When I heard that the Illinois Route 66 Regent Street Motor Show would be returning to the UK’s capital, I quickly bagged myself an advanced train ticket for the 3 November. I missed last year’s car show and, having found so few events in the UK with connections to Route 66, I was determined not to let it slip me by again (even if it did mean I’d have to brave engineering works and a rail replacement bus into London’s Newbury Park). So armed with enough reading material to occupy me on a journey that would take twice as long as it usually would, thanks to engineering works, earlier this month I set off for the Big Smoke in search of Mother Road goodness.
I arrived at Regent Street around 1pm. I would have got there sooner had I bothered to check the event’s website, which clearly stated that the nearest tube station was Oxford Circus. Not Regent’s Park, as I wrongly assumed. A quick journey back on the Underground (to the stop I’d just been at) and I was greeted with a large sign outlining the event’s itinerary and sponsors, including the Illinois Office of Tourism, signalling I was finally in the right place. One obligatory selfie later (the sign could have benefited from a hashtag, but I managed to find #IllinoisRT66Regentstreetmotorshow after a quick search on Twitter) and I was ready to explore.
I was delighted to find that the stretch of road between Piccadilly and Oxford Circuses had been pedestrianised for the day. It felt enchanting to walk along the tarmac and look up at the famous Regency-inspired architecture from a perspective usually only reserved for motorists. The traffic lights were still transitioning between red, amber and green as I journeyed down the street, but there was no ‘traffic’ to obey them; the only vehicles present were those parked and on show, ready to have their picture taken by thousands of motor-mad tourists.
Actually taking a photo though was easier said than done. As the West End’s annual free car display, the Regent Street Motor Show attracts more than half a million people; I’m sure a large percentage of them are now immortalised in my image gallery after they walked into my shots just as I pressed ‘capture’. On almost every occasion, I had to wait a few minutes for the crowds to disperse before I could take a snap of a classic car without any unwanted passers-by in it. However, I still managed to take so many great pics that I drained by smartphone battery within an hour. I’d suggest giving yourself more than enough time to manoeuvre through the crowds and take an actual camera, rather than just a phone, when you visit next year.
The show’s popularity should have been no great surprise to me – indeed its organisers, the Royal Automobile Club, claim it’s the largest free-to-view car themed event in the UK. More than 100 vehicles were on show between 10.30am and 4pm, including vintage cabriolets from the early 1900s through to modern race cars and super-powered vehicles. The event has been running since 2010 and was renamed to include the ‘Illinois Route 66’ prefix a few years back after the Illinois Office of Tourism became its title sponsor, promoting holidays along the Mother Road in the state. I saw a Delorean time machine from the film Back to the Future, a row of classic Mini Coopers, a gorgeous retro fire truck and a giant Scalextric car before I even reached the Illinois Route 66 Zone in the centre, my reason for attending.
The zone was marked with a huge Route 66 shield on a pole, making for a great selfie opportunity. The sign was surrounded by lots of literature about the stretch of the Mother Road running through Illinois, including handy pull-out maps and route planners. Amongst places we visited on our road trip, such as the Gemini Giant, Pontiac and the Cozy Dog Drive In, there was a whole list of attractions listed that I hadn’t come across before. How good does the Motorheads Bar & Grill in Springfield sound? Or Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, home to a collection of both VW and bunny rabbits? I learnt a lot and picked up some tips for our next trip.
The main Illinois stand was decorated with large photos of Route 66 icons from across the state, which brought back lots of memories from my own adventure. There was also an opportunity to enter a free prize draw to win a holiday along the Mother Road. Entrants just needed to offer up their email addresses and answer the question ‘where does Route 66 start?’ I replied ‘Adams Street in Chicago’ (originally it was Jackson Boulevard, but the road was later made one-way, so the start sign is now in a new location). The lady writing down my details remarked that nobody had been that specific all day, so I walked away feeling smug with my geekiness. It didn’t last long though – I didn’t win the competition! That will teach me.
The stand was surrounded by a collection of classic American cars, each with a Route 66 shield by it, which I thought was cute. There was a vintage Dodge Charger – a very different car to the brand new red Challenger we took for a spin along Route 66 – a black Thunderbird and, my favourite, a renovated, turquoise pick-up truck. I was also quite tempted by the package holiday deals being promoted, offering five nights on Illinois 66 from just £695, or 14 nights from £1280 per person (see America As You Like It). I wasn’t the only one interested – throughout the rest of the day I heard lots of attendees talking about how they’d like to travel Route 66, so the sponsorship seemed to have been money well spent. I’d never thought about travelling Route 66 by splitting the journey into several state-by-state vacations, but I’m certainly considering it now as a way to save my annual leave.
However, cars and promotional literature aside, I did think that the Illinois Office of Tourism’s stand was a little bare. If the organisation decides to sponsor again next year, I think there’s probably more it could do to sell the attractions of the Mother Road. For example, it would have been good to have a bit more interactivity. ‘Paint your own Pontiac cars’, based on the miniature models displayed in the town, could be one idea, or the opportunity to taste Illinois favourites, such as the Chicago deep dish pizza or Funks Grove ‘Maple Sirup’.
In fact, I thought that the Route 66 theme could have been pushed more throughout the rest of the show too. American food outlets, Route 66 shields on the road, or even miniature models of quirky attractions, such as the Muffler Men, could all pique people’s interest in the Mother Road. It would have been nice to have seen a few more American cars too – other than those on the Illinois stand, I only spotted a vintage Buick and a 1904 Cadillac (which was awesome) by way of retro vehicles from the USA. Of course, I appreciate that Illinois Office of Tourism is only a sponsor, and not the organiser, of the event, and the show is mostly about classic cars, but I was hoping for a little more from an event named after the Mother Road.
That said, I had a fantastic time in the hour and a half I spend on Regent Street. It would certainly be possible to spend much longer there if you stayed for the vintage car parade, dance shows or had a go on the Mercedes AMG Petronas simulator, voiced by Lewis Hamilton, or the competition to set the fastest Scalextric lap; I had some shopping to do on Oxford Street instead. I saw a gorgeous fleet of vintage Harrods delivery trucks, a beautiful old Austin A35 Van, used as the early RAC vehicle, and I had fun posing with the replica Silverstone Classic trophy; I was just sad that I couldn’t enter their Twitter competition to win tickets to the festival because my battery had died by then.
I also loved the rows of 1900s cars, complete with informative plaques – it’s crazy to think that all these cars existed so long before the Model T brought vehicle ownership to the masses. Race fans would have also loved the historic F1 cars, racing Mini and Escorts (Mk1 and Mk2), as well as Colin Turkington’s British Touring Car Championship winning BMW 125i M Sport.
All-in-all, The Regent Street Motor Show is a great, free, family day out in London. I had a blast, got some great photos (it just took me a while) and packed in a trip to some of Oxford Street’s flagship stores. Would I have liked more Route 66 goodness? Of course, but what do you expect from a Mother Road super fan?
If you’re looking for an entertaining day trip in the heart of the capital, I would thoroughly recommend you visit next year’s show on Saturday 2 November 2019.
You can find more photos from the event on my Facebook page.