Over the years I have written for numerous publications, about my love for the back roads of America. Even though the Interstate highways have forever altered America it is the back roads that offer the best opportunities for discovering, or rediscovering, what fun a road trip once was.
For the younger set, those under forty, it may come as a surprise to learn that there once was, and in some rare instances still is, a non-generic world. When I speak on this subject I am always amazed by how many of this generation ask questions as though I had been talking about traveling by Conestoga wagon across the trackless waste.
Granted, traveling during that prehistoric time, say between 1955 and 1970, had its disadvantages. Imagine Highway 93, the portion from Kingman to Wickenburg, with, say, twice the traffic. That was the way most of the major highways, especially Route 66, was during their heyday.
Then there was the matter of summer travel. Air conditioning was a fairly rare option in most automobiles of that period so we, not really knowing different, simply lived with the heat as did countless generations before.
Lodging and food were often the biggest gamble. A motel, or hotel, could turn out to be a real dive complete with bugs, broken furniture and paper thin walls, the reason many chose roadside camping, or it could be a memorable experience with friendly owners that invited you in for breakfast, asked you to grab a cantaloupe from the garden before you left or helped you out of a sticky situation, the result of a breakdown. In one instance, sometime around 1963, we stopped at a motel in Ashfork and were asked to limit water use as it was brought in by rail car.
Even though the chains, such as McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s, were starting to explode upon the scene they had yet to crowd out the old-fashioned mom and pop establishments. As a result you could eat meatloaf that made you nervous because of the corral full of horses immediately in back or you could find a retired pastry chef making pies just because he liked to stay busy.
Regional drink specialties were another reason a kid looked forward to travel in those bygone times. One extremely hot sticky night in the delta country of Mississippi we stopped for gas at a place that looked as though it had changed little since it had been built to serve the needs of motorists traveling the dusty roads in their Model T Ford’s. The smells of the south during the summer are truly unique but my fondest memory of that night was the wonderful cool taste of a locally bottled peach soda.
That was another advantage of traveling without air conditioning, the smells that would waft through the car. Some, obviously, were not particularly pleasant but others, such as in the evening after a rain in the desert or in the farm country of the deep south, are beyond description.
I realize that some things change and that there is no way to hold back the hands of time. It is for that reason that I wax nostalgic.
The opportunities to experience these one of a kind adventures, or to allow our children to, are fast disappearing. The family owned eateries and lodging establishments are fast giving way to the generic chains in small town America. In some places the combination of bypassed highways and a dwindling population can even make it difficult to find a place to stay, eat or get fuel especially in the evenings.
And, to be perfectly honest, air conditioning, guaranteed room or meal quality and highways that are more than designated demolition derby tracks have made traveling better. But, like the cars that travel the modern roads, there is something missing – individuality.
With this somewhat long-winded narrative as the foundation I would like to suggest some routes that offer the best of both worlds and at least offer the opportunity to find modern conveniences without much effort.
Heading my list has to be Highway 54 from Tucumcari in New Mexico to Highway 36/Interstate 72, a few miles west of Springfield, Illinois. Lots of small town America, proximity to the Interstate system as well as larger communities allow for indulgence in modern generic eating or lodging and a number of truly American stops (the world’s largest hand dug well in Greensburg, Kansas) place this one in my top ten list.
Closer to home is Highway 180 from Holbrook, Arizona, to Deming, New Mexico. If I were rating a road for sheer beauty and time capsule businesses this would be number one. However, as there is little access to the Interstate once you leave Holbrook, there is little opportunity to take advantage of modern road trip “conveniences” I rate it as number two.
Another that falls into this category, just a bit farther down the scale on roadside beauty, is Highway 60 between Show Low, Arizona, and Socorro, New Mexico. If you try this one I highly recommend a return trip via I25 south, then state highway 152 through the Black Range to Silver City and Highway 180 north to Holbrook. If you enjoy scenery, taking pictures, real ghost towns, wild life and lots of mountains I guarantee this to be a trip without equal.
For a shorter adventure of similar stature, without the ghost towns and absolute wilderness, try Mormon Lake Road (paved) south from Flagstaff to state highway 87. Run south to Payson and turn east on state highway 260. This will take you to Springerville where you can catch Highway 180 north to Holbrook.
When the Dodge Magnum made its debut, I was quite pleased. When its popularity translated into sales, I had an ear-to-ear grin. The mini van, as versatile and practical as it was, was a poor substitute for the station wagon.
It would seem the station wagon, like the mythical Phoenix, was about to rise from the ashes of obscurity. As an added bonus the station wagon is now well on the way to gaining long overdue attention from the collector car crowd.
I am sure this is for good reason. Vintage wagons are different and, as when new, are quite practical. As another advantage, more than a few were outfitted special packages that provided the necessary power for towing or extreme economy.
Even in the waning years of their popularity, this was the case. In 1994, 1995 and 1996 the Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was available with a 260 horsepower V8 engine with 335 ft. lbs. of torque!
If you would prefer something a little more economical perhaps a 1956 Rambler hardtop wagon might be the answer. When equipped with the optional overdrive these truly unique vehicles consistently tested at more than 25 miles per gallon.
The Olds Vista Cruiser wagon with the unique raised roof trimmed in glass panels, introduced in 1964, came to epitomize the American station wagon and today leads the explosion of interest in vintage wagons. However, a lesser-known companion model, the Buick Skylark Sport Wagon is relatively obscure.
The ultimate station wagon has to be the Checker built Aerobus. Many associate this “stretch” station wagon with the last years of the company when in actuality the Aerobus story began in 1935 with the introduction of the Lycoming eight cylinder powered Y8 series and special order for the Parmelee Transportation extended wheel base models in six-door configuration. There is evidence an eight door version was also produced.
The next chapter in the history of the Aerobus begins in December of 1954 with the introduction of the A-8 series. On special order, standard model A-8’s were shipped to Armbruster-Stageway of Fort Smith, Arkansas and stretched to accommodate eight doors with comparable seating.
As the mechanical components were not modified from the stock 226 c.i.d., six-cylinder Continental engine coupled to a three speed transmission the additional weight made the vehicles performance worse than anemic. In the United States where highway improvements were resulting in higher speeds this was a detriment but in other countries the almost truck like attributes of these stretched Checker’s was ideal. As a result, the majority of this generation Aerobus was shipped to Middle Eastern countries, most notably Turkey.
The association with Armbruster-Stageway would continue through 1961. With the addition of more powerful engines, the Aerobus steadily increased in popularity so as a result in that year the decision was made to improve profitability of these vehicles by building them entirely in house. The Kalamazoo Gazette for June 21, 1961 noted, “…a completely new line of vehicles – the Checker Aerobus. Produced in both six-door, 9 passenger and eight door, 12 passenger models…”
For 1963, a larger Continental six-cylinder engine rated at 141 horsepower became an option in the basic Checker sedans and station wagons and standard in the Aerobus. For most companies an order for seventy-two units would have been laughable, for Checker an order for that number of Aerobus by the United States government that year was seen as confirmation that targeting niche markets was still the companies’ strong point.
Though the sales of the Aerobus in the United States were increasing, the cars primarily served to spearhead the companies’ penetration into foreign markets. A few importers took a page from the Checker playbook and began modifying these vehicles to local niche markets.
Perhaps one of the most notable entrepreneurs who staked their fortune on such markets was Patrick Seton who opened the first Checker dealership in Sweden during the mid 1950’s. The first endeavor involved the modification of a six door, 152.5 inch wheel base Aerobus into a prisoner transport vehicle for the Swedish prison system. His second was to replace the seats in a similar car with smaller ones and then selling the cars to school systems in Sweden as school busses.
In 1966, de Giorgi, a Swiss coachbuilder began modifying the Aerobus into several different configurations including ambulances. Though the idea was a sound one, only three were built; two were sold in Switzerland and one in France.
For 1968, Checker greatly expanded the list of engine options to include a Chevrolet built 230-c.i.d., 140 horsepower six cylinder, 200 horsepower 307-c.i.d. V8 and a 275 horsepower 327 c.i.d. V8. In the late summer of that year a Perkins diesel, the first diesel engine available in an American passenger car, also became available. In spite of these overdue improvements, overall sales at Checker stumbled with Aerobus leading the decline.
As a result, in 1970 the Aerobus became available by special order only. A redefined version of the Aerobus with standard sedan trunk rear rather than station wagon made its debut to a tepid response in 1976. After the production of only 107 units, the Aerobus was unceremoniously dropped with almost no notice from the press or the motoring public. Six years later, all production ceased and one of the most unique chapters in American automotive history drew to a close.
For those who march to a different drummer the Checker, more than twenty years after the cessation of production, still presents an irresistible draw. Though the Aerobus has yet to show similar popularity, with the resurgence of interest in station wagons how long can it be before they too are resurrected for the ultimate bring the crowd along vintage cruiser?