Two Palisadians With a ’68 Corvette Convertible Retrace America’s Original Highway
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
Call it their Great American Dream.
Steve Heineman, a retired Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) Lieutenant and a Pacific Palisades resident for more than 20 years, and real estate developer Larry Wheat, who has lived in the Riviera for more than 25 years, have only known each other four years.
However, it didn’t take these Palisadian pals long to figure out that they shared a common all-American wish-list experience: traveling cross-country on Route 66 in a convertible with the top down.
“It was a bucket list thing for me,” Wheat said.
The man Wheat affectionately calls “Heiney” admitted, “I’m not an auto guy at all. I grew up in New York City. I got my license at 26 years old.”
Even so, he added, “It was something I always thought of doing with my Dad.”
This summer, when Heineman’s youngest daughter’s trip to college back East got delayed and Heineman had a car to transport back to Los Angeles, the opportunity arose to traverse America and see the United States in much the same fashion as millions of Americans began doing nearly a century ago.
Working out their plan at Wheat’s home and at their local hangout, the Village’s Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, how could Heineman and Wheat resist the urge to traverse Route 66’s 2,448 miles of Americana, stretching from Chicago to Santa Monica?
For the two Palisadians, Route 66 seemed like the perfect adventure. Bonus symbolism: the nostalgic overlap with our Palisades beaches and parks as Route 66 was also called the Will Rogers Highway.
Wheat’s love affair with the classic American automobile dates back to his mother’s 1956 Corvette, which he bought after graduating from John Marshall High School in Griffith Park in 1961.
Wheat continued to collect the Chevrolet speedsters, even contributing one of his vintage cars—a ’66 Corvette—to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Mid-City in 2013, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Corvette.
Meanwhile, Wheat’s youngest daughter Sarah was heading back to the University of Chicago. Surfing eBay, Wheat had found and purchased a 1968 Corvette C3 that he was going to have shipped back to the Palisades. However, he gleaned a better idea: Why not accompany Sarah to Chicago and then drive the car home with the top down across Route 66?
Sarah’s school return was pushed back, but by the time June rolled around, the timing was perfect for the retired cop and the developer to hit the open road. Retired since 2012 after a 27-year career with the SMPD, Heineman also had a seasonal break from his role as assistant coach for the Palisades Charter High School baseball program.
Even though Heineman and Wheat had not known each other for long, they sensed they would be compatible road trip pals, especially driving the ’68 Corvette convertible across half a dozen states.
“With the top down, I gotta find somebody who is sturdy,” Wheat said. So he asked the retired police lieutenant, ‘What do you think about driving Route 66?’ He goes: ‘Let me tell you tomorrow.’ He comes back the next day, says: ‘Yeah, I’m in.’”
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS…
Ground zero for the Aug. 15 launch of their cross-country trip: Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant on Jackson Street in downtown Chicago. Fresh off of witnessing two consecutive Cubs victories at Wrigley Field, the buddies feasted on a big American breakfast with scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes.
“We both finished about half,” Wheat said.
After fueling up on breakfast in downtown Chicago, the pair gassed up their ’68 Corvette and hit the road.
Staying at a succession of Days Inn and Comfort Inn motel rooms, the two made some memorable stops, including the Chain of Rocks Bridge along the northern side of St. Louis, Missouri; a custard place outside St. Louis; and the Wigwam Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, where each room is a wigwam, Wheat said.
Along the road, Heineman hit an antique store in Carthage, Missouri, and picked up a stuffed Hamburglar toy that became their “mascot,” Wheat recalled, laughing.
While in Carthage, the pair saw a movie (“Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”) at the Route 66 Drive-In.
Then the trip hit a snag: Wheat’s recent purchase needed its entire radiator replaced.
“We spent three days in Clinton, Oklahoma,” Wheat recalled of waiting around for his ’68 to be repaired.
There were certainly signs long before Oklahoma.
“We had to pull over numerous times and get more anti-freeze,” Heineman said. “Any time we stopped, it would dump anti-freeze.”
This radiator problem proved to be foreshadowing.
“It was a matter of time,” Heineman said. “A ticking time bomb, as the mechanic said.”
Getting those new valve springs and radiator cost $2,500.
No sweat, Wheat said: “I look at it from the standpoint that it was an improvement to the car that I probably would have had to do at some point anyway.”
While in Clinton, Wheat and Heineman shopped at antique stores and visited the Route 66 Museum.
“It’s like a throwback in time being stuck in that town,” Wheat remembered.
The men’s “Man vs. Food” moment arrived in Amarillo, Texas at a restaurant along the I-40 called The Big Texan, where a $72, 72-oz. steak (plus free shrimp, baked potato and roll on the side) is absolutely free if you can chow it down within an hour.
Heineman was game.
“He was the only one who was doing it,” Wheat remembered.
Unfortunately, Heineman’s steak wasn’t free.
“He ate 54 ounces. I had ribs and I sat at the table,” Wheat said.
By the time the pair plowed through New Mexico and reached Lake Havasu City in Arizona, temperatures were in the 100s.
“Now up in Flagstaff it was nice,” Wheat said, alluding to the cooler climate of the pine tree-laden, 7,000-ft. elevation northern Arizona college town.
They hit the Route 66 Diner in Albuquerque and the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico.
One of the most memorable stops on their entire journey: the retro town of Segilman—located just past Flagstaff and Williams—which recreates the Route 66 past with old-fashioned ice cream shops, diners and soda jerks.
“The Burma-Shave signs are still there,” Wheat said, alluding to the American brand of brushless shaving cream that launched a humorous advertising campaign in the 1920s involving highway signs.
The Cars on the Route gas station in Galena, Kansas, also delivered some 66-themed razzle-dazzle.
“Then we found Russell’s Truck and Travel Center in Glen Row, New Mexico,” Wheat said of the destination replete with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe artifacts.
ON THE PIER AMONG HIS PEERS
On the warm Southern California morning of Aug. 24, as they came roaring down Foothill Boulevard in Upland and into Pasadena on the final stretch of their journey, across Suicide Bridge, down Figueroa and onto the 110 Freeway, Heineman had rigged a surprise for Wheat.
“I prearranged for Larry that we would drive onto the pier,” Heineman said. “The real end of 66 is somewhere on Santa Monica Boulevard [in Santa Monica] but for this nostalgia thing, they’ve extended out to the Pier,” Heineman continued about the symbolic extension of the historic route.
What Wheat didn’t know is that their ride would soon traverse all the way to the Pier’s midpoint—courtesy of Heineman’s former SMPD colleagues—where an official Route 66 sign stands.
“When we got on the Pier, my wife Lorna Auerbach was waiting for us with the Santa Monica Police Department,” Wheat said.
A celebratory story-swapping meal of chicken Caesar salads and pizza followed with all involved at Bruno’s on Ocean Avenue, next door to the Pier’s archway.
The entire journey, including the unintended Clinton stayover, lasted nine days.
Truth be told, Chain of Rocks Bridge turned out to be a big disappointment for the gents, Wheat admitted. Conversely, both name-checked Meramec Caverns in Sullivan, Missouri as a highlight.
“It’s so surprising in the middle of nowhere,” Wheat said.
Aside from using his smartphone less often, Heineman has no regrets.
“I don’t know how to drive a stick. He was going to teach me but then the car starting going bad and I said forget it,” Heineman said.
The best part of their journey?
“Hanging out with Steve,” Wheat said. “You gotta pick the right person to do this with.”
Especially when stuff happens like the radiator dropping out.
“We just dealt with all of this stuff,” Wheat said. “He’s a good pal, somebody I knew I could spend a couple of weeks with.”
The Palisadians definitely have advice for anyone attempting the Route 66 trip. Wheat: said, “You gotta be sturdy. You gotta really want to do it!”
Even though it occupies a corner of America’s second-largest city with four million people, Pacific Palisades is often compared to a small town. So did either man find a small town during their travels that actually reminded them of the Palisades?
“No!” Wheat said, emphatically.
“Absolutely not!” Heineman agreed.
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