Cadillac Ranch: Where the Cars Are the Canvas

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
Cadillac Ranch
The famous row of Cadillacs at Cadillac Ranch off Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas, are a grafitti artist's dream. Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

One of the most recognizable and enduring art installations in America is made of junky old cars that represented enviable wealth and prestige the day they were driven off the lot: a line of 10 mid-century Cadillacs buried nose first in the dirt, their tail fins flying high against a deep blue sky. The cars are beat up and graffitied and the whole spectacle looks like the fence outside Mad Max's house. And no, it's not at Burning Man — it's been sitting on the Texas panhandle for almost half a century.

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Who Created Cadillac Ranch?

This Stonehenge of beat up, paint-smothered classic cars is Cadillac Ranch, a public art installation on old Route 66 near Amarillo, Texas. It was created in the 1970s by the avant-garde San Francisco-based art group Ant Farm, on the property of local Amarillo businessman and artist Stanley Marsh 3 (he used the Arabic numeral "3" instead of the conventional Roman numeral because he considered the latter pretentious). Marsh, who died in 2014, was known for artistic "pranks" like commissioning and installing fake road signs with slogans like "You Will Never Be the Same" and "Road Does Not End."

When Ant Farm initially approached Marsh in the early 1970s about funding and housing the project on his property, he wrote them back with a plea for time to consider:

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"It's going to take me a while to get used to the idea of the Cadillac Ranch," wrote Marsh. "I'll answer you by April Fool's Day. It's such an irrelevant and silly proposition that I want to give it all my time and attention so I can make a casual judgment of it."

Cadillac Ranch
The Cadillacs of Cadillac Ranch stand in Marsh's dry field in January 1981, before they ever welcomed the first splash of colorful paint.
BIPS/Getty Images

Over the years, the family of Stanley Marsh 3 has maintained the cars and the farmland that surrounds it, and though Marsh is no longer living, the land is owned and maintained by a trust.

"The installation of the cars was in 1974, when I was only 4, so I don't recall anything of the installation," says Liz Davidson, Stanley Marsh's daughter. "But he referred to the Cadillac installation as a representation of America's hopes and dreams, art and commerce, materialism and spiritualism, folly and fame."

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What Do You See at Cadillac Ranch If You Go?

At this point, Cadillac Ranch is mostly a roadside attraction about 300 feet (100 yards) off I-40 E (old Route 66), open to the public at all hours of the day and night. The evolution of the Cadillac tailfin can be seen as you walk along the line of buried cars. The 10 vehicles are arranged in a line by age, starting with the 1949 Club Sedan and ending with the 1963 Sedan de Ville, all pitched at the exact angle of the Great Pyramid at Giza. From the beginning, visitors to the site have been tearing pieces off the cars as souvenirs, and later began painting them with graffiti — a practice that Ant Farm and Marsh embraced.

Cadillac Ranch
The merchandise trailer at Cadillac Ranch offers spray paint in a wide array of colors so that visitors can make their personal mark on the Cadillacs.
Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

"The Cadillac installation is ever changing with each new visitor spray painting their name, logo, favorite color on the cars," says Davidson. "There is a merchandise trailer that offers Cadillac Ranch T-shirts, stickers and other memorabilia, but most importantly, the trailer offers spray paint in a wide array of colors so that visitors can make their personal mark on the Cadillacs."

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However, sometimes the Cadillac Ranch herd gets a makeover.

"Although the public spray-paints the cars daily, every once in a while, a group will ask to completely repaint several of the cars a specific color for a photo shoot or to have a uniform-colored canvas," says Davidson.

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Cadillacs for a Cause

In 2005, all the Caddys were painted bright pink for breast cancer awareness, and in 2003 the cars were all painted black as a memorial for the passing of one of Ant Farm's founders, Doug Michels. In 2012 they were painted in rainbow colors to commemorate gay pride and painted black again to commemorate the murder of George Floyd in 2020. At different times the cars have all been painted white, New York taxicab yellow and fire engine red for no particular reason. At one point, the hotel chain Hampton Inn even restored the cars to their original colors for a commercial, but the fresh new paint jobs reportedly lasted less than 24 hours before the graffiti artists started in on them again.

Cadillac Ranch
The cars of Cadillac Ranch were painted pink in 2005 to support finding a cure for breast cancer.
Steven Clevenger/Corbis/Getty Images

In 1997, the Cadillacs were even moved from their original location in a wheat field to a site on Marsh's ranch 2 miles (3 kilometers) to the west because the town was growing up around the installation, and Marsh felt it needed to maintain a more rural feel.

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Cadillac Ranch has appeared in commercials, music videos, television shows and movies — in the 2006 Pixar animated film "Cars," Cadillac Ranch shows up as a distant rock formation. What started out as an "irrelevant and silly proposition" has ended up capturing a part of our collective attention in the long term.

So, stop on by anytime you're in the neighborhood. Cadillac Ranch is located on I-40, west of Amarillo (Texas), in the direction of Tucumcari-Santa Rosa, off exit 60. The attraction is open 24/7 and is completely free. For GPS purposes, the exact address is: 13651 I-40 Frontage Road, Amarillo, TX, 79124.

Editor's Note: Stanley Marsh 3 was indicted April 10, 2013, by a Potter County, Texas, grand jury for the alleged sexual assault of two teenagers in 2010 and 2011. He was charged with four counts of sexual assault of a child, eight counts of sexual performance by a child and two counts of indecency with a child. Marsh died in Amarillo June 17, 2014, at the age of 76, before his case could be resolved.

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