Cadillac Ranch: Where Cars Become Art

Cadillac Ranch
I got in on the art by leaving my own spray painted image on a Cadillac.

Know A Funky Roadside Attraction? Send Me, Send Me!

Roadside attractions have always fascinated me. Maybe it’s all the road trips I took with my family while I was growing up: If there was something strange along the way, my family would find it. Or maybe I just like funky unexpected displays of strangeness. Whatever the reason, I’m a sucker for a quirky roadside installation. And the granddaddy of them all is the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.

Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo

I’d heard about Cadillac Ranch for years but until recently, I had never seen it for myself. And, I must admit, when I received my press trip itinerary to Amarillo and saw that it included the opportunity to spray paint my own “art” on the Cadillacs that comprise Cadillac Ranch, I kind of geeked out with excitement. But, what I learned about Cadillac Ranch surprised me.

Cadillac Ranch

It’s constantly changing art! Photo: Terri Marshall

Why would anyone bury Cadillacs in the dirt?

I never really gave a lot of thought as to why someone would bury ten classic Cadillacs nose-down in the dirt in the middle of a field along historic Route 66. Seriously, who spends time thinking about those kinds of things? But, perhaps I should have.

Cadillac Ranch is the brainchild of a group called the Ant Farm based out of San Francisco. Founders, Chip Lord, Doug Michels, and Hudson Marquez often made use of popular USA icons as a strategy to display the trends in current cultural imagery. The Cadillac Ranch project was sponsored by and installed on the property of Texas millionaire Stanley Marsh 3, described as a philanthropist but also a prankster (and as the third in his family to be named Stanley Marsh, he preferred the moniker ‘3’ rather than ‘III’ because he thought it less pretentious). Ownership of the property was transferred to a family trust in 2013 just before Marsh’s death in 2014.

Marsh has also funded other public art projects in Amarillo, including the “Dynamite Museum,” an ongoing project consisting of hundreds of mock traffic signs bearing messages such as “Road does not end,” “Lubbock is a grease spot,” and “I have traveled a great deal in Amarillo.”

But for the Cadillac Ranch, 10 Cadillacs were driven into one of Stanley Marsh 3’s fields, then half-buried, nose-down, in the dirt (supposedly at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Giza). They face west in a line, chronologically from the 1949 Club Sedan to the 1963 Sedan de Ville, their tail fins held high for all to see. The exhibit is a tribute to the rise and fall of American culture – just like the rise and fall of the Cadillac tail fin.

Cadillac Ranch

The world comes to Cadillac Ranch! Photo: Terri Marshall

So Maybe They Aren’t What They Used To Be, But Who is?

When the Cadillacs were buried in 1974, minimal thought was given to preservation. As a result most of the cars no longer have doors, tail lights, bumpers, and other not-so-necessary parts (when you’re buried in the dirt!) Initially, people would scratch their names into the paint. Today everyone brings spray paint and adds their own interpretation to this iconic exhibit of Americana.

But, that’s OK. The artists actually love that the installation has taken on a life of its own. People from all over the world come to view the Cadillacs, make their own personalized mark with spray paint and take home a memory like none other.  No one really knows how many people have been to Cadillac Ranch but it’s estimated that over 40,000 cars travel through Amarillo every day and over half of them drive by the Cadillac Ranch, which is visible from the highway.

I met up with Jon Rivett, a professor of art at West Texas A&M University who grew up in Amarillo and a resident expert on the Cadillac Ranch. As a teenager, Jon saw the Cadillac Ranch as the place to hang out with a girlfriend and do a bit of making out. But now he truly understands the magnitude of the conceptual art Cadillac Ranch represents. “It’s really unique to grow up in a place where big-scale art projects dominate the art scene,” says Jon. “It’s inspiring.”

Cadillac Ranch

Leaving my mark on Cadillac Ranch. Photo: Esther Irish

I left my mark on Cadillac Ranch with a touch of spray paint in something that looked somewhat like a heart. But I’m quite certain it disappeared within hours because there were plenty of other visitors waiting to make their marks. As you might imagine, the paint is pretty thick on these old Cadillacs.

If you can’t bear to leave without taking a piece of the Cadillac Ranch home with you, stop by Lile Art Gallery on Historic Route 66 where artist “Crocodile Bob Lile” creates artwork and jewelry from the paint chips he gathers at the Cadillac Ranch.

And here’s a fun fact for you: The Home Depot closest to the Cadillac Ranch sells more spray paint than any other Home Depot in the country.Img_6716

Do you have a favorite roadside attraction?

Terri Marshall grew up road-tripping around the country. Her love for the open road remains strong today. A travel... More about Terri Marshall