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Vintage neon beckons nighttime Route 66 travelers -- just as it did in the 1950s.
Vintage neon beckons nighttime Route 66 travelers -- just as it did in the 1950s.

Route 66 Experience: Metal Muffler Man

Field review by the editors.

Springfield, Illinois

Retro neon signs touch the clouds above Route 66 in Springfield, perched atop hundred-foot poles like modern-day interstate LED billboards. They're part of the Illinois Route 66 Experience, a permanent outdoor park built in the 2020s -- as, surprisingly, were the signs, which are faithful reproductions of ones that formerly cast a warm, buzzing glow along Illinois Route 66.

Universal Muffler Man, neon flag, plaques of Mother Road titans.
Universal Muffler Man, neon flag, plaques of Mother Road titans.

The Experience, which stands on the State Fairgrounds, was conceived and constructed in anticipation of the 2026 Route 66 centennial. A sign at the entrance calls Route 66 "the most famous road in the world," and describes the Experience as "a micro version" of the Mother Road in Illinois.

"You get to walk all 421 miles," said Casey Claypool, executive director of the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway, which oversaw the project. It is, she said, the only place in the world where visitors can learn something about all 92 Illinois cities and towns traversed by Route 66.

The Experience stands on a Fairgrounds spot occupied by several small barns that formerly contained agricultural exhibits. In a demonstration of Midwest practicality, the Experience simply replaced the barn displays on seed gemination and livestock feeding with ones on Mother Road towns such as Braidwood and Gillespie, then painted a center stripe on the connecting sidewalk, making it a pedestrian Route 66. "Route 66 is a little rough around the edges anyway," said Scott Bringuet, co-owner of Ace Sign Co., which built the attraction. "We didn't want it to look too perfect."

Ace's contributions to the Experience are extensive and noteworthy. Among the neon signs towering overhead, which Ace built from scratch, are lost 1950s spectaculars for the Chain of Rocks Motel (Granite City), the Bel-Air Drive-in (Mitchell), and the A. Lincoln Motel (Springfield) -- which, Scott learned to his surprise, had originally been built by his grandfather (Ace has been in Scott's family since 1940). "They had to be visually appealing, they had to be relevant, and they had to be gone," said Scott, explaining which signs were chosen. They're also genuine neon -- not LED -- signs, which is one reason why they're up so high; their glass tubing is out of range of human hands and most projectiles.

A. Lincoln Motel sign: a rainbow of colors in electrified gas.
A. Lincoln Motel sign: a rainbow of colors in electrified gas.

Scott said that a visit to a local playground with his kids sparked the idea of building pipe metal versions of vintage cars, which are parked around the Experience and in front of its replica drive-in movie theater, where a Jumbotron screen shows clips from old-timey films. One of the vehicles is a version of the 1960s hippie van driven by Illinois' own Route 66 roving ambassador, the late Bob Waldmire (His full-size "School Bus Road Yacht" is on display at the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum).

Also standing amongst all of this nostalgia is a faceless, futuristic, tubular Metal Muffler Man, designed and built by Ace. Like neon signs, Muffler Men -- dismissed and ignored for decades -- have become an unexpectedly beloved symbol of road trip culture, particularly along Route 66. Having one at the Experience was deemed a necessity.

The Illinois Route 66 Beacon sign was the first to be erected in the Summer of 2022.
The Illinois Route 66 Beacon sign was the first to be erected in the Summer of 2022.

"Very early on we talked about doing an Abe Lincoln Muffler Man holding a Cozy Dog [Springfield's forerunner of the corn dog] but we thought it might upset people," said Casey. "So we thought, well, let's just create our own Muffler Man."

Tasked with this responsibility, Ace came up with what Scott called a "Universal Muffler Man," built of bent metal, holding a neon American flag, inspired in style by a giant LED soda bottle on Route 66 in Oklahoma. "We had one variation where the entire body lit up," said Scott, but it was judged to be too extreme. "Alien was one of the words that was brought up," Scott said. "So we just unlighted it." Sign-making requires a good eye and graphic skills, but Scott said that the completed Metal Muffler Man is a work of art, a sculpture, a step up for Ace's staff of "hand painters and tube benders," as he modestly described them and himself. "He really is a statement piece," said Rebecca Clark, manager of the Illinois State Fair, describing the Muffler Man. "Everyone is always oohing and ahhing over him."

Pipe metal retro-cars evoke the Mother Road in its heyday.
Pipe metal retro-cars evoke the Mother Road in its heyday.

In front of the metal Man are several plaques calling attention to other Muffler Men and their cohorts along (or near) Illinois Route 66, such as the Hot Dog Man in Atlanta and the Frankenmufflerman in Burbank. The transient nature of these Mother Road titans became evident soon after the plaques' placement, as several of the honored statues subsequently vanished, and several new ones appeared (We provided Scott with an updated list).

Ace, whose studio in Springfield is only a few blocks from Route 66, designs and builds signs all over the country, but Scott said that wherever he goes on a job people want to talk to him about the Mother Road. "I say, 'Hey, I'm just a sign guy. I don't know; I wasn't around back then,'" he told us. "They don't care. They just want to hear about Route 66."

That led us to ask the delicate question: is there perhaps too much attention being paid to Route 66? "Too much Route 66? I don't think there's too much at all," said Casey, stressing the economic benefits of a revived Mother Road. Scott was more circumspect. "That's a head-scratcher for me," he said. "I think Route 66 is a neutral thing that everyone can rally around. It just kind of brings people together."

Also see: Muffler Man of Metal (And Neon)

Route 66 Experience: Metal Muffler Man

Illinois State Fairgrounds

Address:
2200 N. 11th St., Springfield, IL
Directions:
On the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Enter through the big white gate at the corner of E. Sangamon Ave. and N. 11th St. Drive a quarter-mile, make the first right, drive a hundred yards, then make the next right.
Hours:
Daily 8 am - 10 pm. Lit at night. Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

30-Foot-Tall Skinny Abe Lincoln Statue30-Foot-Tall Skinny Abe Lincoln Statue, Springfield, IL - < 1 mi.
Mahan's Gas StationMahan's Gas Station, Springfield, IL - < 1 mi.
Defiant Tomb Of Mr. AccordionDefiant Tomb Of Mr. Accordion, Springfield, IL - 1 mi.
In the region:
Big Large Mouth Bass, Decatur, IL - 38 mi.

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