Fans of the “Cars” animated movie series have become enamored with the actual Route 66 locations caricatured in the films. Fortunately, you’ll find many attractions from the famed highway scattered from Illinois to California. And although the animators took liberties with their designs, travelers along the Mother Road can see the movie’s central town, Radiator Springs, in real life.
What’s Radiator Springs Based On?
The fictional town of Radiator Springs in the “Cars” movie series was loosely based on three real-life towns along old Route 66. They include Seligman and Peach Springs, Ariz., and Tucumcari, N.M. Animators also immortalized other iconic Route 66 attractions along the Mother Road from Missouri to Arizona.
The Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Ariz., became the “Cozy Cone Motel” in the movie. And the waterfall showcased on Lightning McQueen and Sally’s countryside tour exists in the Grand Canyon as Havasu Falls. Even a yellow billboard touting “Here It Is” replicates the actual billboard in Josephs, Ariz. It advertises the Jack Rabbit Trading Post. Additionally, a visit to Cuba, Mo., will highlight the resemblance of the Wagon Wheel Motel to the “Wheel Well Motel” in the movie. And the Hackberry General Store looks a lot like “Lizzie’s General Store” in Radiator Springs.
About Radiator Springs in ‘Cars,’ the Movie
Radiator Springs is a fictional small town in Arizona, located along Route 66 in Carburetor County between the Cadillac Range and Ornament Valley. In the original movie, a map designates Radiator Springs as 87 miles from the California border in northern Arizona.
That suggests that the animated town may be patterned after Peach Springs, Ariz. But with all of the buildings, landscapes, and attractions, Pixar threw in real-life locations from all along the Mother Road. However, they took the liberty to make them recognizable in the film but giving them a character of their own.
Traveler’s Tip: Pack up the car and hit the road on an epic road trip along Route 66.
Is There a Real-Life Radiator Springs in New Mexico?
Because the movie highlights so many locations, it is impossible to state which real-life town Radiator Springs represents. Some feel that Tucumcari, N.M., has more influence when viewing the film. Tucumcari has many Route 66 relics left in time’s wake.
In fact, the Main Street of America is reflected everywhere on Main Street. Drive by motels, diners, and gas stations that haven’t changed much since the road teemed with tourists.
What Is There to Do in Tucumcari, New Mexico?
This town of nearly 6,000 in eastern New Mexico holds a lot of treasures from its Route 66 roots. Many motels, restaurants, and shops that operated back in the day remain open. Below we list a few suggestions for things to do while you explore Tucumcari.
New Mexico Route 66 Museum
The New Mexico Route 66 Museum holds all kinds of memorabilia from The Route’s most popular era. You’ll find classic automobiles, gasoline signs, gas station pumps, and collectibles. You can also view images of various spots along the 604 miles of The Route that ran through the Land of Enchantment in this museum. Jukeboxes filled with music from the forties and fifties, diner booths from a popular eatery, Route 66 guitars, maps, advertisements, and more lie within its walls.
Tucumcari has many great street murals painted since the decommissioning of Route 66. Most represent the time of the Mother Road’s fame, like those on the back of the Blue Swallow Motel. You’ll see James Dean with a Corvette, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard in a doorway. And it features the landscapes of The Route in the surrounding countryside.
Even the grocery store has a huge mural of the memorabilia that the highway inspired. You’ll see an old gas station with large but realistic insects climbing down its exterior walls. Tag lines associated with Route 66 also appear in murals, like “Get Your Kicks On Route 66” and “Tucumcari Tonight.”
Route 66 Monument
In front of the Tucumcari Convention Center lies an eye-catching monument commemorating the route through this eastern New Mexican town. The top portion looks like a giant retro-style hood ornament or tail fin model. It sits on a sandstone base, like the desert hills surrounding Tucumcari. It has wheels and the outline of a road, a perfect tie to the road that put this town on the map. You may even think this real-life monument resembles the statue in Radiator Springs.
Route 66 Townhouse Welcome Center and Gift Shop
A more recent addition to Tucumcari, the Townhouse Welcome Center has an extensive offering of Route 66 souvenirs. You’ll find handmade jewelry, clothing, home interior items, vintage glassware, and other collectibles. And you’ll get a hearty welcome by the proprietor, Flo and her dog. She is a fountain of information if you want to find specific Route 66 locations or learn more about Tucumcari.
This unique curio shop in this real-life Radiator Springs sells Route 66 souvenirs and has since the 1940s. You’ll find t-shirts, caps, and all kinds of gifts in a building attached to a concrete teepee. The store has one of the last great neon signs that still glow at night in Tucumcari. It holds over from the days when Route 66 ran through town.
Which Other Locations Inspired the ‘Cars’ Movie?
Seligman, Ariz., greatly inspired John Lassiter and his animators at Pixar to make the “Cars” movie. Looking for ideas, the creators met with Angel Delgadillo, a barber who also owned a drive-in restaurant. Lassiter came away with ideas for an animated movie about the historic Highway 66 that ran through Seligman.
Delgadillo told him about The Route in its heyday and how the towns along its pavement suffered when it got rerouted by Interstate 40. The barber rallied his fellow business people along the original highway to create a Route 66 Association. They wanted to inspire travel through their towns again. Today, Seligman still looks as it did during The Route’s most popular years. It draws thousands of people off the interstate to see what the historic highway was really like.
Is Radiator Springs Worth Visiting in Real Life?
Whether you are a fan of “Cars” or Route 66, you can enjoy a trip to Radiator Springs in real life. You will see pieces of the fictional town along the iconic highway in the actual towns of Tucumcari, Seligman, and Peach Springs, among others.
And even though you may not be Lightning McQueen or Sally Carrera, you can still get your kicks on Route 66. Relive a bit of automotive history on the road and at the movie theater.
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