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by Jim Benjaminson, editor emeritus, the Plymouth Bulletin.
In January 1983, I flew to Los Angeles to meet with Sullivan Richardson, Arnold Whitaker, and Kenneth Van Hee — the three men of the Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition.
The Expedition had taken place back in 1940-41, when the trio left Detroit, Michigan driving a 1941 Plymouth sedan, with the goal of being the first people to drive the entire length of the proposed Pan-American Highway, from the United States, through Mexico, Central and South America to the tip of Chile.
The slogan of the expedition was "Detroit to Cape Horn" — even though Cape Horn is a rock in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles off the southern tip of Chile.
I had read an upsetting article about the trio in a book put out by Petersen Publishing, questioning whether they had actually accomplished their feat — and why they would have even attempted it. One of the photos (obtained from Chrysler) showed a badly battered Plymouth with 1945 Illinois license plates. The caption read something to the effect of “What happened to the car? Chrysler officials say it was left in South America.”
Whoa! If it was left in South America in 1941, why then did the photos show it with 1945 Illinois license plates?
From that point on, I was determined to track down the men behind the expedition. The search led me to Detroit, Chicago, and ultimately to Los Angeles, where all three men were still living.
From the outset I found the trio to be friendly and outgoing — and more than a little amazed that someone from the hinterlands of North Dakota was still interested in what they had done so many years ago. Sullivan Richardson and his wife Elva picked me up at the LA airport and that first night hosted a dinner party in which the other two members, Arnold Whitaker and Kenneth Van Hee attended. It was the last time the three of them were together.
I spent three days with the Richardsons, poring over old photographs, scrapbooks, and the film they had made of their trip. The original intent was to promote the building of the Pan-American Highway, and to document their travels in the Plymouth. What they had expected to be a fairly short trip turned into a nine month ordeal, and by the time they got back to the USA, their trip was soon forgotten, being overshdowed by the events of December 7, 1941. In the early 1950s, Richardson resurrected the thousands of feet of movie film made and put it together into a travel-log: one film entitled Rough Road To Panama, the other called Rugged Road To Cape Horn.
During the war, Richardson and Whitaker returned to Central America under the auspices of the U S Government, documenting the "Other Peoples of the Americas," while Van Hee served in the SeeBees. Their vehicle of choice was a Dodge weapons carrier.
After the war, Richardson and Whitaker began doing product films for firms such as Sears, Dodge, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. As I sat in Richardson's study, I peered into a closet piled from floor to ceiling with cans of movie film. Near the bottom, one caught my eye. It read simply “Power Wagon.” After much digging I watched two movies unfold, documenting the product film they had made for Dodge Division about the civilian version of the Power Wagon.
The first film was simply titled “Power Wagon,” a 34-minute color film documenting the many uses of the Power Wagon, from floods in Mississippi to winter storms in Wyoming, delivering feed to cattle, fighting fires, hunting rattlesnakes to make anti-venom, etc. The second film, also in color and running 39 minutes, was entitled “Power Wagon — For The Farm.”
Like Willys, Dodge advertised the Power Wagon as the perfect vehicle for the farm. It could pull a plow, and, with a post hole digger attachment, it took no time at all to install a new fence. Once you unhooked, you could let your wife drive it to town for groceries. One scene showed a young woman with a baby in arms doing just that; the woman was Sullivan's wife Elva and the baby was son Sullivan, Jr., whom I met while visiting at the Richardson home (and who happened to be my age).
Because of his years in the film business, Sullivan Richardson knew who to contact about having the original films put on videotape. In fact, all four films were put on video tape and the Plymouth Owners Club became exclusive distributors of the film, through their rental library. (I discovered the original copy in Sullivan Richardson’s closet when I visited with him back in 1983. Then I discovered a different version in the Chrysler archives.)
That was not the end of the Richardson film library, however. Also in the closet was a film entitled "Northward to Nome" — a documentary for Dodge Division, driving the new 1949 Dodge over the new Alaska Highway. In making that trip, Richardson and Whitaker had achieved a personal goal of driving from the “north pole to the south pole,” or as closely as that could be done at the time. “Northward to Nome,” too, became a part of the Plymouth Club video library.
All three expedition members passed away in 1986. I was priviledged to know them. Their films live on and can be rented from the Plymouth Owners Club Video Library.
See some of the movies here • The Dodge Power Wagon
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