Why Cadillac Ranch still captivates, even after 50 years by the highway

Wyatt McSpadden has documented the life of the installation in thousands of photos.

By Michael MarksJuly 2, 2024 12:10 pm,

The Cadillacs halfway buried off Interstate 40 just west of Amarillo look like they’ve always been there. From the highway, they resemble some geologic phenomenon – hints of an ancient structure barely exposed by plate tectonics.

But really, they’re 10 cars stuck upside down in the dirt, all standing at the same angle.

Cadillac Ranch, as the installation is known, was put together by a group of artists and architects called the Ant Farm in 1974. For 50 years, folks have stopped to check out or perhaps spray-paint the cars.  

Wyatt McSpadden has photographed Cadillac Ranch from the very beginning. Now, his work is on display at the Amarillo Museum of Art’s exhibition “Cadillac Ranch at 50.” McSpadden spoke to the Texas Standard about why the ranch has had such staying power. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How many photos of Cadillac Ranch would you estimate you’ve published through the years? 

Wyatt McSpadden: Oh, you know, not published, I think, but I’ve certainly taken thousands. You know, there hadn’t been a gigantic market for Cadillac Ranch pictures. There were several articles that ran in Texas Monthly that used some of my stuff. And Texas Highways almost did a piece with my work – I think they got cold feet; I don’t know exactly what happened.

But I have a long body of work. I started taking pictures there in June of 1974, which is when the cars were buried. And I wasn’t; a professional photographer at the time. I was actually working as a sort of hand at Stanley Marsh’s Toad Hall. 

Stanley Marsh, who was the backer of the project.

Yes, Stanley Marsh 3 was the patron, or patrón, of the Ant Farm. He provided the money and the land for the Cadillac Ranch right off of Interstate 40.

And I was working there. I’d kind of fleshed out in my freshman year of college, and I was looking for something to do. I knew I didn’t want to go back into the family grocery store. And a second cousin of mine ran into me on the street one day and said, “well, Stanley’s hiring; go out there and talk to him.”

So I went out to Toad Hall, knocked on the door, Stanley said hello, and he said, “well, yeah, can you drive a lawnmower? Can you carry out the trash?” And so I was then officially a member of the Toad Hall gang. 

Wyatt McSpadden

A 1949 Cadillac is the first to be buried at Cadillac Ranch.

And Toad Hall was his estate?

That was his estate out on the northwest side of Amarillo. And so I went to work there, and my interest in photography was growing. Early in the winter of 74 was when the Ant Farm were making their plans with Stanley to put in the Cadillacs to make the Cadillac Ranch.

And what did you think when you heard that idea?

They they had done a blueprint – they were architects, a couple of them were – a very official-looking blueprint. And it showed a cutaway side view of a Cadillac with the nose in the ground and the tail up in the sky. I didn’t know what to think of it. Nobody did. No one had ever thought about burying Cadillacs out on a wheat field.

But they were there, and they spent probably six weeks, a couple of months living out of Toad Hall and shopping around for Cadillacs. And so, you know, in the Panhandle, they were looking for used cars. The oldest one was a ’49.

Amarillo Museum of Art

Were you involved in that search?

No. I wasn’t involved until the very last car was bought, which was the ’49. And they were really desperate to have that car because the cars went in in numerical sequence. The Cadillac Ranch is an homage to the Cadillac tail fin. The ’49 was the first year there was a tail fin on a Cadillac, and the last year was a ’64.

So there are 10 cars. Each represents the evolution of the Cadillac tail fin. But they couldn’t find the ’49. And they finally found one on the east side of town over on the poor side of town, and a guy had restored it and was charging them way more money than they wanted to pay. But they were desperate. They purchased this car. They made a big deal out of it.

When Doug Michels, the Ant Farm guy, had the the title of the car, they pulled a tarp off the back of a truck that was there and began to bash the front end of the car with sledgehammer and axes just to send the guy up. They were mad because they had to pay too much money for the car.

Partygoers at Cadillac Ranch on June 21, 1974.
Wyatt McSpadden

And they didn’t care what the front end looked like. They were going to bury it in the ground. So this was my introduction to the on the ground Ant Farm/Cadillac ranch.

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It feels very chaotic, and very “anything is possible,” in this little universe here in the Panhandle.

Well, I guess anything’s possible anywhere. But looking back, having spent last weekend in Amarillo and spent several trips in the last 3 1/2 years, it has occurred to me that Amarillo was the only place this would have ever worked. I don’t know why that is – well, of course, part of it is because Stanley was there. There was someone who would actually finance this.

But it’s right on Interstate 40/Highway 66. Thousands and thousands of vehicles go by every day, and there have never been more people visiting it than there are right now.

Well, why do you suppose that is?

Well, because a lot of it has to do with the internet. You know, it’s a different time. The cars, when they were buried in ’74, you know, they looked good. They were pretty pristine. And they didn’t get changed. Nobody did anything to them.

The first big picture I have color picture in the show was shot in 1976, and the cars are perfect. So no one had done anything for the first two years and probably another couple of years.

First of all, people started shooting it. You know, it’s the Panhandle; you got to shoot holes and stuff. And then people began to come out and key it and do stuff like that on it.

Detail of spray paint on a tail fin in 2022.
Wyatt McSpadden

At some point, and I don’t know exactly when that was, the spray paint took hold. People would buy spray paint in town and come out and paint the cars. And you know, it was slow.

And then there was a period of time when they would repaint the cars in a solid color. Like there was a period, there were gray, there were white, they were all pink. But they finally just gave up on that because the spray painting was inevitable. And that suited Stanley, and it suited the artists, too.

I was going to say, that adds a dimension, too.

It’s public art. You don’t have to pay anything to go in there. There’s a break in the fence line. You walk in, do whatever you want. There’s no one in charge. No one’s checking anything out.

So it sort of was built for something like this. Although never did anyone expect that the numbers would be what they are now. The Amarillo Convention Center or the Visitors Bureau speculates that a million and a half people stop there every year. It’s incredible.

I didn’t believe it until I started going out there in recent years. I did shoot predawn one day and there was no one there, which is what I wanted, right? But every day, every day, it’s a constant churn all day long – people walking out there, painting.

The Marsh family has now put a trailer out there so you can buy paint there. So they finally, after 47 years of no monetizing, they’re now trying to make a little money.

What do you like about being out there?

Oh, you know, it’s a sentimental thing for me. It’s nostalgic. I had sort of stopped taking pictures at the Cadillac Ranch, obviously, when I moved to Austin – I didn’t do it like I did when I lived in Amarillo.

But when Chip Lord, one of the Ant Farm guys, and I started talking in 2001, acknowledging, gosh, the 50th anniversary is coming up, then I started going back. I’d go up to Amarillo, take trips to see old friends and hang out and go out to the Cadillacs.

And I saw it as a different thing then, because I hadn’t been around so much when it was overwhelmed with people, which is what it is now. All day, every day – doesn’t make any difference what the weather is – people stop, they park on the access road to Interstate 40. And you can see vehicles strewn from a mile or half a mile on either side of the entrance. Incredible.

Wyatt McSpadden

Wyatt McSpadden's "Cadillac Ranch at 50" exhibit at the Amarillo Museum of Art.

And you think it’s Instagram that is largely driving this?

Instagram, Facebook, wherever – you know, the number of pictures that have been taken now have got to be in the billions there, because everybody’s got a camera, everybody’s taking pictures, everybody’s taking pictures with their phone.

I don’t really know what the attraction is. Chip Lord doesn’t know what it is. You know, it’s something that just worked by magic somehow.

Can you talk a little bit about the challenge of taking unique photographs in a place that’s been photographed so many times, by yourself?

Right, right. No, I was very conscious of that when we decided to do the show at the Amarillo Museum of Art. Like, what am I going to do that I haven’t already done? And I found ways. On two days, I went out and set up a light, a small strobe, and took portraits of people who’d come out to see the cars.

So there’s a 14-foot-wide mural of 40 different portraits of people from all over the United States and all over the world. Germany, Italy, Great Britain, all different countries, all different states. So I finally just made that a part of my thing – this is what’s going on here.

Wyatt McSpadden

Tourists from Italy at Cadillac Ranch in September 2022.

You know, during this period of time where you’ve been going back and this has been a focus of your work again, I imagine that you have thought about 1974, when it was first made public, I suppose. Can you tell me a memory or two that stand out for you when the Ant Farm revealed the work to the world?

It was dirty work. I mean, they were digging holes with a backhoe. And then literally – in most cases, I think all of them – driving the car into the hole, you know, driving the two front wheels into the hole and then coming with the backhoe, lifting the car up and letting it drop in. And then they would adjust the the angle of the car so they all matched.

So it was hard, crude work, but it was amazing to watch, and it had a huge influence on me. Just being exposed to something like this – I mean, I was 22 years old. My whole life had been spent in Amarillo. And suddenly, I’m watching these three guys from California come in, buy cars, dig holes, and put them up and call it a roadside attraction.

You know, is remarkable. It opened my mind up to a lot of other possibilities, I think, and had a lot to do with my continuing in photography.

We talked a little bit about the people, who you shot and included. Can you tell me about some of the other images that you decided to include in this exhibition?

Well, there’s a series of 28 black and white pictures from that first car being buried. I mean, people don’t know how those cars got in the ground or why they’re there, you know? And there’s nothing there to explain it about the evolution of the Cadillac tail fin.

Cattle grazing at Cadillac ranch.
Wyatt McSpadden

But that starts the show. They’re all the same size prints, 11 by 14. It’s a timeline; it’s almost like a filmstrip. And then it moves into, I was out there in an afternoon in the mid 80s. And the cars were literally in a wheat field, and there were cattle out there around the cars, and they were totally unconcerned with me being there. There’s amazing pictures of cattle putting their head in the back window of the car.

They moved the Cadillacs in 1997 from the original location to a similar location about two miles to the west, and there’s a really nice series of pictures of that event, which is pretty amazing to see those things come out of the ground, be put on a flatbed trailer and then moved to another location and reburied.

It’s all the original Cadillacs, right? Do you think about the the future of the exhibition? Do you suppose it’ll be there forever? 

There’s discussion about that. I mean, Stanley Marsh died many years ago. And his family owns the cars, his children. And there’s a sort of back-and-forth with them about, should we replace these cars? Should we get new old cars and put them in the ground?

I don’t know if that will happen or not, but Chip Lord, the artist who was involved, his feeling is let it go. You know, if it disappears into a pile of rust and spray paint, that’s fine. I don’t think he has any illusions about it being forever, because it won’t be.

Right. Very few things are.

That’s right. Even Cadillacs buried in the ground.

The “Cadillac Ranch at 50” exhibit is on display at the Amarillo Museum of Art through Aug. 25.

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