Lure of the great American highway

Americans love a road trip. As Pirelli opens its new concept store in Los Angeles, we find out more about life on the open road, US-style

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It was in 1903 that Dr Horatio Nelson Jackson, Sewall K Crocker and a bulldog named Bud completed America's first road trip, from San Francisco to New York City. Wearing goggles (yes, even Bud) to keep the dust out of their eyes, they drove a 20-horsepower Winton touring car across a country that had just 150 miles of paved roads and no gas stations… in 63 days.

Lure of the great American highway
Lure of the great American highway

The American public broadcaster PBS, describing a Ken Burns film about the trip , said that Jackson "encountered pioneers in wagon trains, cowboys who used their lariats to tow him out of sand drifts, ranch wives who traded home-cooked meals for a brief ride in the 'Go-Like-Hell Machine', and people who deliberately sent him miles out of his way just so their relatives could get their first glimpse of an automobile".

“Get your motor runnin'…”

Like Jackson and Crocker, those Americans lucky enough to be able to afford cars in the early 20th century were itching to explore. Peter J Blodgett, author of Motoring West: Automobile Pioneers, 1900-1909, writes that they camped at the roadside and "revelled in their sense of independence from stodgy summer resorts and the tyranny of inflexible timetables set by railroads or steamship lines" .

Following the Second World War, America enjoyed a booming population, a growing middle class, suburban expansion, greater wealth and a new consumerism that all helped to expand the nation's car culture. Cheap gas made the car the natural way to do everything, whether watching a movie or visiting the drive-through bank.

“Head out on the highway…”

In 1956, President Eisenhower, inspired by Germany's autobahns, authorised the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways . Work wasn't completed until 1992, by which time Americans had been road tripping for decades, getting their kicks on Route 66 and letting the country roads take them home.

Today road trips are the most popular type of vacation for Americans, ranking above national parks, theme parks, international destinations and cruises, according to a survey by AAA, a not-for-profit organisation providing travel information. Some of that might involve visiting relatives spread across the great continent. But there will also no doubt be a part of every road tripper that connects with the settlers of the West, a compulsion to get in their vehicle and see what lies over the horizon. This, surely, is the greatest freedom in a country founded on the notion of personal freedom.

“Lookin' for adventure…”

That desire is reflected in popular culture, too. Artists like Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen frequently sang about cars and driving. Whether it's Brian Wilson's Little Deuce Coupe or the car that factory worker Johnny Cash built One Piece at a Time, early rock 'n' roll music celebrated the joy of life behind the wheel.

For Hollywood, the road movie became a recurring theme, whether through the dramatic journeys of classics such as Easy Rider, Rain Man and Thelma and Louise, or played for laughs in Little Miss Sunshine and National Lampoon's Vacation.

In literature, the heroic journey is one of the oldest stories of all, dating back as far as Homer's Odyssey. The classic American literary journeys put their heroes on the highway in books like Jack Kerouac's On the Road and gonzo writer Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

“And whatever comes our way…”

With such strong cultural roots, it's no surprise that Americans still love to take a classic road trip, such as the 2,500-mile journey along Route 66, from Chicago to Los Angeles. The road officially ceased to exist in 1985, its utility long surpassed by Eisenhower's more modern highway system . The towns and businesses along its path withered – a decline that inspired the Pixar film Cars. However, much of the route still exists and a new generation of motorists has begun to explore it again, breathing new life into out of the way motels, vintage diners and long-forgotten towns.

Others are drawn to the majesty of California State Route 1 – the highway that runs along the Pacific coast, connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles and taking in the stunning landscape of Big Sur along the way.

On the opposite coast is the Overseas Highway – a 100-mile route through the Florida Keys that snakes from island to island. The road is the southernmost section of US Route 1, which runs the length of the country's east coast, starting in Maine.

Today's traveller can undertake these breathtaking journeys in climate-controlled, WiFi-enabled comfort. And though the vehicles have changed, they are following the spiritual tyre tracks of more than a century of motorists.