The Cadillac Ranch at 50

The history of the Cadillac Ranch for  TexasHighways.com

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/fifty-years-of-cadillac-ranch/

How the Amarillo art installation became an iconic American roadside attraction

The vintage Cadillacs at their original location in the 1970s

Fifty years ago on the summer solstice, three experimental architects and artists completed Amarillo’s iconic Cadillac Ranch. Facilitated by a larger-than-life eccentric millionaire, the permanent installation of 10 Cadillac sedans buried nose first at a 60-degree angle into the dirt of a flat field within eyeshot of Interstate 40 has become the Panhandle city’s No. 1 tourist destination and biggest roadside attraction. It’s a must-see for road trippers touring Route 66, America’s Mother Road, seen by more than 1.4 million visitors a year.

Cadillac Ranch at 50, an exhibit documenting the strange and quirky history of the site at the Amarillo Museum of Art, opens June 1 and runs through Aug. 15, with a special celebration on June 21. One hundred enlarged photographs by Wyatt McSpadden, who has documented Cadillac Ranch since its inception, share space with videos, drawings, and ephemera from Chip Lord from the Ant Farm art and architecture collective that dreamed up the project.

Lord and fellow outsider architect Doug Michels formed Ant Farm in San Francisco in 1968 for underground design projects. “We were doing concepts, sketches, and photo collages of imaginary landscapes and environments,” Lord says. “It was a way to realize some ideas that would expand on conventional architecture.”

When Hudson Marquez joined the group, the three bonded over their shared obsession with automobiles. “At Ant Farm, we were car crazy,” Marquez recalls. “It was always drawing cars, collaging cars, making art with cars. I had an idea to make seed packs where you could plant seeds that would grow cars. You could have a field of ’49 Fords or ’59 Cadillacs that would grow out of the ground.” But to realize any concept, they needed a physical site. And money.

Installing the vintage Cadillacs was no easy feat

The Ant Farm sent out letters with their idea to a number of eccentric millionaires around the country. Prominent Amarilloan Stanley Marsh 3 answered back with an oversized letter written in 36-point type. “I’d love to do something with you, but I only do things here in Amarillo,” Marquez recalls him saying.

Lord and Michels stopped in Amarillo after finishing the House of the Century, a tubular ferro cement lake house near Angleton built with Houston architect Richard Jost. By the end of their visit two days later, Marsh asked Lord and Michels to draft a proposal. “We went back to California and drew up this idea of making a monument to the rise and fall of the Cadillac tailfin,” Lord says. The drawing had a text box in the corner—the budget. They would need $250 to hire a backhoe, and $300 for each of the 10 cars. Marsh gave the Ant Farm the green light.

The Ant Farmers descended on Amarillo. They placed ads in the Amarillo Globe-News seeking used Cadillacs and checked out Marsh’s land holdings. They picked a site near Interstate 40 and the old Route 66. “They were mysterious, these three hippies,” says Wyatt McSpadden, the young photographer who worked for Marsh at the time. He remembers Lord, Michels, and Marquez lived on the property while putting the site together. “They were gone a lot because they were out shopping for cars, trying to make deals, get cars as cheap as they could.”

Finding the first car, the 1949 Cadillac, proved to be a struggle. They found one on the east side of Amarillo, though it cost them a whopping $700—far over budget. “As soon as Doug had the title, somebody pulled the canvas off the bed of the truck,” McSpadden remembers, “and it was full of sledgehammers and axes. Doug took an axe out and started beating on the front of the car. They didn’t care what the front of the car looked like. That was my first involvement with the Ant Farm and the Cadillacs.”

The Cadillacs were moved from their original spot to its current location in 1997

The first hole was dug, and they got the car into the ground. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Marquez says. “We hadn’t dug holes to put cars in before, and we didn’t know anyone who did, so we were just flying by the seat of our pants. We just dug some holes and drove the cars in at 60 degrees, same angle. We didn’t talk about that. It just happened to be. It looked good.” The whole endeavor took less than a week.

The day after the Cadillac Ranch was finished, Marquez rose before dawn and drove out to the site to watch the sunrise. “I was blown away,” he says. Marquez remembered a talk the radical French artist and sculptor Marcel Duchamp gave in Houston. His idea was that when someone sets out to create, they start from what they think is zero and in their mind is 100% of what they want to create. “It’s in your mind, but you never get to 100. That doesn’t happen,” Marquez says. “But that morning was as close to 100% as I ever got.”

On June 21, 1974, a huge party was held in celebration of the ranch, a big tent, open bar, and Amarillo notables included. Shortly after, the Ant Farmers returned to San Francisco to work on other ideas. “When it was first built, it wasn’t hyped yet,” says David Turner, who was the assistant director at the Amarillo Art Center at the time. “People didn’t know what it was. It was just this oddball group of cars some crazy rancher planted in his field.”

There was no signage identifying the site, making it hard to convey the installation was an artist-made sculptural piece. Seeing the installation up close required some want-to. “You used to have to stop on the road, take your life in your own hands, go through a barbed wire fence, and hope for the best,” says Tom Livesay, director of the Amarillo Art Center in 1974.

Though grafitti wasn’t part of the original plan, it’s become tradition for visitors to leave their mark

A year later, journalist Charles Kuralt, host of the folksy On the Road program on the CBS television network, passed by in his bus, pulled over, and put Cadillac Ranch on the map. He was charmed. “At first, we thought someone might be trying to raise little baby Cadillacs,” Kuralt says. “Then we thought maybe the farmer just parked them this way each year after he bought a new model.”

Marsh talked up the Ant Farm and compared the Cadillac Ranch to Stonehenge, declaring, “It’s the most important roadside attraction of our generation.” Kuralt ended the segment waxing poetic over “a cowboy herding steers out there where the tall tailfins grow and the traffic heads west on Route 66 and the Texas sun goes down on the chromium bumpers of the American dream.”

Next came the bullet holes, an instinctive reaction around the Panhandle. If there’s something out there and you don’t know what it is, shoot it! “People would take their keys and scratch their initials into the paint,” Lord says. “Eventually, we went out there and signed it, to copyright.”

Then came the spray paint. First as simple graffiti tags—names, expressions of love, expressions of hate. Then wholesale paint jobs. “I was kind of outraged when people started spray-painting it,” Livesay says. “I asked Stanley what he thought of that, and he said, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ It showed ownership. People had to care enough about it, or hated it enough, to come see it. And they did.”

In 1997, Cadillac Ranch moved 2 miles west to its current location. The city of Amarillo was growing, and parking lot lights were visible at the installation. “That property was getting more valuable,” McSpadden says. “It was harder digging them up and replanting them than it was putting them in the ground the first time. From the road, it didn’t change at all. It was still the same flatland background.”

The relocation coincided with the dawn of the internet. Cadillac Ranch had become a featured attraction on RoadsideAmerica.com. Social media further broadened its reach. Cadillac Ranch remains a metaphor for the Golden Age of the American automobile, but over 50 years, it’s taken on many meanings and interpretations. A search for “Cadillac Ranch” on Instagram retrieves images of the Cadillac Ranch at sunrise, sunset, during dust storms and blizzards, and as a backdrop for selfies.

The scent of Krylon is fairly constant. On Cinco De Mayo, red, green, and white paint have dominated. The Cadillacs have been painted pink for child cancer awareness. After Michels died in 2004, the Cadillacs were painted black, his favorite color.

McSpadden spent two days at the site in October 2022, making portraits featured in the Cadillac Ranch at 50 exhibit. “I got people from England, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland,” he says. “People paint, they leave, and 20 minutes later somebody comes up and paints over what they painted.  They don’t just paint the cars, they paint the dirt, they paint the access road, the barriers are painted, the trash cans are painted.”

Four years ago, Marsh’s son, Stan Marsh 4, added a merch truck that sells spray paint, beverages, and tchotchkes on the site. “The Cadillacs are one of the last things in the nation that are truly wild,” he says. “There are no bathrooms. There is no running water. There’s no shade. There’s a different energy out there. It’s an adventure every time.”

Marquez says he’s only had two good ideas in his life. “One was the Cadillac Ranch. The other was copyrighting Cadillac Ranch,” he says. “Ant Farm owns the copyright to Cadillac Ranch. For many years we’ve made money, it’s like an annuity. Commercials, clothing lines, billboards, print ads, everything.”

Marsh’s heirs still own the Cadillac Ranch. Following a series of debilitating strokes, ownership of the land was transferred from Marsh to a family trust. He died in 2014, shortly after facing allegations of sexual abuse by multiple minors. Though perception of Marsh’s reputation may have changed following the allegations, Cadillac Ranch’s legacy continues to stand the test of time.

Today, people come from all over the world to see Cadillac Ranch

Stanley Marsh 4 regards the Cadillac Ranch as a participatory work of art that everybody is welcome to collaborate on. “Every mark is permanent, but it’s also temporary,” he says. “You can say anything you’d like to say with absolute freedom—but it’s going to be covered up in 30 seconds.”

The next 50 years are less certain. “We’re looking at options to preserve and protect the Cadillacs for future generations,” Stanley Marsh 4 says.

Lord is not so sure. “I favor not doing a restoration. With farmers, when a truck stops running, they put it out in a field and it rusts away.  Just let it rust down to nothing, which eventually it will,” Lord says. “That’s the most logical end of Cadillac Ranch.”

Whatever Cadillac Ranch’s future holds, Livesay appreciates what it means to the Panhandle city. “It’s wonderful it’s lasted so long and generated so much excitement for the town,” he says. “It’s grown with the times. You can’t argue with the facts.”

 

You may also like