Amigos Car Club

Las Vegas’ Car Culture Caters to Camaraderie

With a deep passion for rubber, steel and oil ... a hobby becomes a way of life for auto and bike club members

A driver-friendly auto town with wide roads and sunshine, Las Vegas has its share of car and motorcycle clubs. Whether meeting in allegiance to brand, era or culture, these enthusiasts are in for the long haul, camaraderie and love of engines.

Amigos Car Club, Las Vegas Chapter

Amigos Car ClubAndrew Sea James

Danny Estrada is parked in an alley behind an east side strip mall on a Friday night, talking on the phone in his 1976 Caprice Classic. A nearby DJ spins old school hip-hop, and hydraulic systems are lifting stylized lowriders with grace and ease.

When Estrada steps out, he circles the switched-up ride (painted root beer brown with copper pinstripes) then pops the trunk, revealing a giant stereo speaker inside. 

“This is probably my 20th car,” he says, as we examine the photograph on the dash showing the car before he bought it and put $15,000 into it. “I’ve been lowriding since I was 15 years old. My first car was a 1978 Grand Prix. This car was sitting in a backyard for 10 years before I got it.”   

On either side of him, other members of the Las Vegas chapter of the Amigos Car Club are doing the same, displaying chrome, hydraulics, customized details and discussing the car’s provenance.

“It’s a lot of money. A lot of passion,” says Juan Vasquez, sitting behind the wheel of his ’92 Chevy Caprice. “You never stop. I put $30,000 into this car. I still got a long ways to go.”

This is more than aesthetics here. It’s a lifestyle steeped in Mexican-American culture. Sometime around the ’70s, the Amigos Car Club formed in L.A. Estrada joined its sister chapter in San Diego in ’95, and formed a Las Vegas chapter in 2001. Camaraderie is what the 14 members praise. They do car shows, events, picnics and meetings. Tonight they’re here for a block party hosted by Shears and Beards barbershop, a family-friendly event featuring vendors, food and a display of lowrider bikes by the Artistic Cruisers Las Vegas Bike Club.

“We want to involve the whole family,” says Danny’s brother, Eddie Estrada. “If your significant other doesn’t want you doing it, it’s too hard, too time-consuming. You have to put your all into it, or you’re just driving a car.”

As for the club members, he says, “We’re friends for life.”

Some owners rebuild the American classics from the frame out or make massive alterations to the originals. His 1970 El Camino, painted navigator gold with copper pinstripes, has been in the family since 1979. It first belonged to his uncle, who ran a gardening company and used it for work. When he retired he sold it to Estrada’s father, who used it for work before handing it to his son, who stripped it down, rebuilt the engine, frame and suspension, doing all the fabricating himself. Its intricate paint job and tiny wheels add a sense of refinement and fragility, an object to be admired rather than driven every day of the week.

“It’s a passion,” Eddie Estrada says. “An art.”

Photos by Andrew Sea James

Bob Ross Moped Club

Bob Ross Moped ClubAndrew Sea James

“It’s not illegal to carry a big machete on your moped,” Wes David says, standing in his garage and recalling the phrase he’d once spoken to a police officer.

Whether the machete attached to his American Army-themed Italian Garelli was legal, carrying it probably did nothing to quell suspicion. It was a big blade. But the bigger issue is often speed. As in, how does someone get a moped, a pedal bike with a tiny engine, to go more than 50 mph? They’re designed to go 30 mph or less and can’t even be licensed through the DMV.

“We surprise a lot of people,” David says. “I’ve been stopped by cops and by others who ask, ‘What is this?’”

These are questions that can be answered in an evening with the Bob Rossians at David’s house, where he keeps eight mopeds in his garage, along with dirt bikes and his Harley. There are more mopeds and bicycles out back. At one point he strips down to nearly nothing to sport a bath towel embroidered with the words “Moped King.” His jean jacket is adorned on the back with the club’s image, Bob Ross—the late painter famous for his instructional TV show—and sports buttons of other moped groups. Club member Gabe Garrison wears his on his leather coat and a black Ross T-shirt. It’s called the Bob Ross Moped Club because mopeds were big in late-1970s America and Ross, even though his show was on in the ’80s, was so ’70s. They chose it because it’s non-threatening—some clubs have hostile names, but they are more chill.

“People ask, ‘Where do you get these [mopeds]?’ and I say, ‘You don’t. I get them,’” he says.”It’s a club rule. If you see someone on a moped, you chase them down, get their phone number. If they’re not going to join the club, then you try to buy the bike from them.”

This is how David built his six-member ensemble of moped enthusiasts, beginning with Holger Broedel, who races them and spent his youth riding them in his hometown in Germany. The bikes, more common in Europe and other countries, became an American fad during the ’70s because of the poor economy and oil crisis (less than a gallon of gas gives riders up to 80 miles). But they break down so much that if a potential buyer inquires, David grills them on their knowledge of tools and mechanics before selling. “They need maintenance. The cables break. The carbs get gummed up. The spark plugs fail.”

David owns around 30 mopeds. Garrison owns three and Broedel owns five. Members meet at least once a week, and the club solidarity activities include trips to official moped races where they “camp out, drink whiskey, smoke cigars [and] ride around the track naked.” As a club, they take Strip runs and get ice cream. They’ve ridden to Lake Mead, raced Lamborghinis and blasted past traditional scooters on the road.

Also, David says, “If you’re a moped club guy, it’s pretty much expected that if it breaks down, one of us will come with a truck and pick them up.”

That would even include his porn bike, an Austrian Puch decoupaged with magazine photos and sex phrases, sex-toy handle grips, a pink vagina seat and a nude Tom of Finland doll. Pure sex. Pure comedy. “It’s actually pretty famous, but it’s kind of a white rhino,” David says, straightening the handlebar streamers. “You can’t take it a lot of places.”

Photos by Andrew Sea James

British Auto Club of Las Vegas

British Auto Club of Las VegasAndrew Sea James

Good luck!” they say. “We’ll never see you again.”

With a wave, we’re off, long gone. The guy everyone calls the Judge and I are flying through the parking lot, cradled in the low-slung naugahyde bucket seats of his 1963 Austin-Healey convertible. A sharp left, another sharp left and we’re moving uphill so fast it’s shocking. He’d said to would try to exercise self-control when we were approaching his Healey and now I get it.

“I can’t believe the pickup on this,” I say.

“Yeah, look at how fast I got a cute girl in my car,” he replied.

While zipping up and down suburban roads, his one-liners, zingers and elbow jabs are on par with other members of the British Auto Club of Las Vegas. They’re the jovial and highly social group having coffee and doughnuts at a Henderson park on a Saturday morning. Their vintage Austin Healeys, MGs and Triumphs, a Bentley and a 1962 Jaguar named Maria scream of an era dedicated to the spectacularly curvilinear forms of futuristic design and high-end craftsmanship. The cars have been lifted, it seems, directly from the movies—the European race scenes on seaside acreage. These are serious collectibles.

“Anyone can go out and buy a new car,” says Bruce Carpenter, while standing near his 1962 black low-slung Jag. “Or you can have something like this. I took my wife out on our first date in this car. I’ve maintained it for 40 years. It’s never been repainted. There aren’t too many places where you can get these cars repaired.”

Fortunately, there’s a club for that with a Las Vegas chapter now in its 26th year. Monthly meetings, rallies, shows, competitions and charity events are always accompanied by expertise and shared knowledge. “We have to learn,” says James Oswald, owner of a 1963 duck-egg blue Triumph that he bid for online at $22,000 and an engine that he cleans with a toothbrush. “We want to know how to take care of it.” 

Greg Wood Jr.’s 1933 Rolls convertible sedan is an elegant giant—maroon with black cherry fenders and mahogany running boards—that belonged to his dad. The former college professor bought it in 1958, sight unseen, and hired a student to drive it cross-country. “As a kid we rode in it to car shows,” says Wood Jr., who’s responsible for, and devoted to, its upkeep.

Jim Shope is the group’s Austin-Healey savior. The retired aviator has been fixing tractors since he was 8, and began buying old British cars, fixing them up and selling them to students while teaching pilot school in Selma, Alabama. His 1966 Healey is on its third engine and has 400,000 miles on it. He says he knows Austin-Healeys inside and out. “If anything happens to him, there will be eight cars on the market immediately,” says the Judge, whose real name is Mort Zwick.

All of them are at the mercy of their knowledge. If a car breaks down at an event and the owner can’t fix it in 10 minutes, he or she gets “the paddle,” a rotated trophy of misfortune to keep in the car, says David Ogle.

Kunal Mishra is a rare member who doesn’t work on his own Bentley, a right-hand drive 1991 built in England and purchased when he was living in Japan. “For me it’s about the drive and the camaraderie of others.”

Photos by Andrew Sea James