Scientific American, August 3, 1901 – “Covering the North American Continent from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Ocean in an automobile has been attempted by Alexander Winton, president of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, of Cleveland, Ohio. That the expedition failed is no fault of the machine Mr. Winton used, nor was it due to absence of grit or determination on the part of the operator. Neither was the failure due to roads. The utter absence of roads was the direct and only cause.”
Fame is a fickle thing. People that transform the world through innovation can be less than an historic footnote a generation or two later. Even the rich and famous are not immune to the curse of time that can render them a forgotten obscurity with the passing of time. Case in point, Alexander Winton, father of the great America road trip.
By 1891 the fledgling hobby of bicycling was on the cusp of becoming a national obsession. Within a few short years the number of bicycle manufacturers in the United States soared from a mere handful to hundreds. Winton opened his factory in 1891. Before the decade closed, it was the embryonic automobile industry and related technologies that was grabbing the nations attention. Alexander Winton was a pioneer in this industry as well. The Winton Motor Car Carriage Company was established in 1897, and his first automobile sold in 1898.
Winton pioneered racing and performance sports as a marketing tool, and in 1901 he set out on what was to be an epic adventure that ensured his company and the cars that he produced would be the most famous ones in the world. Accompanied by Charles B. Shank, a journalist with Scientific American, Winton’s grueling odyssey was chronicled. The duo left from San Francisco on the morning of Monday, May 20. They rolled into Mill City on the eastern slope of the Sierras in Nevada on May 29, and then loaded their battered car onto a a train for shipping home to Cleveland. The epic adventure was a failure in only that Winton did not complete his trip. The riveting tale added to Winton’s fame, and ignited a national passion for automobile odysseys worthy of Jason and the Argo-naughts, and stories about daring “automobilists.”
In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson became the first person to drive an automobile from coast to coast. Five years later in an epic race drivers fought a first place finish over a course that stretched from New York City to Paris France. In 1913, the Lincoln Highway, the first highway built specifically for automobile drivers, that connected Times Square in New York City with Lincoln Park in San Francisco was completed and extensively marketed. Dozens of other highways were completed during this period including the National Old Trails Road, predecessor to Route 66 in the southwest.
Every day dozens of feature articles, books, and speakers extolled the wonders experienced on the great America road trip. Emily Post chronicled her adventure in a best selling book By Motor to The Golden Gate. In 1915, Edsel Ford chronicled his adventure to California from Michigan with college buddies in a journal and provided dozens of interviews to interested journalists. Road trips, even if just for a Sunday drive, was national mania by 1920. Preachers lamented the decline in church in attendance as families took to the road in ever increasing numbers. All of this publicity coupled with a healthy dose of media induced romanticism set the stage for a series of marketing campaigns that would transform a mere highway into an internationally recognized icon that has come to symbolize the quintessential American experience – the road trip.
US 66 was commissioned in November 1926. In early 1927, Cyrus Avery and a handful of businessmen with vision launched the US Highway 66 Association, and kicked off a marketing campaign that promoted Route 66 as the Main Street of America. This was followed by the Transcontinental Foot Race, an event dubbed as the Bunion Derby that garnered international media attention, and a promotional campaign that promoted the highway as the best route to the Olympics in Los Angles. Then came the book and movie The Grapes of Wrath, a little song about getting your kicks on Route 66, and a television program.
Fast forward to 2019. Communities and states along the highway corridor are planning centennial Route 66 celebrations. The Dutch Route 66 Association is planning a “meet & greet” in Amsterdam this August. Organizers in Poland are working on details for a 2020 European Route 66 Festival. Companies in Australia and the Czech Republic, Germany and New Zealand, Netherlands and Norway specialize in Route 66 tours.
Alexander Winton may have fallen short of his goal. But the Great American Road Trip that he launched in 1901 is today more popular than ever before. The big difference between then and now is that that road trip has an international fan club.