Route 66 – The Inspiration for Disney's "Cars"


We’re all familiar with Disney’s box office hit film CARS – about the journey of a young, flashy Corvette and his self discovery when he finds himself on the abandoned route 66 and gets to know the characters that live there. But few are actually aware exactly how much influence the highway of Route 66 and the great real life characters actually had on the film’s inspiration.

Although Route 66 is certainly very real, and embedded for ever in American history, the town of “Radiator Springs” depicted in the film “Cars” is obviously fictional. The words Radiator and Springs have been brought together to tie into the Car theme.

Note that there are two `Springs’ along the route ; Baxter Springs in Kansas, and Peach Springs in Arizona, but Radiator Springs is a clever twist by Pixar and Disney.

According to research and the reference site, many of the characters and places shows for the rest of the film, and actually based on or inspired by real characters and locations !

Lightning McQueen himself is obviously fictional so we’ll leave him alone for now, but let’s start with the `leading lady’ of the film, that lovable Porsche, Sally!

The character of Sally the Porsche, who was of course played by Bonnie Hunt in the film, is based primarily on Dawn Welch ! Dawn is the owner of the historic Rock Cafe in Stroud, Oklahoma. Further, Dawn’s restaurant is one of the road’s most acclaimed, as Michael and Jane Stern of will attest.

If you plan to visit the Rock Cafe for a meal, it is advised that you be there during off-peak hours. The restaurant tends to get very crowded during the lunch and dinner rush on weekends. Due mostly to Dawn’s great food and service but perhaps also just a little to that little Porsche.

How about the Sheriff!?

The character of The Sheriff, and his distinctive baritone voice, is played by Michael Wallis, who also served as a Route 66 consultant for the film.

Wallis has written 14 books, including the bestselling “Route 66: The Mother Road”, which catapulted him to national prominence in 1990. Wallis also guided the Pixar crew on two Route 66 tours for its research for “Cars,” and he and his wife, Suzanne, wrote “The Art of Cars,” a behind-the-scenes look at the film. They both reside in Tulsa.

Then there’s Fillmore …

Fillmore, the VW microbus voiced by George Carlin in the film, was unofficially inspired by Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire. That’s “unofficially” because Waldmire refused to lend his name for the film. He’s a strict you vegetarian you see, and he was concerned that “Cars” toys with his name on them would be in McDonald’s Happy Meals. Waldmire lives a hippie lifestyle (as does Fillmore), driving up and down Route 66 in his own VW microbus (complete with a solar panel for supplemental power), and selling his intricate artwork.

Waldmire died of cancer on Dec. 16, 2009. His microbus is currently displayed at the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac.

By the way, Fillmore’s geodesic dome home in the film looks a lot like the dome at Meteor City in Arizona. Waldmire has a connection to Meteor City; he painted the massive mural of Route 66 there.

Then there’s Tow Mater the tow truck, played by Larry the Cable Guy in the film, is a composite of NASCAR superfan and non-Route 66er Douglas “Mater” Keever of North Carolina, Dean Walker (lower left), a mover and shaker at the Kansas Historic Route 66 Association; and Harley Russell, co-owner of the Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Erick, Okla.

Walker can turn his feet backwards and frequently can be found at the Baxter Springs Heritage Center and Museum in Baxter Springs, Kan. Russell, who for many years was a professional musician, and his wife, Annabelle, performed music and offbeat comedy as the Mediocre Music Makers at their shop in Erick, which he describes as the “Redneck Capital of the World.” Harley and Annabelle have taken time off because of her recent bout with cancer, but they plan to eventually resume their tourism music gig. Harley Russell’s speaking voice, by the way, sounds very much like Mater’s.

Sally’s Cozy Cone Motel in the film is a composite of the historic Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M., and the teepee-shaped Wigwam Motels, with one in Holbrook, Ariz., and the other in San Bernardino, Calif. All of these motels are restored, well-maintained, and worth seeking out for a night’s sleep. Also, the name of Cozy Cone Motel is probably a nod to the Cozy Dog Drive-In restaurant on Route 66 in Springfield, Ill.



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