On my first trip to Las Vegas, Nevada three years ago, I wasn’t prepared for either the wonderful, sensory excesses I was about to experience, or for the random car sighting that were going to leave me scrambling for my camera’s lens cap in split-second moments. In the three annual trips I’ve made to Vegas, it has proven to be quite the place for spotting unusual cars that range from exotic, rare, or expensive to barely-rolling heaps that look like they just barely squeaked past safety inspection. It’s that middle ground of Vegas’ slightly dirty, old Americana that intrigues me the most, both as an auto enthusiast and as a photographer. Without further ado, I present some of my more interesting finds, and the context in which they were discovered.
Within hours of checking into my hotel room on that first trip and convening with friends staying on another floor, I looked out the window at the property’s entry drive and saw this ’77 Chevy El Camino…and knew instantly that my first Vegas experience was going to be awesome. The Elky’s two-tone gold and beige paint scheme was the automotive equivalent of a terrycloth track suit – in the best way. Even from all the way up in our hotel room, using the zoom on my camera’s viewer, it was clear this rolling centaur was riding on the ubiquitous Chevy Rallies. Shortly thereafter, I was done hanging out…I was ready to explore.
For me, the downtown area trumps the more popular stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard known as “The Strip”. It has been said of me that I’m an old soul (which is perceptive), and there’s something about all the classic casinos, hotels, signs and properties around Fremont Street and the surrounding areas that speaks more to me than the opulence of, say, The Bellagio or Caesar’s Palace (though both of those places are indeed something to behold). So much can change on the Strip from year to year, with established properties closing, being demolished, and being replaced with newer construction. Downtown, however, has seemed to maintain a fair amount of consistency over the past several years. One of my favorite things is to wander off the beaten path with my Canon (and innate vigilance) and see what non-touristy Las Vegas looks like.
It was on one such walk that I found this ’73 Chevrolet Chevelle Colonnade sedan with Missouri plates outside a dive apartment hotel. There has got to be a story there. Patina aside, the body was fairly straight and the tires were all full of air. Even the back bumper looks fairly intact. Instead of writing a subplot, I’ll let you use your imagination as to how this round-taillight Chevelle from Missouri ended up at the “Garden of Eden”. (Coincidentally, the pot-metal dealership sign on the trunklid reads “John Falb & Sons, Elgin, IA”. A quick internet search seems to indicate they’re no longer in business.)
Further west on Fremont, there’s a string of motels which all have a decidedly 1950’s – 60’s flavor. Many of these mid-century motor lodges have signs in unique, asymmetrical shapes with exuberant lettering, some in neon, to match their “Googie”-era architecture. It was in this setting that I spotted this 1966 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Holiday hardtop coupe. What struck me was just how much like a Cutlass it looked, and also how much proverbial junk was in the trunk. That is a looooooong rear overhang.
Some of my favorite casinos in the downtown area (Binion’s, El Cortez, the Golden Gate) have an old, grizzled, classic aura about them that makes me feel like an unofficial sixth member of the Rat Pack when I’m simply walking through the gaming floor. I can sense history in the very air inside places like these, with old carpeting, wood, vinyl, lights, and baked-in cigar smoke telling the story someone’s simultaneous best-day and worst-day ever.
One of my favorite things is to play video poker at the bar, which has often lead to interesting conversations with either a bartender or a person sitting next to me. Many of these verbal exchanges have left a lasting impression of me, with some these individuals’ stories etched in my memory – some of them equal parts comedy and tragedy. Everyone has a story of how they came to Las Vegas to visit or live. I enjoy talking with people and also casually conducting my own brand of sociological “research” more than actually gambling.
This ’62 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine parked under the glittering entryway canopy of Binion’s pretty much sums up everything I find fascinating about Las Vegas, the downtown area near Fremont Street, and American excess. More old Cadillacs limousines should have horns like these. (Just my opinion.) The corned beef sandwich at the deli at Binion’s is legendary for good reason, and I always make it a point to get one when I’m there, no matter how recently I may have eaten breakfast. And I always try to get the complimentary house photo of me standing in front of the Binion’s Million, because that is pretty much the only chance this kid from Flint, Michigan has ever gotten to be that close to that much cash.
While leaving Fremont Street in the central area of downtown (collectively known as the “Fremont Street Experience”), I spotted this ’64 Chevy Impala SS hardtop coupe. It may be cliche, but my first thought was, “Elvis!” According to my research, Elvis Presley never owned one of these, but if he actually is alive and kicking in Las Vegas, I’d bet (no pun intended) he’d be rolling in something like this low-key classic over something obvious and ostentatious like a Maybach. After all, if he faked his own death to elude the public eye, the point would be to not call attention to himself. But he is still Elvis – no modern car would ever do.
Speaking of Elvis, on display at Binion’s is a car he actually did own: a ’77 Lincoln Continental Mark V which is said to have been his very last new car purchase. One could say this is definitely an Elvis-circa-’77-sized car, though it is still a very good-looking one – your author’s favorite of the big personal luxury coupes of its era.
On the opposite end of the fuel-efficiency spectrum, how about a fourth-generation Honda Civic? This generation remains my favorite. Sadly, the venerable Riviera Hotel and Casino in the background closed its doors earlier this year after having been open for sixty years. I always make it a point to try to experience another piece of old Vegas before it crumbles to dust and, sadly, I never made it to the Riv.
This SJ-platform Jeep Grand Wagoneer actually looked to me like a modern interpretation of a covered wagon from the early, pioneer days of western expansion. All that wood paneling only added to its hickory-smoked flavor. Tally-ho!
One of my most favorite Las Vegas discoveries last year was Huntridge Pharmacy and Liquors, over by the old Huntridge Theater. Walking into the bar was like being instantly transported into an outtake scene from “Pulp Fiction”. Red, cloisonne wallpaper, wood paneling, a host of old beers signs lining the walls, and a curvilinear bar all made an impression through a palpable haze of cigarette smoke, whiskey vapor and deferred dreams.
It was outside of this establishment that I saw the first, (presumably) running Daihatsu Charade I’ve seen in over fifteen years. I have ridden in exactly one Charade, thanks to my college friend, Leah, who would probably also really dig the Huntridge.
I spotted this 1968 – ’69 Dodge D100 outside of Atomic Liquors. The Atomic is another Vegas stalwart watering hole that had reopened in recent years under new management after having been closed for a time during renovation. The Atomic goes back to the 1950’s, and is now touted as the oldest freestanding bar in Las Vegas. It’s another “must stop” when I’m back in these parts. As for the Dodge, I wonder from which state this old soldier originated. Its appearance had the wear and honesty of a pair of denim overalls. It was definitely (and awesomely) just a little “country”. I would so drive this.
Las Vegas seems to be a very car-centric town, which is another reason I find this city so magical. There are so many large-scaled, brightly-lit signs announcing business all up and down the Strip. Some of these beacons are more interesting than the establishments they advertise. I spotted the sign for the Somerset Shopping Center from my hotel room and had to walk that way to get a few shots. This strip mall itself appears to be mostly vacated, but that sign is really something to behold at night, with chasing bulb and neon lights providing a glorious illusion of motion.
Sometimes a car itself becomes an advertisement, as shown by this tattoo parlor. Can a CC reader help me identify this mildly-customized machine? It looks like a FoMoCo product, like a ’52 Ford, but I can’t quite nail this one. [Update: This car has been correctly, and almost immediately, identified by CC reader GGH06 as a ’54 Chevy, and seconded by James Slick and ArBee. Thanks, guys – you’re rock stars. – JD]
It won’t be until early next year that I’ll have a chance to explore more of the old Americana that Las Vegas has to offer, but I can’t wait to return. I look forward to experiencing more cars, places, food and games, more good times with my crew, and also having more conversations with interesting strangers. As Sammy Davis, Jr. once sang, I’ve got a lot of living to do, and I can’t wait to do more of it in Henderson County, Nevada.
All photos are as taken by the author from between September 2012 and September 2014.