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Great Adventures: The Pan-American Highway

Pat Kinsella traces the tortured tyre tracks of a trio of adventurers on the Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition, as they adventure south from Detroit to Cape Horn The German attack in the Ardennes in December 1944 caught the Americans by surprise and caused a major ‘bulge’ in the front line. Julian Humphrys tells the story

One car. Two continents. Three men.


The team forced their motor vehicle along brutally rugged mule routes across much of Mexico, including one 50-mile stretch that took 25 days to cross

“We give you here the realistic story of men trying to follow by automobile, the route that will one day be the greatest highway in the world” Sullivan C Richardson introduces the film Adventure South

Just before midnight on Monday 18 November 1940, three men steered a heavily laden sedan car out of Detroit and began driving south-west across the US. They would keep rolling south, through Mexico, Central and South America, until terra firma (or their luck) ran out.

In an era when roads were mere rumours across much of the sub-Arizona Americas, the intrepid trio intended to prove the conjoined-twin continents could potentially be culturally connected by a tarmac umbilicus. They were evangelists of the Pan-American dream, writ large on the door of their car: ¡Viva el Panamericanismo!


Dismissed as fools at the outset, Richardson, Whitaker and Van Hee ultimately proved the Pan-American Highway was more than a pipedream. Following their expedition, sealed surfaces swiftly snaked along the tyre tracks left in the mud by these three pioneers, from Mexico to the Panama Canal.

As expedition leader, journalist Sullivan Richardson’s vision extended well beyond Panama, but in 1940, he had no idea what he would achieve as he motored offthe map with his two companions, a typewriter and a 16mm Kodachrome movie camera. “We were offon the great adventure,” he wrote. “We were happily ignorant. It was enough that we were started.”

They seemed almost to revel in their new-found reputation as Pan-American mavericks when such accusations were leveled at them by commentators, incredulous at the scale of their ill-advised undertaking. “‘You're three damn fools,’ we were told, too often to fight about it,” Richardson said later.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

"From raiders to invades: Medievalist Dr Ryan Lavelle tells the story of how the Vikings dropped their hit-and-run tactics and instead banded together to form a Great Heathen Army, eventually conquering a large part of Britain. Also in the issue, find out how a Lancastrian widow came to marry a Yorkist king during the Wars of the Roses, and what happened when a German monk dared to take on the Pope with a 500-anniversary feature on Martin Luther's Reformation. Plus, inside Hitler's last gamble at the Battle of the Bulge, the spy who tried to kill Lenin and the Atomic Age in pictures."