Oct 222015

It is easy to forget how rapidly transportation systems have changed since the horse and buggy days. The completion of the Mexican stretch of the Pan-American Highway (i.e. the part from the U.S. border to Guatemala) in the late 1940s was a significant turning-point in the development of Mexico’s road network. The highway made previously remote areas more accessible. It also served as a symbol of unity and Mexico’s progress into the modern era.

The official route of the Pan-American Highway through Mexico is from Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas south to Mexico City along Highway 85, and then continuing on Highway 190 to Oaxaca and the border with Guatemala. Various northern “spurs” were later added, including one from Nogales to Mexico City along highway 15, the route used by Richardson’s expedition:

Mexican section of Pan-American Highway, 1941 (from Richardson's Adventure South)

Mexican section of Pan-American Highway, 1941 (from Richardson’s Adventure South)

Prior to its completion, only a handful of intrepid souls had dared to attempt driving the entire route of the Pan-American Highway through Mexico. The most noteworthy expedition was the three-man Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition of 1941. Amazingly, with only occasional assistance from mules, trucks, passers-by and boats, this expedition successfully drove all the way from Detroit in the U.S. to Tierra del Fuego, Chile.

The three men – christened “The Three Damn Fools” – were journalist Sullivan Richardson, Arnold Whitaker and Kenneth C. Van Hee. The car they used was a 1941 Plymouth 4 door sedan, serial No. 15031250, engine number P11-214804.

In the words of Jim Benjaminson, who (years later) helped track down the whereabouts of the car:

 “The Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition is perhaps one of the greatest automotive stones of all time. In scope and magnitude it surpasses those pioneer automobilists that first crossed the United States at the turn of the century The Richardson Expedition crossed not only this country but encompassed the area spanning two continents-crossing trackless wilderness, endless mud, uncharted territory and obstacles of every sort that Mother Nature could throw against them.

The men of the expedition, Sullivan C. Richardson, Arnold Whitaker and Kenneth C. Van Hee were many times called “Three Damn Fools” by friends and foes alike. It is a title that was perhaps fitting, considering the almost insurmountable odds against their succeeding -but succeed they did -and now that title is worn proudly- The Richardson Pan American Highway Expedition was perhaps the last great automotive adventure undertaken on the face of this earth.”

Oaxaca section of Pan-American Highway, 1941

Oaxaca section of Pan-American Highway, 1941. (Richardson’s Adventure South)

Oaxaca section of Pan-American Highway, 1941

Oaxaca section of Pan-American Highway, 1941 (Richardson’s Adventure South)

Some idea of the difficulties they encountered can be gleaned from these photographs taken south of Oaxaca, where one 80 km (50 mile) stretch (pictured) took them 25 days to complete! Today, that same section is an hour’s drive along smooth asphalt…

The whole epic story, complete with photos, can be read online here. The story and photos originally appeared in issues #135, #136 and #137 of the Plymouth Bulletin (1982).

Sullivan C. Richardson: Adventure South (Arnold-Powers Inc., 1942).

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