The animated Pixar cars were designed on Route 66

Cars - (C) 2006 Pixar/DisneyPublished by: New York Times

But not entirely — they were also designed at Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., where 800 animators and other dreamers work on 3,000 computers inside a former fruit processing plant. But to hear Michael Wallis, a historian of the highways, tell it, they were inspired by research expeditions to racetracks, styling studios and car shows.

Inspiration also flowed from the ruins of a Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit and from the Detroit Institute of Arts, with its car-factory murals by Diego Rivera — and from what’s left of the legendary Route 66, an artery through the heart of the American Dream.

A tour guide and author of “Route 66: The Mother Road,” among other books, Mr. Wallis led the Pixar crew along Route 66.

The most lovable character in “Cars” is Mater, a rusty tow truck with the voice of Larry the Cable Guy. That’s Mater, as in “Tow-Mater,” an aptly cornball pun. Mr. Wallis recalls the time and place he was created. “There was an old wrecker in an empty lot by Route 66 in Galena, Kan.,” he said. “Joe Ranft, the studio’s head of story and a key member of the Pixar team, stopped and noticed it, and Mater was born.”

Acting as a consultant for the Pixar team — Mr. Ranft; John Lasseter, the director; and other top animators — Mr. Wallis played Beatrice to their Dante.

The stars of "Cars": Doc Hudson, a retired racer, left, and Lightning McQueen. - (C) 2006 Pixar/Disney
The stars of “Cars”: Doc Hudson, a retired racer, left, and Lightning McQueen.

Just as auto designers have produced cars that come close to cartoons — think of the gangsteresque Chrysler PT Cruiser, the pull-toy Volkswagen New Beetle, the biceps-bulging Chrysler 300 — the designers of cartoons have turned to creating cars.

It is not as easy as it seems, Mr. Lasseter said. In January 2005, he came to the Detroit auto show and spoke about his project at the AutoWeek Design Forum. The crucial decision, he said, was to forgo the usual idea of the “face” of a car, with the headlights serving as the eyes and the grille as the mouth. He moved the eyes to the windshield to keep the cars from looking empty and driverless.

Cars - (C) 2006 Pixar/DisneyThe team took constant pains “to keep the cars from looking rubbery, ” Mr. Lasseter said. Much effort and computer-processing power went into rendering realistically shifting reflections on the cars’ metal surfaces, from the rust of old trucks to the metal-flake custom cars, using a computer technique called ray tracing.

The release of “Cars” was delayed seven months during the negotiations that led to Disney’s recent purchase of Pixar for $7.4 billion in stock. The formal premiere is Friday on four giant screens erected on Turn 2 of Lowe’s Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C. That location is courtesy of Humpy Wheeler, president and general manager of the speedway and Nascar’s éminence grise, who provides the movie voice of Tex, a 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville with long horns above his grille. Richard Petty, the racing legend, also has a speaking role.

The cars tend to types. George Carlin plays Fillmore, a VW bus whose front license plate suggests a beatnik’s goatee. Sarge is a Jeep, Flo a waitress (inspired, Mr. Wallis says, by a real waitress, Dawn Welch, at the Rock Café in Stroud, Okla.). A 1957 Motorama show car, Flo boasts (through chrome lips) of selling “the best gas in 50 states.”

Ramone, the ’59 Chevy Impala lowrider, has the voice of Cheech Marin, the stoner comedian. Lightning McQueen’s archrival, Chick Hicks, is a tough, intimidating competitor in the vein of the late Dale Earnhardt.

Cars - (C) 2006 Pixar/DisneyThe more you know about cars and car movies the richer the experience of watching. Paul Newman gives voice to Doc Hudson, a wise retired racer turned mechanic. It helps if you know that the Hudson Hornet, for which the Pixar team dug up vintage paint chips to assure realism, was once a Nascar racer and that Newman acted in a film called “Hud.” Yes, the car has blue eyes.

The sheriff of Radiator Springs is a 1949 Mercury, and its voice is Mr. Wallis’s. The author is delighted with his role. “That car has always been one of my favorites, and it fits my personality,” he said. “My rapidly whitening mustache looks more like that Mercury’s grille every day.”

Mr. Lasseter recounted how the idea for the film was born in the summer of 2000 when, exhausted after nearly a decade of work on films like “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.,” he decided to take a cross-country road trip with his wife and five sons.

A large man habitually garbed in a capacious Hawaiian shirt — a look that suggests a perpetual fantasy vacation — Mr. Lasseter is the son of a onetime Chevrolet parts manager in Whittier, Calif. He had long wanted to make a film about the car culture.

When he returned to the studio from his vacation, he plunged into the new project. One of the first things he did was contact Mr. Wallis, who led the Pixar animators on two trips across Route 66 to research the film. Bypassed by Interstate 40 and other modern highways, Route 66 — the pieces that remain — has been reborn as a tourist road. Real motels and restaurants served as models for those in Radiator Springs, like the Cozy Cone Motel and V-8 Cafe.

“They saw the teepee-shaped motels and gas stations,” Mr. Wallis said in the rawhide tones he uses on his road tours. “They felt the wind through the winter wheat. They gulped it all in.”

Cars - (C) 2006 Pixar/DisneyThe theme is a tried and true one that grew out of Mr. Lasseter’s own experience: getting out of the fast lane and understanding that the journey is the reward — a phrase often used both by Mr. Lasseter and by Steven P. Jobs, Pixar’s co-founder.

The film follows its hero, Lightning McQueen, a Corvettelike racer with the voice of Owen Wilson, as it travels the racing circuit from town to town, combining the narrative device of the road trip with bursts of action. But the racecar gets sidetracked in Radiator Springs.

“He’s speedy and arrogant,” Mr. Wallis said. “In our bypassed town we teach him to slow down. In turn, he inspires us to rebuild our town.”

Mr. Wallis, along with his wife, Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis, also wrote a book about the making of the film. The lush pastel and color pencil sketches in “The Art of Cars” (Chronicle, $40) show that Pixar’s ideas have roots in the hand, not just in the computer. Sketches by Nat McLaughlin for flowers in the film — their blossoms shaped like taillights — are works of art.

Mr. Lasseter and his group visited design studios for the Big Three automakers in Detroit but particularly hit it off with J Mays, the Ford Motor Company’s group vice president for design. “We are on the same wavelength,” Mr. Mays said.

He said he had admired the cars in “The Incredibles,” another Pixar film, because they demonstrated a knowledge of auto history and design. “You could see they had done a lot of research,” said Mr. Mays, who is thanked in the credits for “Cars.”

Mr. Mays and Mr. Lasseter bonded and exchanged studio visits. Mr. Lasseter learned how real cars are designed. Mr. Mays was impressed with Pixar’s obsessive attention to detail. “They want to get things right even if no one can tell,” he said. “If it was wrong, they would know.”

The cars in “Cars” are much more sophisticated than those in “The Incredibles.” Computers used for the new film are four times as fast as those, and 1,000 times as fast as the ones for “Toy Story.” What gives the cars character is the way they move on their wheels, like creatures on feet.

Of course, designing cars for computer animation is not designing for the real world, but it has similarities. To orchestrate the motion, Pixar used a shared platform, a system not unlike a real carmaker’s. The film’s cars have a common software “chassis,” a “universal rig” of 100 animation controls known as avars. Suspensions are customized: the 50’s cars are looser and bouncier.

Pixar had to design a whole landscape. In a world of cars, Mr. Lasseter explained, “a restaurant is a gas station and a doctor is a mechanic.” The town of Radiator Springs includes a tire (shoe) store run by Luigi, a Fiat with a hairpiece whose voice is that of Tony Shalhoub of the television series “Monk.”

Cars - (C) 2006 Pixar/Disney

The Western landscape of so many auto advertisements is echoed in the film’s Ornament Valley, where mountains look like tailfins. The vista was inspired by a visit to Don Sommer of Clawson, Mich., who collects vintage hood ornaments and whose company, American Arrow, makes reproductions. The Cadillac Range of mountains was inspired by a visit to the Cadilllac Ranch art installation near Amarillo, Tex.

For Route 66, Mr. Wallis loaded the animators into rented white Cadillacs. “We rode three big new Detroit sleds,” he said. The animators decorated the cars by attaching items found on the roadside: sheaves of wheat, bunches of thistles, sunflowers, snake skins and a road-kill armadillo. “We called this stuff Okie hood ornaments,” Mr. Wallis said.

At trip’s end, he said, “We buried it all in the high desert,” adding: “We had a ceremony. I spoke some words and one of the animators, Bud Luckey, played a few bars on his harmonica. I’ll never forget it.”