By Jim Newell
There’s something about a good car, the open road and a destination unknown that appeals to the American spirit.
That yearning to move, to get out and see the world, to hop in a car and “head out on the highway, looking for adventure in whatever comes our way,” as the classic song, “Born to be Wild” goes.
For Lake Orion residents Bill and Nellie Franzel, that wanderlust came to fruition this fall when they packed up their 1955 Chevy Bel Air for an 8,100 mile trip, beginning on the fabled Route 66, an icon of Americana.
“Our dream has always been to drive Route 66 from beginning to end in a ‘55 Chevy,” Nellie said.
With their anniversary coming up April 1, 2017, they felt this was a perfect time to go.
On Sept. 6, they left Michigan for Chicago for a brief stay with friends before embarking on the journey: Route 66 begins at Lakeshore Drive in Chicago and runs 2,448 miles to the Santa Monica Pier in California.
On the return trip, they headed north along the Pacific Coast Highway where they saw “field after field of fruit and vegetable farms,” winding their way through the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest and through Wisconsin, back through the upper peninsula of Michigan,
They visited 19 states in all, driving 8,100 miles total, passing the continental divide three times, Nellie said.
Restoring a classic
But before embarking on a dream trip, you need the car – and the car definitely made the trip an experience of a lifetime, the Franzels’ said.
They first bought the frame for the Bel Air – a husk without an engine or transmission – in 2002. Bill spent eight years lovingly working on the classic, gradually acquiring the parts to restore the Bel Air to its original condition.
And the years of patience paid off. The car was a hit everywhere they went.
“A photo stop or refueling that would normally take five minutes would turn into a half-hour stop,” Nellie said.
People would pass them on the road and give them a thumbs up, or say “I love your car” or “I (or my dad) used to have one just like it,” and the ever-popular, “Can we take a picture.”
One little girl who looked out of the window of her father’s car, said “Dad that’s ’55 Chevy,” Bill and Nellie said. The girl had just finished a school essay on the car – the Franzel’s car – so her father followed the Franzel’s and flagged them down. The girl and her father posed for pictures with the car and then Bill gave her a special treat – letting her sit in the driver’s seat for a photo.
That, Nellie said, was her favorite part of the trip everywhere they went: “Watching Bill’s face when he got all of the thumbs up for the old car. I told him he’s never going to come down from that high.”
Taking a trip on Route 66
When planning the trip, people asked Bill and Nellie how long they would be gone: “We don’t know” was the simple answer they gave.
And for anyone wishing to drive Route 66 (or any long road trip, for that matter) that’s the best way to plan it, they said: no reservations, no timetable. Stop and see what you want, when you want, for as long or as little as you want.
“Some days we went zero miles. Our record was 428 miles in one day,” Bill said. “Every day was a new adventure; something new, something different.”
“The best part really was doing it in one car, no reservations,” Nellie said. “It was an awesome trip. Pontiac, Ill. is the best place to visit. People kept coming out to see the car.”
“We’re acting silly, we’re singing,” Bill said of the drive through Pontiac, Ill.
For anyone unfamiliar with Route 66, the highway sports classic diners and hotels reminiscent of 1950s Americana; scenic vistas, prairies and landmarks as it meanders through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.
“We had a great, great, great time,” Bill said. “We saw things we never thought we’d see before.”
They visited the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Park, Mount Rushmore and relatives in North and South Dakota; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border; the Corn Palace in South Dakota; and the Petrified Forest and Galaxy Diner in Arizona.
Nellie said some of her favorite sites were the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas; the giant cross in Groom, Texas; the big rocker in Fanning, Mo.; Fay’s Diner in Lebanon, Mo.; Sonoma Raceway (she’s a NASCAR fan) in California; and the Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway in Utah.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico they had heard that if you drive on the fog line it plays “America the Beautiful.”
“So we had to try it out, and it really does,” Bill said.
In Oatman, Ariz., burros roamed the streets: “They’re all over. People can just go up and pet them,” Nellie said, “You just have to watch out in case they kick.”
The Franzels said they did get lost a few times, but that was part of the adventure. “One time, even GPS didn’t know where we were,” Bill said.
Unlike Michigan weather, Nellie said the weather for the trip was practically perfect.
“Our air conditioning in the Bel Air is four windows down and the vents open,” Bill said.
Although, when the windows were down and the wind blew through the car, dashboard Jesus and the fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror got into a tussle. “We decided we needed Jesus more that the dice on this trip, so the dice went into the backseat,” Bill said.
A lasting impression
Over the course of the five-and-a-half week trip, Bill and Nellie said they met many friendly and interesting people from all over, including Australia, Ontario and London.
Their daughter, Sandee, gave them a plaque with a carved picture of the ’55 Bel Air to take with them on the trip.
The Franzels also took along a pen; by the time they got home the back of the plaque was full of signatures and sentiments from the people they met.
“We met strangers and left with having found friends,” Bill said.
And despite the age of the car, the historic Route 66, the aged roadside attractions and their relative youth, no trip nowadays would be complete without being able to share it with family and friends – and technology provides the perfect companion for the modern-classic traveler.
“We had more fun having friends and family follow us on Facebook,” Nellie said.
“The thing that we did miss – the grandkids,” Bill said.
“Thank god for Skype,” Nellie said.
And for anyone contemplating such an excursion they offer this advice:
“If you’re going to do Route 66 you need to get a couple of tour guide books and do some research,” Nellie said. “Don’t be afraid to get out on the road and do it. Do it while you’ve got your health and the time.”
“Fun, fun, fun, there was never a bad time,” Bill said.