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 Can the Cadillac Ranch in Texas off Route 66 become a sign of the times? GM's graveyard???? - BB


AMARILLO, Texas – Jaunty, weird and whimsical, the Cadillac Ranch has long charmed travellers the world over as the ultimate roadside attraction on the greatest of American roads, old Route 66.

But in the summer of 2009, this iconic row of classic Cadillacs jutting skyward from a farm field in the Texas Panhandle has taken on a darker meaning than its builders ever intended.

With the implosion of GM and Chrysler, the Cadillac Ranch now looks more like the graveyard of American greatness – 10 tragic steel-and-glass tombstones marking the sorry demise of automaking as we know it.

"It's painful to think of it that way today. It's not what the Cadillac Ranch is supposed to say," says Stanley Marsh, 70, the famously eccentric Amarillo millionaire who bankrolled the landmark 35 years ago, conceiving, buying and planting the Caddies nose-first with the help of San Francisco art collective Ant Farm.

"We put it there as a public gesture to freedom, mobility and the open road. The Cadillac was the way to say it. And I like to think we got it exactly right – the cars tilt at the same angle as the Great Pyramids in Egypt."

Marsh, the self-proclaimed "son of a son of a very rich man," was telling his story in his office atop the tallest building in Amarillo, where the elevator doors open to reveal a sign announcing "The People's Republic of the 12th Floor."

It's the first clue this is not your typical Texan, let alone your typical Texan oil heir. He's a third-generation mogul who signs his name Stanley Marsh 3. The Roman III, he says, is just too pretentious.

Marsh, who describes himself as "far to the left of Barack Obama on almost every issue," says bluntly the president should be going after America's highest earners. The rich are too rich, in his view. He wants to see the tax pendulum swing back to favour the people sliding under the wheels of the great recession.

But the maker of the Cadillac Ranch also sees redemption in the hard times at hand. Beyond the pain, he anticipates "a great cleansing – and that's a good thing, a way for the country to leap forward again." Eventually.

It's easy to see where he's coming from, given the trail-blazing history of the car he so reveres. In 1915, the precision-engineered Cadillac set the standard for America's automotive future with the first V8 engine, topping out at 65 mph (105 km/h).

That widely copied innovation suddenly meant Americans could go like the devil – much faster, in fact, than roads would allow. As the public clamoured for proper highways, lawmakers answered with the creation of Route 66, blazing the corridor from Chicago to Los Angeles, redefining American culture from the driver's seat.

Since overtaken by the interstate highway system, what's left of old Route 66 is today a connoisseurs-only corridor. But with a recent surge of satellite mapping, America's original Main Street is enjoying an afterlife, with international travellers making the pilgrimage – and many stopping to spray-paint messages of appreciation on Marsh's dead Cadillacs, a practice he tacitly encourages.

But clearly, America's love of the auto does not include a love of auto bailouts. A Gallup poll found that only one in four respondents approved of the U.S. government handouts to General Motors and Chrysler. And Ford, which has thus far declined emergency aid from Washington, reports a surge of positive public feedback, with more than half of Americans saying they are more likely to buy a Ford because the company is going it alone without taxpayer support.

Auto artifacts are studded along Route 66. In Weatherford, Okla., a signed letter from Henry Ford is framed at the homey Heartland Museum. It was a message from the golden age, praising the local dealership for its sales triumphs. Today, with the shuttering of so many car dealers, it reads like satire.

Still, hunkered down in Amarillo, the owner of the Cadillac Ranch remains an optimist; he believes the American dream will thrive despite GM crashing into bankruptcy, the banks foundering and the housing market starving for buyers.

"I think America is going to do just fine," Marsh asserts. "We've still got our freedom and as long as people all over the world want to be part of it, we're bound to recover."

One in a series about Hard Times in America