There were noticeable changes when I last visited Cadillac Ranch on a weekday back in mid-June. Changes included a new access gate, an entry area covered in gravel and occupied that day by a food truck and a souvenir trailer. Positioned near the row of classic Caddys, each carefully planted into position in the Texas Panhandle farm field since the mid-1970s, were garbage cans, presumably placed so people who had emptied aerosol spray-paint cans wouldn’t simply toss them onto the ground.
And not only were the cars decorated with paint, but so was much of the ground behind them.
Later, I discovered that while there are still no roadside signs along I-40 altering vehicles to the ranch’s location, the ranch does have its own Facebook page, launched back in April 2019. The other changes were introduced more recently.
Since my visit, I’ve had a conversation with Bryan Brumley, general manager of the ranch, which is owned by a trust and is positioned on a family-owned farm. He explained that there was a need for better access to the cars for those with disabilities than forcing them to maneuver through the narrow turns of a device designed to keep cattle from wandering from the field out onto the I-40 service road.
He also recalled that back when Cadillac Ranch founder Stanley Marsh was alive (Brumley worked for the Marsh family at its Toad Hall estate and farm for several years), he would host politicians, domestic and foreign, at the ranch and there were issues with getting their vehicles onto the property, especially after it rained (it’s a farm field, after all, and it gets muddy very quickly). So, a large gate and gravel-covered parking area have been installed, which can be used for food trucks and for the ranch’s new souvenir truck and trailer.
Brumley had set up an online store for selling T-shirts and other souvenirs, but realized, “You don’t buy Hard Rock Cafe shirts online, you buy them at the cafe. We needed a trailer.”
That trailer not only sells T-shirts and other Cadillac Ranch items, but soft drinks, water, candy, and spray paint cans. Previously, people visiting the ranch — and there are around 2 million of them a year — had to bring their own paint, which often meant a run to a hardware store in Amarillo.
Note that attendance figure — 2 million people a year visit a place that is not advertised for thousands of miles like Wall Drugs or Bronner’s Christmas store.
Brumley noted that Amarillo did a count of Cadillac Ranch visitors several years ago and came up with 1.5 million.
“During 2020 we did a count,” he said of those working in the souvenir truck. Though busy with customers between counting, “We counted an average of 1,500 a day on weekdays and more than 2,000 on weekends, plus 40 to 50 dogs and 4 to 5 cats.”
And that unofficial count was done during a year when Europeans and others from overseas were not taking their vacations in the United States. The site has become a “must see” for those coming to the US to experience all or part of historic Route 66.
Cadillac Ranch was planted in 1974 by Marsh, a wealthy Amarillo rancher/oil tycoon/art patron/media mogul/helium magnate and self-described “merry prankster,” who commissioned the installation by a San Francisco-based art collective called the Ant Farm.
The idea was to present an artistic commentary on American culture and Cadillac’s role as a status symbol. With Amarillo spreading its footprint, the cars were moved in 1997 to a new location a few miles to the west.
The field in which the cars are planted remains part of a working farm with annual rotation of the crops grown there. Brumley says one of his favorites is when hay is planted and sometimes will grow as tall as the Cadillac tail fins. He said an overlooked time for visiting is winter when the cars are covered with snow.
More changes are planned, Brumley said, including improved draining around the cars so visitors don’t have to wade through large puddles after the Panhandle is soaked by thunderstorms.
One thing not likely to change is the free admission policy and the encouragement of visitors to add their own layers of paint to the cars. In my opinion, those are the two aspects, along with the absence of roadside advertising, that make the ranch so appealing to visitors — it’s free, and while it’s a public art installation, there is no hands-off policy. In fact, it’s hands-on, or at least hands close enough so the paint goes from the can to the cars.
In many ways, Cadillac Ranch is a nuts-and-bolts example of social media. It’s open to all (and even more so with its new easier access gate). While the Cadillac canvases remain, the paint on them, done not by professionals but by the ranch’s visitors, changes daily, so there’s always something new to see.
I’m already anticipating my next visit.