Unreasoning passion is inexplicable to anyone who's not caught up in its throes, so it's essentially impossible to explain why a couple who live in the history-rich Three Musketeers region of southwestern France should be totally enthralled by the legend of America's "Mother Road." The now nearly extinct U.S. highway catchily described in Bobby Troup's 1946 song "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" so inflamed the imagination of Robert and Gisele Mauries that they created a nonprofit organization in 2006 called, wait for it, the Route 66 Arizona France Association.
Sounds simple, but it is in fact extremely complicated, combining as it does an all-consuming interest in the historic roadway, the varied cultures of multiple Native American tribes, a passion for American cars -- the more powerful the better -- and some forms of American music, specifically blues and rock 'n' roll, but the authentic Southern U.S. variety of both, none of that British-interpretation stuff. I got sucked into this vortex entirely by accident when I agreed to send one of my Martinique roadsters to a concours d'elegance in Cahors, France, last year. Robert Mauries was at the same table at lunch, which led to a telephoned invitation to the Cars 'n' Blues In Quercy festival in July. I was away at the time, but my wife agreed that I would participate.
It was fortunate that she took the call, since I would have politely declined and thus missed a fascinating look at the external appreciation of several intrinsic aspects of contemporary Americana. As it happened, I could manage only a few hours at the blues festival, driving to Cahors for a quick lunch and a judging session for an American-car concours and then leaving as soon as prizes were handed out, thus sadly missing the music entirely. "Don't worry, you can come to Disneyland," said Mauries. And so we did in September, just before the Frankfurt motor show, for a much bigger event in Disney Village.
Disneyland Paris was the perfect venue for what turned out to be a joyous celebration of American cars, clothing, music, and -- alas -- food. The Billy Bob's Country Western Saloon mass-feeding concession at Disneyland Paris has absolutely nothing to do with French traditions, nor does it even reach average American standards. Those Disneyland visitors who eventually go to the United States will be happily surprised to find it is possible to eat well on the American road without having to resort to the same ubiquitous fast-food restaurants that line French highways these days.
Some of last fall's Disneyland participants will be driving on the actual Route 66 this year. Since 1998, Robert and Gisele Mauries have organized trips to America for their group's members. There will be twenty of them for the fourth such expedition this year, driving in ten identical rented convertibles. A fee of [euro]5900 (about $7500) covers airfare, car rental, hotels, dinners, entry to the Indian nations' dance festival with 3500 dancers, and a comprehensive road book so no one will get lost. A visit to Fort Apache also has been reserved.
The entire itinerary hadn't been settled when we were with them, but the trip will start with a flight from Paris to Phoenix and will include visits to some of the dozens of Native American tribes scattered throughout the Southwest. Gisele has developed close relationships with many of those tribes, something that might be difficult for most Americans, given the history of relations with "the Great White Father" in Washington and nineteenth-century government land grabs. The French visitors will be allowed to witness traditional ritual dances that are forbidden to casual tourists. Preceding Route 66 Arizona France groups have visited Nashville, Memphis, Natchez, and New Orleans for their music, as well as most of the cities cited in the Troup song.
There were some surprising cars among the thirty-plus classic Americans on display at Disneyland. Gilbert Clausner showed a 1949 Mercury that recalled countless customized California '49 Mercs, but he had made the chopped-top coupe entirely himself, using a four-door sedan as raw material. Well, Mercury coupes were never thick on the ground in France, although there was a quite similar-looking French-built Ford Vedette, also styled by Bob Gregorie at the same time as the Mercury in the 1940s. Clausner installed an Edelbrock Chevy 350-cubic-inch crate motor and an automatic gearbox with a giant shift lever. He has rigged a gasoline injection system in his car's tailpipes so he can shoot flames out the back whenever he likes. The CHP would very seriously frown on that, but apparently the Gendarmerie Nationale is OK with it. Clausner went to some trouble to dress himself as a 1950s greaser, complete with rolled-up jeans, a bowling shirt, and a short comb in his back pocket.
Even more impressive in dress was Laurence Brucker, who was period-correct in every visible detail to correspond to her 1954 Chevy Bel Air, a pillarless "hardtop convertible," as the style was initially known in the '50s. Even her makeup was accurate enough for her to look like someone in a 1950s TV show...if they'd had decent color TV back then. Asked about how she'd achieved so perfect a showroom-fresh appearance for her car, she had a simple answer: she bought it at a Hershey, Pennsylvania, swap meet as-is. For the rest, it was a matter of relentless searching for "new old stock" clothing. Her husband, Sylvain Delteil, was wearing sixty-year-old shoes, trousers, and belt but admitted that his colorful, period-correct '50s-style Hawaiian shirt was purchased recently...in Hawaii. Brucker deservedly won the prize for the Best Fifties car, as well as another for driving the greatest distance to the event.
Almost every car on display had an unusual stance, which came from sitting higher than their designers intended because of tires much bigger than original. This was not so much a matter of choice as of availability. In most cases, the original-equipment tire sizes no longer exist, and every owner faced with going bigger or smaller than OEM fitments preferred more grip and the consequent increased ground clearance. A particularly well-presented 1963 Corvette split-window coupe sat on P215/75R-15 radials that would have been nice to have on the spectacular multirib optional aluminum wheels forty-nine years ago but simply didn't exist then. Owner Pascal Gastinel readily agreed that they do jack up the chassis a bit, but it didn't matter, as he still took the prize for Best Corvette.
At least Gastinel kept those OEM wheels. A Pontiac Trans Am on 255/50R-17s looked seriously anachronistic, although of course the idea of constantly modifying cars is thoroughly American, so the aftermarket wheels were fitting in the context. The range of U.S. models acquired and held by their French owners was impressive. There were many Corvettes and Mustangs, these being popular cars that were available new in Europe, which has engendered make-specific French clubs. Francis Lopez took a prize for the Best Sixties car present, his 1964-1/2 Mustang convertible. But there were also a Buick Riviera and a Dodge Charger. Included for the first time this year, a few motorcycles from Harley-Davidson and Indian added to the American atmosphere. Yves Brunet's 1948 Harley "Panhead" took first prize in the bike category.
The range of '50s Corvettes on hand was surprising, from one of the original-design 1953-55 models -- Jose Fernandez's white 1954 -- through the 1956-57 face-lifted C1 to a number of 1958-62 triple-grille versions, one of which, Jean-Pierre and Veronique Jarry's '58, was awarded the Disney Village Special Prize. The variety of Mustangs was even greater, with some very nice models of all the early years, including a Shelby GT350. In particular, one '67 convertible in a curious but factory-applied color attracted a lot of attention. It was said to be one of only a few dozen ever built with that definitely-not-Mary-Kay pastel pink paint, and Patrick Guidez was happy with his award for Best Convertible. The Best Ford Mustang prize, though, went to Denis Bourgeois's bronze 1966 fastback coupe, in very original condition.
The event at Disneyland was not all cars and costumes. American music and musical machinery were part of it, too. In the Route 66 headquarters tent there were several beautifully restored and fully functional AMi, Rock-ola, and Wurlitzer jukeboxes, a particular passion of Monsieur Lionel Bontemps (which translates to "good times" in English, a perfect name), who actually runs a jukebox restoration business, Juke Box Classic. Apparently this is a thriving hobby comparable in extent and activity to those for boats, cars, guns, and watches. Robert Mauries has one, and even photographer Martyn Goddard, who has been with Automobile Magazine for a quarter century, allowed that he had one at home in London. When the quite-convincing all-French Dixieland band was not playing, sounds were provided by one or another of these luminous emblems of midcentury American flamboyance.
Disneyland management is solidly behind the three-day American car-based Route 66 event, generously providing both advertising support to attract more people to their park and trophies -- chocolate-colored plaster (of Paris, obviously) Minnie Mouse statuettes -- for all the concours winners, and even one for me for serving as president of the jury that attributed the awards. The other members were Mauries, Jean-Pierre Boyer representing Disneyland, Franck Lewandosky representing Disney Village, and Andre Crudo, an artist whose work was on show in the HQ tent. While we were there, the greater part of the public crowd consisted of Spanish families on school holidays, obviously present for the park attractions but clearly intrigued by what they saw and heard from the Route 66 group.
Robert Mauries is an early-retired information-technology executive who dropped out of industry because of too much stress for too little psychic reward. It seemed to us that there was a tremendous amount of stress involved in planning and executing the three Route 66 events held last year, even if the American trip is biennial, but it was also evident that whatever the problems he has to cope with, he's having a really good time, as is his equally engaged wife, also an industry dropout and very much caught up in the pleasurable aspects of the Association.
If you'd like to check out the group's events in France, go to www.route66arizonafrance.com. But the Route 66 drive, even if it's on your turf, is strictly for the French. C'est la vie.