by Dan Clarke
My brother and I were in Reno last week. We were there to attend Hot August Nights and the first Barrett-Jackson Auction to be held in that city. On Wednesday evening we drove out to the opening party at the Convention Center, site of the auction. As we got further away from the casinos, Reno was looking less familiar to me. The city's main street is called South Virginia after it leaves downtown, eventually becoming Hwy 395. Same road, just different definitions. I was noting all the recent development south of town when I remembered traveling on the same road years before, but in a different convertible.
I was visiting a girl who was living temporarily in Reno. Somehow she talked Andy, a mutual friend, into loaning us his recently-acquired Chevy 409 convertible for the day. It was a 1963 model and less than a year old at the time. We had a wonderful drive over to Virginia City for the camel races, top down and smelling sage all the way. Returning to Reno in the early evening, we were on that era's much less-developed South Virginia Street when I was pulled over by the Reno PD. Did I know that I was going 75 miles per hour in the City of Reno, the officer inquired? “No sir,” I replied. “I didn't realize it.” He then asked, “You don't drive that way in California, do you?” In truth, it seemed I had been going really slowly coming into town since I had backed off from the 100-plus I'd been doing much of the return from Virginia City, but figured that wasn't my best line of defense. “No sir,” I again responded, offering a rather meek explanation that I was in an unfamiliar car and henceforth would be much more careful. Having been warned and scolded, we were allowed to continue on into town. No ticket.
Cars can trigger memories. Also fantasies and ambitions. Probably all of these have motivated my watching Speed Channel telecasts of Barrett-Jackson auctions. These auctions take place over several days, with quality and scarcity of the cars rising each day. While the latter offerings can go for more than a million dollars, most cars auctioned on the opening day are affordable for the average guy. My brother Kevin and I were interested in these. Though we didn't register as bidders, we saw a couple of vehicles we liked. Auctioned in succession were a red 1973 Pontiac Grandville convertible, which sold for $13,750 and a black 1967 Lincoln Continental 4-door convertible ($18,700).. These were “drivers,” not concours winners, but they looked to be in very good condition and went for half the price of an inexpensive new car. Admittedly, gas mileage wouldn't be good, but could you have as much fun in a Prius?
Hot August Nights is a 26-year tradition in Reno. At night it's an homage to cruising, a custom from the bygone youth of many of the participants. It's also a great daytime car show. Downtown, the entrants in the Show-n-Shine competition are backed into parking spaces in herringbone fashion and streets are closed to normal traffic so visitors can stroll streets and sidewalks as they ogle the cars. Our first day in town we were fortunate to run into Bill and Sharon Hadsall. Though they live on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, they've attended Hot August Nights for the last 21 years. There wasn't much Bill didn't know about the event and it was helpful to get the lowdown from him as we began our adventure.
I was surprised at how many older cars were displayed. Many of these, like the impeccably restored 1949 Buick Roadmaster Convertible, were more elegant than cruiser-ish. Powerful perhaps, but not hot rods (do people even use that term anymore?). There was a flawless green '47 or'48 Lincoln, which I think would have been defined as a formal sedan, rather than a limousine, though it did have a glass partition between the front seat and the passenger compartment. A gorgeous red 1952 Hudson was a treat. From a time just a shade before the cruising era, it was considered a powerful car in its day. The Rocket 88 engine made Oldsmobiles move quickly, too, but Hudsons won 52 of 57 NASCAR races in 1952. How's that for dominance? I'm partial to Cadillacs, having once been the possessor of an all-black Coupe de Ville. One of the first car owners we met was Gary Fisher. Since leaving his dental practice he has has spent much of his time playing golf and restoring a very nice blue and white example from 1956. Gary was one of several owners we encountered who had brought photo albums showing what their cars looked when they acquired them and documenting the restoration process.
Though there were cars from all eras, the Hot August Nights feeling evoked the '50s and '60s. George Lucas' 1973 film American Graffiti was a pretty accurate picture of the way things were for those of us coming of age at that time.
Rock and roll recordings familiar to the grey hair set were heard inside the casinos during Hot August Nights.. Live bands played on the street. It was the music of the youth of many participants and the younger people didn't seem to mind either. At least in retrospect, the era seemed all about innocent exuberance. Some years ago I had read of problems caused by unruly crowds, but didn'tsee any evidence of that sort of thing this trip. When I asked Craig and Bryan, a couple of Reno's finest, about such problems, they acknowledged there had been disruptions in the past but said crowd control methods had been adjusted. They assured me that all had been harmonious for several years. I noticed people strolling through the outdoor car display while drinking beer. Was this allowed, I asked? The city had designated a section downtown where it was allowed, the officers explained to me and so far there didn't seem to be any problems. It was a refreshing scene for this short-term escapee from California's oppressive nanny state.
The cops were friendly. So were the car owners. As were the folks who come to admire the cars. Ditto for the casino and hospitality industry employees. Volunteer traffic monitors during the nighttime cruises kept pedestrians from crossing streets at the wrong time, but did so in very polite fashion. It was a big party and the crowds were substantial, but all seemed to go smoothly. There might have been some unhappy people in Reno, but we didn't run into any of them. Good vibes were all around.
If you go
We weren't in Reno to do a comprehensive travel piece, but a few places we can recommend include:
Aces Ballpark—The Reno Aces are a AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks playing in the Pacific Coast League. They play in a beautiful, intimate park downtown just a couple of blocks east of Virginia Street. We wanted to cheer Aces Manager Brett Butler, an ex-SF Giant and, we must admit, an ex-Dodger, to victory over the Memphis Redbirds, a St. Louis Cardinal affiliate, but a spectacular storm halted play in bottom of the first inning. Thunder. Lightning. Cats. Dogs. Even a valiant grounds crew and big tarp couldn't save this night. Rained out.
Great Basin Brewing Co.--Brewery has brewpub at intersection of So. Virginia and So. McCarran Streets. We enjoyed good beers and better than average bar snacks. Bristol, our friendly server, said she really enjoyed Hot August Nights. We asked if she could drive any car in the cruise, what would it be? Given her youth, we'd have expected to hear Corvette or Mustang. No, she would prefer a 1939 Packard, she replied. Obviously a young woman of taste and discernment.
Brew Brothers–Brewpub inside the El Dorado Hotel and Casino downtown. Greg, the brewmaster, does great job making his beers right on the premises. My favorite is Carano Extra, a German Kölsch-style beer served in 22-ounce glass. Way better food than we'd have expected in a casino, too.
Louis Basque Corner—Though Louis has retired and sold out to new young owners, the place had the same feel as in the old days. Family-style seating and family-style serving. Their multi-course meals assure that you'll never leave hungry. We had entrees of prime rib and very thick lamb chops for about $25 each. This included all the preliminaries, a small-carafe of house wine and dessert. For another $22 we had a 750ml bottle of good Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, bearing a Basque name on its label. A Reno tradition.