saw one lady trying to ‘shoo’ it away with a water spray bottle! I thought it was brilliant though! (The public toilets in Oatman are compost toilets for those that may not like little surprises like that!)
Disney Cars Route 66 movie end credits: John Mayer – Route 66
Other Radiator Springs Route 66 Inspiration
I’ve mentioned some of the larger Route 66 locations that became inspiration for the Cars movie but there are so many other places that make up tiny aspects of the fictional Disney town. For example, there’s a wall in Radiator Springs which is actually a mash up of the following 2 buildings. It takes the ‘step down’ shape that appears on the roof of Joe and Aggie’s restaurant in Holbrook, Arizona.
Yet the writing on the brick work in the movie is inspired by the side of a building in Galena, Kansas!
So as you can see, Radiator Springs isn’t quite a real town, instead it captures the life and soul of over 2000 miles of people and places that are very much characters in their own right along Route 66! Cars is an extremely clever film and I’m sure there are many other places and locations along Route 66 that inspired the Cars movie!
A lot of the businesses on the route have embraced their Cars connection and you’ll see lots of cars with eyeballs in the windowscreens. Locations and people that inspired the movie were also given a gift basket from Disney Pixar as a thank you. Some places have their gifts on display, which makes a great conversation starter as they’ll then tell you their story!
Cars Land in California
The closest you’re going to get to a real life Radiator Springs as a whole phyical town, is at Cars Land in the Disney California Adventure Park (with is part of the Disneyland Resort) in Anaheim, California!
Now if you head back to the top of the post and rewatch the clip, you can see a whole bunch of the ‘real life’ Disney Cars locations that I mention; the Wigwam Motel (Cozy Cone), Tower Conoco (Ramone’s Body Shop), Mater, Flo’s V8 Cafe (including Flo herself!), the HERE IT IS sign, Cadillac Ranch (Cadillac Range) and Filmore to name a few! Did you spot them all?
Are there any other Route 66/Cars Movie references that you’ve spotted?!
Route 66 Resources
SHOP: Route 66 Decor
Pin these Route 66 Cars movie locations and inspiration for later!
Disclosure: Please note some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking and it comes at no extra cost to you! As always, opinions are my own.