Cars of a Certain Age

Illustration by Joseph Bergin III

Illustration by Joseph Bergin III

Guys like to talk cars. And even more than that, they like to talk about their first cars—demonstrably dysfunctional cars, gasping through the badlands of long-lost teenage summers. The further those cars roll off into memory, the better they get. Two of Las Vegas’ most distinctive voices, Dayvid Figler and James P. Reza, share a conversation about busted A/C systems, blistering vinyl seats and gloriously sweaty rides.

FIGLER: When my first chance came up for a license, I blew it. Call it wanting something too much (or blame it on the sad state of faded yellow double lines on Sahara Avenue asphalt), my dad made me wait until the end of the school year to retest. By then I was supposed to have “calmed down” and saved up enough money working behind the candy counter at the Boulevard Twin movie theater to buy my own car. By June 1984, I had 500 bucks and a dozen or so black crayon marks around phone numbers in the Review-Journal classifieds. My Buick LeSabre-driving dad was rooting for American. I was inclined toward something more stylish than my friends (not a high bar considering the AMC Pacer, Monte Carlo and Cutlass in the pack). I circled an old BMW. An ancient Benz or two. Even a cute Beetle. My dad laid down the law—no German cars (as a Jewish World War II vet, he still harbored his grudges). Luckily, he’d grown ambivalent toward the Japanese. When we randomly pulled up to one of my classmate’s house on that relatively cool June morning and I got a vision of her slick, maroon 1978 Datsun 200SX, my dad rolled his eyes. He saw I was hooked. There would be no bargaining today. The asking price would be paid despite the car lacking a few essentials.

REZA: I clearly remember the time I first drove my family around Las Vegas. It was March 1982, I had just earned my learner’s permit and we had taken a familiar family dinner outing to Bob Taylor’s Ranch House, which was located at the outer edge of the Vegas Boonies. We rode in a beautiful baby-blue 1964 Ford Thunderbird that my dad had recently acquired from the family of Vegas legend Louis Prima. As we walked the gravel path back to the parking area, my dad, who had downed a few beers with his mesquite-grilled sirloin, tossed me the keys. “Get in back, Angela!” he called to my mom. She shot him a look, maybe even voiced a concern or three. But in the back she sat, with my little sister, in the seat normally reserved for me, white-knuckled as I navigated the curving, pitch-black, twisty two-lane road back to the highway. Coming from a family of car lovers, this sticky-vinyl-seated classic more than made up for its lack of A/C with its style and full-power everything. Once I received my license six months later, the ’Bird served as one of many “first drivers” for me, among them two Chevys (a 1964 Corvair convertible, a 1955 Bel Air) and a 1982 Datsun King Cab 4×4 (Caesars Palace Grand Prix edition!). But it wasn’t until I graduated from Clark High School that I received the first car titled in my own name: a 1967 Impala SS convertible.

FIGLER: I was mistaken. The leather seats were actually vinyl. It had no power steering, and the paint had oxidized or something to the point that if you leaned on it, your clothes would permanently retain the color. In fact, I was banned from every car wash in town for “ruining their towels.” During the test drive, the A/C was merely low-blow; long before summer’s end, the A/C was completely shot. Cracks formed in the dashboard. They were so deep I could completely hide my little sister in them (if my parents changed their position and let her ride in what would soon come to be called “The Sauna”). Soon the vinyl cracked and had to be covered with duct tape. The seats were so hot to the touch that I had to cover them in towels just to sit down, and one wrong move toward the metal seatbelt or buckle—scorchamenza! Even with precautions, each drive was an adventure in dehydration and a game of guess-the-degree-of-burn. I remember driving on Joe W. Brown and hallucinating images reflecting off the Country Club Towers. When I got my first speeding ticket, I explained I was just trying to create a breeze.

REZA: Ah, yes, the old “2/40 A/C”: Crank down two windows and drive 40 mph! I remember it less than fondly. That, and the full-metal Chevy branding irons that were my seat belts. I actually had the worst of both Vegas car worlds: a black convertible. One tends to trust the tales of eggs fried on Vegas sidewalks when one is driving a wok. Luckily, the previous owner of the Impala had re-upholstered the vinyl seats in painfully bad velour. As the Impala was a large car with date-friendly bench seats, with the top down I always had the feeling I was driving my grandmother’s couch. Still, it never failed to get me to the hydrotubes at the Cheyenne campus of the Clark County Community College. And while some think of them as the scourge of Las Vegas, when you are getting 11 mpg and dumping sofa change in the tank twice a day, finding a 7-Eleven is like discovering an oasis of gas and Big Gulps—two items essential for a Vegas Kid to survive the trip into the desert, which was never far from your driveway back then.

FIGLER: With a little work here and there, that bucket lasted me through college and almost to the end of law school in Sacramento. The 200SX did fine in the cooler climate of Northern California, but on the drive back home in the summer of 1990, she broke down for the last time outside Modesto. Her sputtering engine gasped a plaintive, “No, no más Vegas.” My father told me he found a replacement: a 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity. Thus began the (ongoing) era of practical cars with great A/C. From then on, driving around Las Vegas would always be cold, but never as cool.

REZA: The end game of my Impala isn’t nearly so heartwarming. Blinded by the need to be my own cool man, I ended up driving to meet with—as my dad would later describe the scene—“a couple of big, tattooed bikers in a warehouse.” The goal? To even-trade my 1967 Impala SS Convertible for a 1969 VW Fastback (which I would eventually cover with punk and new-wave bumper stickers). To Dad’s credit, he let me do it. Also to his credit, he never brought it up until years later, when we could actually laugh about it without crying. Something good came of it: I ended up with a long string of old VWs, and would eventually meet my girl in a Las Vegas VW club. But that’s another Vegas story, waiting to be told.

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I’d been charmed by the decrepit Happi Inn for years. A two-story motor lodge built in 1973, it sat across from Mandalay Bay without offering even a hint of the same comfort or safety. It was a couple of plain, two-story buildings covered in fading salmon paint, with rotting AC units hanging under each window like loose teeth. For a long time, the marquee sign was missing the panel that said “Happi Inn,” leaving just “MOTEL.”

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