Some glimmer like pieces of jewelry, with chrome accents and metal-flake paint jobs polished to a mirror-like shine. Others look like they roared out of a Mad Max movie, with corroded body panels and exposed engines jutting out from the front end.
But whether the custom and collector cars of Las Vegas are old or new, shiny or weather-ravaged, they share one quality: They ignite deep passions and fierce loyalty.
The city is home to countless auto lovers, who have formed a wide array of car clubs. From recent-model cars that would be at home in the Fast & Furious franchise to 1970s muscle cars straight out of Dazed and Confused to ragtops from The Great Gatsby era, you can find them and many more at club gatherings in Las Vegas.
“Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of car guys in Las Vegas,” Antony Morfin says while showing off his modified Dodge Challenger at Desert Breeze Park. “There’s a gathering here every week, and there’ll be 300 cars here. You see everything from little Hondas to really expensive cars.”
Maybe it’s only natural that Las Vegas is a car town. Because even though the city started as a train stop, it was built on the automobile. As with a lot of Western cities, we embraced the freedom of having our own cars to the extent that we designed our city around it, filling up the desert with neighborhoods connected by wide, smooth roads, and lots of them.
Cars also have a spot in our culture and image. Think of Sean Connery in a Ford Mustang Mach 1, tearing around Downtown Las Vegas as James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. Or Hunter S. Thompson raising hell in the Red Shark, the name he gave his rented Chevrolet Caprice in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Spend enough time on the streets today, and you’ll see some of the most impressive cars prowling in any city. There are sleek Ferraris and Lotuses, beastly 526-horsepower Shelby Mustangs (which are produced here in town), tricked-out VW buses, low-rider Impalas, your granddaddy’s Caddies— you name it.
Here’s a sampling of what makes Las Vegas a gearhead shangri-la.
First with an electric starter. First to offer power seats and memory settings. First sunroof in the U.S. market. First to incorporate GPS and cellphone technology for roadside customer service.
DR Rawson drives Cadillacs partly because they look nice and are stocked with creature comforts, but also because of the brand’s standing as an automotive innovator.
“Cadillac has always represented not only a great exterior design, but also so much forward thinking in the way the car was engineered,” he says.
Rawson is a flesh-and-blood Wikipedia page when it comes to the maker, able to reel off a long list of Cadillac firsts and even some of the stories behind them. The electric starter happened because a friend of Cadillac’s founder suffered a broken jaw—and later died of an infection from the injury—while starting an older hand-cranked car.
Now, Rawson is the proud president of the Las Vegas Cadillac Club, a group with more than 100 members with 150 cars. The club also includes lifetime member Phil Maloof, whose collection of nearly 200 cars includes 33 1941 Cadillacs—the make and year he learned to drive at age 16.
But the Cadillac club isn’t just for owners of vintage and classic cars. The club members’ rides span the history of the make, from a 1903 open sedan to recent-model Escalades and blade-like XLRs.
With the cars serving as their gathering point, the group engages in a number of charitable efforts, including a scholarship fund and significant support for Findlay Cadillac’s annual Toys for Tots drive, which raised more than $250,000 last year. “These are the greatest people—so helpful and kind,” he says.
And as Rawson will tell you, they also have terrific taste in automobiles. Other makes have their strengths, but none ever made it into our lexicon as the gold standard for a product or business: “It’s the Cadillac of _________ (self-propelled lawn mowers, water purification systems, bass boats, etc.)”
“They adopted a theme several years ago: ‘Where art and science comes together.’ And that’s absolutely true,” he says.
More information: lasvegasclc.net
Antony Morfin gives a sideways smile when asked how much he’s spent modifying his 2011 Dodge Challenger. “After the first 10 grand I lost track,” he says.
For his investment, though, the Orleans poker dealer has a car like no other. There’s bolt-on body work from nose to tail, including wide tires that sit under extended wheel wells, giving the car a more muscled look than its stock version. A customized air suspension system allows the Challenger to be lowered to the point it hugs the ground like a NASCAR racer. The interior boasts racing seats and a heavy-duty harness system replacing the standard safety belts.
Then there are other special touches that Morfin particularly likes pointing out, like the sunroof. It’s been treated to look like an American flag but with the logo of Morfin’s favorite sports team, the Vegas Golden Knights, in place of the stars.
“As a kid, I was way into soccer. I had jerseys, shoes, everything” Morfin says. “Then, the Fast & Furious movies and Need for Speed video games came out, and that was it—I was into cars.”
Morfin is part of a new generation of car enthusiasts who, instead of making older cars look newer, makes newer cars more powerful and responsive. He’s among the 30 local members of the Team Hybrid car club, which has chapters in several cities and turns out modern machines bristling with supercharged or turbocharged engines, high-end suspensions, state-of-the-art electronics and more.
Next up for Morfin is to hot-rod the engine of his Challenger. The stock version’s 392 horsepower, despite being nearly twice as much as the standard Toyota Camry, is OK but not enough.
But then, he says, neither is anything. “You always want the latest,” he says. “You’ll see something that some other guy did and think, ‘How the hell did they do that?’”
More information: teamhybrid.com
George Lucas’s first hit movie wasn’t about a galaxy far, far away.
It was American Graffiti, Lucas’ sentimental look at his teenage years in the early 1960s. It was a time when the nation’s youth culture revolved around the car—cruising on main drags and to drive-in restaurants, racing on secluded roadways and listening to early rock ’n’ roll tunes on in-dash AM radios.
That’s the vibe among the members of the Las Vegas Cruisin’ Association, a loose-knit group of car lovers who lean to the nostalgia of the automotive era that stretched roughly from Elvis’ Sun Records period to the days of disco.
They’re people like Art Kam, whose garage contains cars like a lovingly restored 1967 Chevrolet Camaro and a hot-rodded 1931 Ford pickup. “You start collecting marbles as a kid, then maybe you collect stamps and baseball cards, then you get older and you want to race your buddies in your car, and it just goes from there,” says Kam, explaining the appeal of collecting cars.
At a recent gathering, Cruisin’ Association members turned out in such vehicles as a hot pink 1923 Model T hot rod, a 1956 Ford Thunderbird and a 1971 Chevolet Chevelle muscle car. The car shown here, Paul Pallis’ 1965 Ford Mustang, was on display at an earlier event.
But the group’s all-inclusive approach was evident in such cars as a 1970 Buick station wagon—participation doesn’t require owning a high-performance vehicle.
Ask the members about cars, though, and the conversation generally swings to the people who drive them. Membership is as much about social activity as driving.
“You meet people of all ages and from all over,” says Kam, the group’s director. “We have a number of members from other states. There are always new people coming in.”
The group stages shows and events throughout the year, including fundraisers for veterans and disadvantaged children.
More information: lasvegascarshows.com.
Publications like Hot Rod magazine are full of old cars that have been made to look brand new—full interior restorations, five-figure paint jobs, modern audio systems and such.
Yeah, rat rods are none of that.
The cars are a throwback to hot rods of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, many of which were built by guys who didn’t have much money for things like nice paint jobs, shiny wheels and plush seats … and didn’t much care. They just wanted to go fast.
So they’d grab rusty old cars out of barns or from outdoor storage yards in the desert and put their money into what made the car go—the engine, transmission, suspension, etc. Non-essential parts like hoods and fenders and radios were thrown overboard, and it was common for parts of different cars to be thrown together.
Today, rat rods have become a tribute to those early customizers—and a punk-influenced counter reaction to mainstream hot rodding.
And thanks to the team of automotive fabricators at Welder Up in Las Vegas, the city is an epicenter of the rat rod world.
Welder Up specializes in the cars, producing some of the wildest customs in the genre—a classic Dodge Charger that has been mashed up with a monster truck, a 1934 International truck with a scary-clown design theme and the “Train Car,” a six-wheeled creation that looks like the product of a mating session between a car and a World War I battle tank.
The shop is the subject of the Discovery Channel series Vegas Rat Rods, which for four seasons has been spotlighting owner Steve Darnell and his team.
The show is partly about cars, partly a takeoff on American Pickers and partly about art, as Darnell incorporates things he finds in salvage yards and barns into the designs of the cars. A shotgun gearshift? Check. Mason jars for tail lights? Yep.
Structurally and mechanically, though, the cars are anything but rust buckets. Look closely, and you’ll see disc brakes, heavy-gauge metal framing and modern, high-performance engines.
More information: welderup.com
TRICKS OF THE TRADE: TIPS FOR RESTORING OR MODIFYING A CAR
Find your tribe Car clubs are an invaluable source of information, including where to find parts or locate the best mechanics for your kind of car. There’s a car club for virtually every taste in Las Vegas—a Porsche club, a Lotus club, a Corvette club, etc. Find one online and then test the waters by attending an event or two.
Don’t let a lack of experience intimidate you Antony Morfin has no mechanical training, yet he’s done almost all of the work on his heavily modified 2011 Dodge Challenger, including adding heavy-duty disc brakes and hooking up a compressed-air tank for his customized suspension. “Everything you need to know, you can find online,” he says, from YouTube tutorials to online chat rooms.
Get to know a specialist Most home mechanics don’t have the tools or skills to tackle some jobs, like engine rebuilds or transmission work. But Las Vegas is home to a large group of expert mechanics, many of whom specialize in some types of cars. To find them, the key is to ask those in the know (see “Find your tribe” above). For instance, local Subaru lovers swear by Darin Haar and his team at Route 69 Racing to do high-performance work on their cars.
GOING ONCE, GOING TWICE: MECUM AUCTIONS HAS A VEHICLE FOR EVERY BUDGET
When a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sold for a record price of $48.4 million at an auction in August, the sale made headlines—and perhaps left some potential buyers wondering whether they had the means to get into collecting.
But worry not. At Mecum Auctions’ upcoming sale in Las Vegas, it doesn’t take an eight-figure bank account to get into the bidding. Mecum offers cars for practically any budget, including under $10,000.
After holding motorcycle sales for several years in Las Vegas, Mecum staged its first car auction here last year. It was a major success for the company, which returns this year with about 1,000 vehicles ranging from a 1914 Stutz Bearcat to a 2017 Lotus Evora.
MECUM AUCTIONS November 15-17, starts at 8 a.m. daily, $20-$30 (children 12 and under free). Las Vegas Convention Center, mecum.com/auctions.