Story and photos by Jim Jordan
My big summer adventure began when my friend, Ryan Richards, said, “Have you heard about the big Lambda Car Club International’s (LCCI) Detroit Invitational Car Show that is held every 10 years?” (It had been postponed the last two years due to COVID.) He said, “We should go.” I already had plans to drive from my home in Oklahoma City to the Cadillac & LaSalle Club’s Grand National in Chicago a month before this July event, so I thought another big trip was not practical.
The more I got to thinking about it, it hit me — I would turn 50 this year, and my birthday would be right in the middle of the LCCI meet. Maybe I needed a good 50th birthday story. I started planning the trip to Detroit with Ryan and we discussed which cars we would take. When I said I would take my 1990 Cadillac Brougham, he said, “No!” and insisted that I must take an old car. I guess 32 years of age isn’t old enough for him.
Well, the next most road-ready car I own is “Endora,” my 1960 Buick Electra 225 convertible, which has never let me down. We made plans, purchased event tickets and started preparing our cars for the trip. I arranged for a full tune-up plus belts, hoses, tires and a full check-over by my mechanic to ensure she was ready for the journey.
All of my friends said I was a mix of brave, crazy and stupid for planning to take a 62-year-old car without air conditioning on such a long trip.
Ryan drove from Georgetown, Texas, on July 29 and crashed on my couch so we could leave for our odyssey early the next morning. Of all of his incredible cars, he brought his 1968 Dodge Polara convertible with 440 Magnum power.
Day 1: July 30 – OKC to Cuba, Mo.
We left my house and headed for Route 66. We stopped for fuel and refreshments at Pop’s in Arcadia, Okla., with the giant pop bottle, where we ran into a father and son cruising in their family heirloom 1953 Imperial. Then we headed to the abandoned 1920s Lawless Gas Station, which reportedly once housed a counterfeiting operation, and drove on to Chandler, Okla., home of Route 66’s Lincoln Motel and many rescued vintage signs.
Next was a stop in Stroud, Okla., for pictures with the sign at the Skyliner Motel and lunch at the Rock Café, who’s owner, Dawn Welch, was the inspiration for the “Sally” character in Disney/Pixar’s “Cars” movie series. From there, we headed to Bristow so he could see the huge, previously neon-emblazoned “Chrysler/Plymouth” sign that was erected to lure motorists from nearby Route 66 to see the latest MoPar offerings. The dealership closed more than 30 years ago and the building is now an oil company. Fortunately, the sign remains.
After leaving the old dealership, the Polara began shrieking from the left-front wheel bearing. We pulled into a parking lot to see what was up and no fewer than seven civilians and a highway patrolman stopped to offer assistance. They brought Ryan tools and one even invited us to his house so his wife could cook us a meal. Another gentleman offered the use of his car lift. With the help of the loaned tools and a nearby O’Reilly Auto Parts store, Ryan had the bearing swapped in less than two hours. The people of Bristow, Okla., are terrifically friendly, helpful people.
We hit Interstate 44 from there for the next leg of the trip to see the blue whale in Catoosa. This was built as a play area for the children of the adjoining trading post and alligator farm, and it became a local attraction.
Our next stop was dinner at Wilder’s Steakhouse in Joplin, Mo., which has a swanky, retro atmosphere, and its neon sign is incredible. It’s even recommended by Duncan Hines! After a great meal, we headed to our beds at the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Mo., which is the oldest continuously operated motel on Route 66.
Day 2: July 31 – On to Auburn Hills
Upon check-out at the hotel, we met a man and his son who were traveling from Germany to experience Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles. They loved our old cars and took photographs of themselves with the cars at the motel’s old pumps, which remained from when the Wagon Wheel Motel had an operational service station and café. Next stop was St. Louis, where we stopped for photos at the famous Ted Drewes Frozen Custard stand, then met our friend, Matt, for breakfast. Matt took us to a few good spots to photograph our cars with the arch, and showed us his Frank Sinatra Edition Imperial.
After the arch photos, we crossed the Mississippi River on the Martin Luther King Bridge in St. Louis and hit the road. After traveling through Illinois and Indiana, we arrived in Michigan. We cruised down Woodward Avenue in the Polara to One Eyed Betty’s for a late dinner. After eating, we enjoyed the sights while cruising Woodward Avenue.
Day 3: Aug. 1 – Gilmore and more
Monday, we loaded in the Buick with our friend, Richard Burgess, from Atlanta, and headed out to tour the Gilmore Car Museum grounds in Hickory Corners. What an incredible place! Here we enjoyed the Cadillac and Lincoln clubs’ museums and other club museums there. Among many other cars, we saw a Chrysler Turbine Car and a Tucker, but these would not be the last examples of these cars that we would see on this trip.
After leaving the Gilmore Car Museum, we went shopping for antiques and returned to the hotel to find a beautiful 1931 Chrysler greeting us in the lobby. We rested, then hopped in the Polara for dinner at the O.W.L. diner on Woodward before heading into downtown Detroit to explore. Detroit is going through a renaissance and is far from the scary, bombed-out-looking place we’ve seen in so many reports. It is very active, clean and inviting. We were able to get some great pics of Ryan’s Polara at the famous Fox Theatre in all of its neon glory before heading back to the hotel.
Day 4: Aug. 2 – The Henry Ford
Tuesday morning, we headed out in the Polara to tour The Henry Ford. This museum never ceases to amaze with its displays of cars, truck, trains and Americana. Here I sat on the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, saw the presidential limos and the Dymaxion House of the Future, as well as another Tucker and Chrysler Turbine Car. We left the museum and had lunch at Ford’s Garage in Dearborn, then hit several antique stores.
Day 5: Aug. 3 – The Sloan
We decided to explore Flint, Mich., with our Palm Springs friends, Scott and Sandy. The newly remodeled Sloan Museum in Flint displayed the 1956 Centurion and 1954 Wildcat II Motorama show cars, along with other significant General Motors products. After visiting the Sloan, we headed into downtown Flint. “Endora” was born at the old Buick plant in Flint that is no longer there, but she returned to her birthplace 62 years later.
Day 6: Aug. 4 – Collection overload
Thursday morning, we were part of a caravan to the Stellantis (formerly Walter P. Chrysler) Collection for a tour. This collection is housed in an old spark plug factory and Dodge Viper assembly facility. We were told ours was the first group to see the collection since the Walter P. Chrysler Museum was liquidated. There were still many great cars there, including yet another Turbine Car (three on this trip now), Jeeps, muscle cars and several MoPar concept cars, including the 1954 La Comtesse glowing in its pink-and-white finish with clear roof panels and lavender-and-white interior. Unfortunately, the collection forbids photography, so the great vehicles there are pictured only in my mind.
We left Stellantis and headed for the General Motors Heritage Center. Wow! We were greeted in the lobby by a gleaming black-and-white 1955 Buick Century and it just got better from there.
When walking into the main hall, the first thing seen is the 1951 Le Sabre concept car. The collection had even more to offer, from Corvettes to GMC Motorhomes and everything between. I was particularly smitten with the 1953 Oldsmobile Fiesta and Le Sabre, Y-Job and Cadillac Cyclone show cars.
Later that day, we went on a dinner cruise on the Detroit River. Ryan found an incredible set of Chrysler promotional MoPar “Forward Look” Pilsner glasses with matching pitcher in an obscure little antique shop that looked it was nothing but shabby chic and junk.
Day 7: Aug. 5 – Birthday ‘treats’
Friday morning, we formed another caravan and headed to view the Stahl Collection of amazing cars, signs and mechanical musical marvels. This place is truly a multi-sensory treat of chrome, color, sound and sheer amazement. Its chief mechanic, Seamus Hnat, even played “Happy Birthday” for me on the 1924 Mortier 97-key dance organ, which is a visual and musical masterpiece. Among the unbelievable cars there were Duesenbergs, “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang,” Fatty Arbuckle’s custom-bodied Pierce-Arrow designed by Harley Earl and, yes, another Turbine Car and Tucker. (That’s four Turbine Cars and three Tuckers in one trip!)
After we left the Stahl Collection, we met up with a friend who works at the GM Tech Center in Warren who arranged our visit to this 1955 masterpiece, which was designed by Eero Saarinen. Security is tight there, and I relied on the generosity of a friend who works there to get us on campus for a tour. What a treat it was to photograph “Endora” by the fountain at the Tech Center’s reflecting pond with the gleaming stainless water tower in the background, a place where so many historic GM photos have been taken!
After leaving the GM Tech Center, we eventually headed back to downtown Detroit for a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts for some cultural enrichment. This is truly a world-class museum with exhibits to enthrall everyone. After savoring the art at the museum, my friends took me out for a birthday dinner at Wright and Company, a great restaurant in a former piano warehouse.
Just as we were turning into the hotel upon our return, I hit a huge chunk of loose Michigan road concrete that somehow perfectly struck and broke off the end of my Buick’s exhaust manifold, making her sound like a race car running open headers. To make matters worse, it happened the night before the big LCCI show.
Day 8: Aug. 6 – Show Day
At the suggestion of folks at the meet, I woke up early and waited at the Midas on Woodward Avenue in hopes of getting “Endora” in for an exhaust repair. Luckily, the folks there were top-notch and among them was an “old school” mechanic who said, “I can’t fix the manifold, but I think I can figure out a way to get you home.” After an hour, I was on my way to the show and the “temporary fix” is still holding up today. He was able to wedge and tack weld a piece of exhaust pipe into the broken manifold and weld the exhaust to it.
Show day came and so did the fabulous cars, and from all over the country. “Endora” was between a 23,000-mile 1959 LeSabre sedan and a stunning, dark-blue 1960 Electra 225 convertible that had received a body-off-frame restoration. Endora’s 80,000-mile original paint and interior showed its flaws compared to these two stunners, but she did get lots of admiration and respect for her unrestored condition and for driving all the way to the meet. Cars from the 1910s through 2022 were present, and it was a grand time despite the heat.
After the show, Ryan and our friend, Chris, took the opportunity to get photographs with Ryan’s Polara at the Stelantis headquarters in Auburn Hills.
After the awards banquet on Saturday night, one of Ryan’s many Instagram followers wanted him to come see his beautiful, mostly original 1959 Mercury Monterey. We took a wonderful night drive in the Polara through beautiful lakeside country to the Big Dip Burgers Drive-In in Walled Lake, Mich., to meet Jon and see his Monterey. Jon then took us for a cruise and I couldn’t believe it, but there was another 1960 Electra 225 convertible sitting at a muffler shop! It even appeared to wear its original paint (Titian Red).
Day 9: Aug. 7 – Going to Hell
Day 9 was the start of the trip home. We loaded the cars and Ryan installed a fresh wheel bearing on the Polara and we were off. We headed to Jon’s beautiful lakeside home where he lead our caravan with his incredible 1959 Monterey to Hell, Mich., just so we could get shirts and bumper stickers to prove we had been to Hell and back. After going to Hell, Jon took us on a scenic drive to a fabulous 1962-built A&W root beer stand in Dexter, Mich.
Jon left us at Dexter and we headed toward home. “Endora” became a little fussy when we stopped at an antique mall. With rain approaching, I tried to raise her top, but it wouldn’t budge. Ryan checked the top motor and the switch and there was nothing. Just as I was headed for shelter at a car wash, the top started working and we browsed the mall in peace.
That night, we stopped for dinner outside of Indianapolis where Ryan discovered yet another wheel bearing was failing on the Dodge. We pressed on to Terre Haute for the night where Ryan began the search for a solution.
Day 10: Aug. 8 – Meet me in St. Louis
We awoke Monday and headed for O’Reilly Auto Parts for another bearing. The hub was so worn by now that the race for the bearing spun freely within it. Ryan’s “never give up” attitude and mechanical prowess got him to improvise with a temporary solution. New bearing and race — combined with JB Weld and a cut-up Monster Energy Drink can — had the bearing and race snugly seated back in the hub. By this time, Ryan had contacted Clay and Sons MoPar Salvage outside of St. Louis, who had a spindle, hub and drum. They were closed on Mondays, but agreed to open in order to help a fellow MoPar fan who was traveling. We arrived in the evening and were given a tour of their incredible, 300-plus-car inventory. After purchasing the parts, we headed home. Ryan installed the new hub and drum and all was well. It was raining by the time we arrived in Springfield, Mo., and without wipers in the Buick, I stopped at a hotel for the night. Ryan headed on to Joplin and then south to visit friends in Arkansas.
Day 11: Aug. 9 – The home stretch
“Endora” and I leisurely headed down I-44 toward Tulsa. Once in Tulsa, I drove to the home of my friend, Levi, whom I met for a great barbecue lunch at Elmer’s BBQ, a Tulsa staple. After stuffing ourselves, “Endora” and I embarked on the final 100 miles of our trip.
We arrived home safely after 11 days, 3,059 miles and numerous memorable adventures in which we saw incredible cars, historic buildings and neon signs and many friends. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I am so glad Ryan talked me into it. I spent time with old friends and made many new ones. I guess 50 ain’t so bad after all.
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