I drive an early Lexus LS 400, one that’s been rather distastefully decorated to look like that famous car from The Dukes of Hazzard. The General Lee(xus), as it’s affectionately known, is used for long-haul drives across Europe as part of rallies raising money for charities such as Sparks and BEN.
To this day it’s still a wonderful ride, with refinement levels that the latest cars barely manage to equal. After more than 20 years on the road, the only thing that is less than perfect is that one of the LCD displays on the climate control is a little dimmer than I’d like. It really is quite remarkable.
Now that the LS model has been in the UK for almost 25 years, I wondered what the latest incarnation is capable of. How big a step forward has been made, and is it still the right car for a massive road trip?
I needed a suitable destination. The Lexus LS was designed in California, so it made sense to head there. While it’s not celebrating its own anniversary this year, Route 66 is knocking on the door of being 90 years old. The fact that one end is in the Golden State was excuse enough to commit to making the drive.
Originally conceived to link the rural areas of America to the big, and rich, cities, Route 66 became an iconic road not just in the US but across the world. Running from Chicago to Los Angeles, the 2,400 miles or so of tarmac wasn’t always tarmac – many miles were (and still are) nothing more than dirt roads, while around McLean in Texas, the infamous Jericho Gap is just a mud pit in an otherwise dry and barren desert.
Even worse was La Bajada Hill, an area south of Santa Fe that even today is a formidable test for the best 4x4s. I’ll probably skip that bit.
Time has improved the route immeasurably though, at least until it was finally replaced with the soulless Interstate motorway in 1985. Stay off the I-40 and most of the old Route 66 still exists, from the broad sweeping curves of Missouri to the first-ever freeway in Los Angeles.
That’s not to say it’ll all be plain sailing: some of those areas of the original route that are still dirt tracks will be tackled. I’ll also need to avoid the wild burros that roam the roads around Oatman, and there’s the very real danger of tornadoes around Oklahoma.
I’ll be facing all that Route 66 has to throw at me in the comfortable and relaxing confines of the 2014 Lexus LS 460. It might not be how the original pioneers travelled in 1926, but they were never ones for standing still.
America’s Mother Road is more than just a road that gets you from A to B. It’s wrapped up in a mystique that says more about the ideology of the US than nearly anything else, and I’ve been experiencing it all from the driver’s seat of a Lexus LS 460.
Rolling the Lexus through Chicago, the luxurious limo-like saloon just felt right for the country’s third-biggest city. The city streets surrounded by towering steel and glass skyscrapers mirrored the car’s purposeful lines.
A quick stop at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, in business on the outskirts of the city since the 1920s and continuing to thrive despite the Interstate bypassing the site, surprised me. The owner, Patrick, took pity and gave me a private tour, before firing up the kitchen and serving up incredible fried chicken. For breakfast. Welcome to America.
From there it was the rolling plains of Illinois, stopping off at places as diverse as Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, the Beer Nuts factory (there’s no beer in them!), and the oldest maple syrup producers in the country.
Crossing the Mississippi into Missouri, Route 66 mostly disappears. The interstate overlays the old road, so it was time to stretch the 4.6-litre V8 under the hood of the LS and make my way across the increasingly green and lush countryside before arriving in Joplin.
Devastated by a tornado just three years ago, Joplin has rebuilt and, apart from the odd empty space along residential streets where people have moved away, you’d never know that the town was nearly erased from the maps.
Unfortunately, the weather had closed in at this point and tornadoes were forecast. The Lexus was parked up and I retreated to a hotel room. After a fortunately uneventful night, it was west to Kansas and Baxter Springs. This area didn’t fare so well, taking a direct hit that destroyed around a quarter of the small town.
I stopped to help as much as I could, feeling helpless when trying to assist people in picking up what few belongings they had left out of the rubble of what was once their home. Route 66 might be an incredible experience, but the futility of driving it simply for fun when others on the route are fighting for their lives (and sometimes losing) struck home hard.
It was an environment that was both emotionally trying but also positively uplifting – despite the loss of everything, spirits were high, the fightback had already begun…
Happier thoughts abound as I turned towards Tulsa, aiming for their Golden Driller. Standing proud above the expo centre, the 76-foot tall statue celebrates the oil industry of the region.
Thanks to the 85-litre fuel tank in the LS and fuel economy hovering just a tiny bit below 30mpg (and well above the official economy figures), visits to gas stations were few and far between. Sorry, Tulsa.
The vast plains of Oklahoma started giving way to the sandy desert landscape of Texas, but still, there was plenty to see. Clinton is home to a Route 66 museum that is worth a visit for anybody making the same journey. It doesn’t wallow in the rose-tinted past but instead brings the road alive in a modern setting, embracing the resurgence of interest in one of the country’s icons.
Less iconic is McLean’s barbed wire museum. Set up by barbed wire enthusiasts and collectors, the surprisingly large building plays host to just a handful of visitors a day. The day summed up just what makes America so unique, that the bizarre can exist in such a remote location and yet still be considered normal.
Everything is big in Texas, so we’re told, and the overnight stop in Amarillo proved that. The Big Texan Steak Ranch offered a 72oz steak on the menu, along with enough side dishes to keep an average person fed for a week or two. Tempting as it was, I’d put on enough weight already.
The car park backed up to the ‘big’ point, with pickup trucks lining up in every direction. Despite being 5.09m long, the LS was dwarfed by the locals, including the Toyota Tundra – a model we don’t see in the UK – that adds an extra 1.2 metres to the length and towers over by nearly 50cm.
Leaving Amarillo and heading 50 miles west, I reached the unremarkable town of Adrian, with a population of just 149. However, at the end is a busy cafe, with bikers, trucks and cars parked outside. Operating continuously since 1928, the cafe sits astride a line that marks the precise halfway point of Route 66.
Taking the Lexus LS 460 along Route 66 isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The first 1,139 miles passed by in a supremely comfortable blur, with rolling countryside eventually giving way to the edge of the sandy desert areas of Texas.
Reaching the halfway point in Adrian, Texas, I wondered what might lay ahead. The answer, seemingly, was sand. Lots of sand.
Abandoned ghost town after abandoned ghost town littered the crumbling sections of old Route 66, a reminder that the interstates gave so much to the country but, at the same time, took so much away.
The Mother Road took me towards Santa Fe in New Mexico, climbing 7,700 feet into the Sangre de Cristo mountains, a sub-range of the Rocky mountains, and the temperatures rose with it. The LS’s climate control had been set to a cool 21c since I left Chicago, but now it was time to turn the ventilated seats on too.
Santa Fe only briefly appeared on the original Route 66, with the pioneers of the time deciding that it was just too remote to bother with and so eventually the road was realigned and Santa Fe was left to its own devices once more. Still, as one of the oldest towns in the country, it’s not doing too badly.
Part of the reason to abandon the route was probably due to La Bajada Hill, a steep drop you encounter when leaving the area. Now bypassed (fortunately) I headed back to the bottom of the hill to see what the fuss was about. What I saw was a rocky off-road route that would thoroughly test a Toyota Hilux, let alone the luxury limo I was in.
Back on the roads, the New Mexico highways provided some of the most interesting sections of ‘66 so far, with vast plains sweeping between steep mountains, the road curving along rocky cliff edges and, on occasion, turning into nothing more than a flat and solid dirt road.
These led to the continental divide, the point at which water either flows to the Pacific or Atlantic ocean and the point at which I felt I was finally getting nearer to the west coast.
A quick detour through the breathtakingly beautiful Painted Desert put me in Holbrook, Arizona, for the night. That’s where you’ll find one of two remaining wigwam motels on the route. Famous for being the inspiration behind the Cozy Cone motel in Pixar’s Cars movie, it’s obviously where I chose to stop overnight.
West of Holbrook, the desert really takes over. There’s nothing for miles around until you reach a big hole in the ground. Created by a meteor impact some 50,000 years ago, it’s another reminder of just how fragile we really are on this planet.
Further up the road, I took another detour to another big hole in the ground. Slightly more famous, the Grand Canyon looked so magnificent that I filled up more of the 560 litres of boot space with a tent purchased to use for just one night at the rim of the canyon.
Leaving one of the undisputed wonders of the world behind the next morning, after barely any sleep, it was then through the twisty roads that weave their way through the Black Mountains, the tarmac rivalling some of the best offerings from Switzerland. The LS showed that, while it’s never going to be a sports car, the chassis dynamics were strong enough to allow plenty of confidence, even in those areas where there was nothing to stop you from falling back down to the desert.
Slap bang in the middle of the desert is a sight many will have seen over the Thames. The old London Bridge now sits in Lake Havasu City, a monument to a man’s ambition to build a city in the desert. Robert McCulloch Sr bought the bridge in the 60s and had it shipped to Arizona, reassembling it brick by brick to attract buyers to his city.
Continuing west, the Mojave desert spread out in front of me. Taking the old road rather than the interstate meant spending 120 miles in the middle of the Mojave with no petrol stations, no cafes, and no water stops. Just the Lexus, me and what remains of Bagdad…
This small town was bypassed in 1973 and died almost instantly. Stuck in the middle of the desert, and holding a record for going 767 days without rain, all that remains there now is a single tree, standing proud in the middle of a vast plain.
From there to Los Angeles, there’s little to see or do. The other remaining wigwam motel looks large on the route at San Bernardino, then it’s just a long slog through the LA megalopolis.
If the scale of the desert was tough to grasp, nothing prepared me for just how big the urban sprawl of LA is. I’d hit heavy traffic, dense urban areas and endless retail business; I was nearly there! Then I looked at the Lexus Premium Navigation system and saw that there were still 70 miles left to cover. I was nearer Palm Springs than Santa Monica.
Three hours later, I rolled the Lexus LS 460 up onto Santa Monica Pier. Shutting the car down, I sat for a few minutes and realised just how far we had come together.
My own 21-year-old LS 400 paved the way for Lexus, being a new luxury car that was markedly better than anything that had gone before it. Now 25 years after its introduction, the LS continues to improve, getting more luxurious, safer and more efficient with each iteration.
Route 66 was something special for the US and, like the LS, the newer interstates are undoubtedly safer, more efficient and considerably quicker. On this occasion though, that doesn’t make it better.
By improving what was there, America has taken away some of the magic from the road. The interstates are simply for transporting people from one place to another, while Route 66 is a journey to experience and savour.
And there are few better cars to do that in than the LS.
All information was correct at the time of publishing.