Viva Las Vegas
A Mercury on airbag suspension; the driver hits a switch to inject the airbags to bring it up to driving height.

Viva Las Vegas
The Gambino Kustoms brought a six-metre-tall Tiki bar with them from northern California for the event.

Viva Las Vegas
Who says bamboo isn’t an automotive component?

Viva Las Vegas
My favourite vehicle of the show, a 1950-ish Ford done as a true “rat rod”.

Viva Las Vegas
Laurie Peterson of West Vancouver with his 1937 Ford. Peterson owns Canada Customs & Hot Rods; this truck won an award as one of the show favourites.

Viva Las Vegas
How low is too low? When you have to lift your hinged roof to get inside the car.

Viva Las Vegas
These guys will put wheels on anything. Click images to enlarge

Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

In his film “American Graffiti”, George Lucas asked, “Where were you in ’62?” and presented a world of poodle skirts, shiny cars and gentle music from groups like the Platters and the Drifters.

But there was another side to the 1950s, and it was rockabilly: raw, countrified rock music that seldom got Top 50 airplay. Think Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, or Elvis’ earliest days. That was the theme of Viva Las Vegas, a rockabilly weekend held in mid-April, and featuring a show hosted by the Shifters Car Club on the roof of the Gold Coast casino’s parking garage. The weather was hot, the drinks were cheap, and everyone was there to have a good time.

Most people are unaware of the rockabilly subculture, but it’s huge; some 4,600 people attended this event, from as far away as Japan, Sweden, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil (one vendor, from Heidelberg, estimated there were between 300 and 400 attendees from Germany). Viva Las Vegas is primarily a music event, but the music people like the cars and the car people like the music, and so the venue combines them. It lasts three days and goes almost around-the-clock; the last bands take the stage at 5:30 a.m.

This is a lifestyle, not a weekend masquerade; although most are only in their twenties, they embrace the styles of half a century ago in their daily lives. Both men and women tend to be heavily tattooed in old-fashioned sailor-style designs (I have a fair bit of work myself, but was definitely “out-inked” by most of the women), and six vendors sold hair pomade to accommodate the slicked-back men’s hairstyles. Unlike older women at many car shows, who wear poodle skirts and sweater sets to mimic 1950s teenagers, these young participants dress as worldly adults: glamorous pin-ups in the style of Rita Hayward, with vintage clothes, high heels and elaborate hairstyles. Their idol isn’t cutesy cartoon Betty Boop, but risqué pin-up model Bettie Page.

Still, don’t think they’re too serious; there was a huge crowd at the Tiki Pool Party, where people in vintage bathing suits lounged on deck and listened to Hawaiian music and a Los Angeles band that sang Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” in Spanish. At the car show, a club hauled a six-metre-tall Tiki bar all the way from California;

Viva Las Vegas
Tanya Harris, 22, of Honolulu, with Waylon Keeton’s 1929 Ford from Beaumont, Texas.

a participant set up a “party camp” around his car (although he wasn’t able to convince any of the women to participate in applesauce wrestling in his wading pool); and one man with flamethrowers in his exhaust pipes threw in popcorn and spent the afternoon revving up his engine and spewing the popped kernels.

Hot rodding began with young men building whatever they could on a limited budget, and the rockabilly tradition honours that. The favoured car style is “rat rods”: primer-painted or bare rusty bodies set on whatever mechanicals they can fit together to make them go.

Viva Las Vegas
Both male and female participants tend to be heavily tattooed with old-fashioned designs.

The badge of honour here isn’t in how much you spend, but how little; many cars bear bumper stickers scorning high-dollar hot rods. Some are still under construction, but many are as far as they’ll ever get, and their owners are very satisfied with that.

“We’re all family men with lots of kids, and we don’t have a lot of money to build our cars,” said Sean Stickel, who drove a total of 22 hours from Calgary, Alberta with five fellow members of his Diablos car club. They did it in a 1956 Mercury pickup and 1955 and 1959 Chevrolets, along with four motorcycles, including a 1968 BSA and 1968 Triumph that they either drove or carried in the trucks. Their homebuilt vehicles all contain older parts, both out of financial necessity, and in homage to the tradition of hot rodding. “We use original old parts on our cars, like our forefathers did,” Stickel says. “They built their hot rods with whatever they could find.” The down side? “It takes a little more work if you have a problem. We can’t fix our cars at Canadian Tire.”

Viva Las Vegas
A 1947 Chevrolet, with doors recut “suicide” style, and a very interesting exhaust system.

Viva Las Vegas
“Flamethrowers” are made by putting a spark plug into the exhaust, revving the engine and then igniting the raw gas that flows through. Most send their flames out the back of the car, but this Chrysler owner wanted to be different. Throughout the day he threw popcorn in; the popped kernels flew out through the pipes.

Viva Las Vegas
Emily Sanderson of the all-female Hells Belles Car Club, with her 1960 Rambler. Club members must have “a passion for getting grease under their nails”, and Emily does. The car is all original, including the paint shade; she drove it 320 km from her home in Los Angeles to the event

Viva Las Vegas
Rat rods are all about using what’s handy; here, a drinking fountain makes a fine hood ornament.

Viva Las Vegas
Famed 1960s custom car builder Gene Winfield is a member of the host car club.

Viva Las Vegas
A rod can never be too low or too radical.

There were several Canadians at the event – it turned out that the couple ahead of me in the entry line-up lives 40 km from my house – including Laurie Peterson, whose West Vancouver-based 1937 Ford won an award as a show favourite. He builds cars at his Canada Customs & Hot Rods shop; like other participants, he prefers old-style rods, in homage to the way the cars were originally built.

Still, time has moved on since the 1950s, and a growing number of women are becoming involved in the hobby; Emily Sanderson of Los Angeles was on hand with her car. “When I lived in Georgia, women didn’t have cars,” she said. “When I moved to L.A., women did, and I wanted one. I was out one day and I saw this 1960 Rambler for sale, and I just had to have it. The funny thing was that it turned out to belong to a friend of someone I knew.” The car’s all-original, including its pink paint, and Sanderson drove it 320 km to the show. She’s part of the all-female Hells Belles Car Club, where members must have a passion for vintage American tin and “getting grease under your nails”. Not to be outdone, there were also representatives of the Seattle-based Piston Packin’ Mamas motorcycle and car club, who arrived on both two wheels and four, and the Hell’s Kittens Car Club from California.

The 2007 edition of Viva Las Vegas runs on next year’s Easter weekend; for more information, visit www.vivalasvegas.net. And if you prefer to stay in Canada, check out the upcoming Red Hot and Blue rockabilly weekend and car show in St-Hyacinthe, Quebec on October 5-8, 2006, at www.rockabillyjam.com.

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