Love it or hate it, Hot August Nights is here. Some would claim it’s an environmental disaster, but what’s the truth?
“Good God, this thing is noisy,” I thought.
The super-hard springs on my friend’s ‘73 Chevy Pickup crashed through the flexy-flyer chassis with all the subtlety of a grenade. The body, old and enormous, creaked over every bump, echoing through a cabin devoid of noise reduction. The seats are new and comfy, though, straight from a ‘98 Camaro. Good news, too, the old bench seat had a habit of springing passengers’ heads straight into the steel roof. The giant, 5.7-liter V8 gurgles and coughs in all its inefficient glory. We’re lucky if we get 10 miles per gallon. My rusty, badly abused Honda rode like a Rolls Royce by comparison.
But it does have a certain panache my little Civic can’t match, a character a new Corvette couldn’t hope to equal. When it breaks down, and that’s all the time, my friend can usually fix it wherever it stops. When it heads up a hill, it does so with exhausts shaking and axles twitching. Behind the wheel, I find no stability control or traction control to rescue me from my own stupidity. No, if the driver of a ‘73 Chevy Truck messes up, everyone will know. But conversely, when my friend gooses it just right to get over that rock, or turns the wheel perfectly to get the back end sliding, he knows he did it, not some computer hidden under the dash. This truck is organic in ways a new car or truck isn’t.
Hot August Nights will bring lots of these organic feeling, chassis shuddering, dramatic 10 mpg monsters to Reno. But the question remains, do we want them?
A day at the museum
If you read the ads, Hot August Nights celebrates old cars and nostalgia from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And that’s certainly true, but the flip side of nostalgia is anachronism and, when it comes to cars, old often means dirty and inefficient. Hot August Nights, a festival of internal combustion, has dozens of impacts on the Truckee Meadows, symbolic and concrete.
My journey to the HAN of darkness began, tangentially, at the National Automobile Museum. The vibe is different from a Hot August Nights event. Paintings hang from the walls, dresses that members of the Harrah family wore to weddings 90 years ago sit in glass cases, advertisements for Artown and a variety of 19th century French motorized carriages decorate Gallery One. A bit of a departure from the chromed superchargers, painted-on flames and pink shirts you see at the Hot August Nights show and shines. Beyond the obvious car connection, Hot August Nights and the museum wouldn’t seem to share much.
But Esther Isaac, sales and marketing manager for the National Automobile Museum, sees Hot August Nights as a good thing for Reno in general, and a fund-raising opportunity for the museum in particular. Speaking softly under her carefully coifed brown hair, Isaac explains how they use Hot August Nights for publicity and money. Each year, the museum raffles off a car during the week-long celebration. This year, working with the Grand Sierra Resort, they’ll be getting rid of a fourth-generation Corvette convertible. Because of the surge of car fans, this raffle became one of the museums’ most important sources of revenue. In return, they’ll lend out a 1949 Mercury that James Dean drove in Rebel Without a Cause for the Sunday parade and help the organizers of Hot August Nights with logistics.
“[Hot August Nights] is a great event for the community, and it’s important to support,” Isaac says.
For perspective, I wandered off into the museum’s myriad exhibits and marveled about how little, in some ways, automobilia has changed since 1913.
The toxic avenger
According to Hot August Nights CEO Bruce Walter, the financial boon is far from unique to the National Automobile Museum. Walter says more than 800,000 people, about half a million of whom are out-of-towners, visit the seven separate sites his organization sets up. The economic impact, he says, reaches into the hundreds-of-millions -of-dollars range. His hotel and casino partners report to him that about 124,000 rooms fill up to host the event. And don’t expect gas prices to decrease the number of cars showing up. The entire quota of 5,000 classics is already full, and there are thousands more on the waiting list. And those people, Walter’s polling shows, have exceptional discretionary income.
Beyond that, Hot August Nights brings in the national media attention a tourist trap like Reno so desperately needs. ABC, CBS, NBC and even the BBC plan to cover the event, Walter says. ESPN and Fox Sports Net plan to run several half-hour specials on nothing but the car festival.
“I think any time you look at an economic impact of $350 million, it greatly effects the community,” Walter says.
And yet, on a symbolic level, Hot August Nights represents a glorification of toxin-belching, 10 mpg rolling nostalgia; an exaltation of a lifestyle that would represent economic, environmental and public health ruin should we return to it. To explore the difference between modern cars and the classic muscle cars, I dove into Environmental Protection Agency records.
The toxicity of these old cars came from several sources, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are the precursors to ground-level ozone. While ozone is a nice thing to have miles above the surface, near terra firma it irritates lungs and aggravates conditions like asthma. In large enough doses, it can cause permanent airway damage. Compared to modern automobiles, the cars of 1970 produced more than three times the VOC. This is despite the fact that the cars of today cover almost five times as many miles per year as the cars of 1970. Take in that mileage adjustment, and a modern car is about 15 times cleaner for VOC.
The machines of Hot August Nights vintage—rules prohibit cars newer than 1972—also pump out oxides of nitrogen or NOx. There are a couple varieties of NOx, and some are nastier than others, but they all contribute to higher ground level ozone and many of them react with atmospheric moisture. When the NOx and rainwater mix, they create nitric acid, a lovely chemical that happily poisons lakes and streams while dissolving concrete or marble buildings. Total NOx production from motor vehicles has fallen 41 percent, again in spite of vehicle miles traveled jumping up by a factor of five.
Last, carbon monoxide (CO) pours from the old cars like sweat from John Goodman’s armpits. Engines create CO when they don’t completely burn the fuel they’re fed. While there are a number of reasons why this happens, the biggest cause on older cars is their fuel delivery system. Almost all cars built in the ‘60s and ‘70s had carburetors, which, being simple devices, cannot adapt to changes in air density, temperature or humidity. Because of this, they often provide more fuel than the available air can combust with, creating CO. Modern fuel injection has almost completely eliminated CO from automobiles today. They are in the neighborhood of 20 times cleaner, but an old car can create more than enough of the stuff to kill a suicide case in a locked garage.
But symbolic celebrations of enviro-disaster aside, Hot August Nights doesn’t pollute much. According to Duane Sikorsky, Air Quality supervisor for the Air Quality Management Division of Washoe County District Health, the air quality stays well within tolerances.
“It’s not really something that stands out,” he says. “In the five years I’ve been here, it’s been a small bump in CO and ozone.”
That the classics often arrive on flatbeds, usually aren’t driven much during peak commuter times, and come out mostly during the weekend partially explains the small effect. Another factor is that there are only 5,000 oldies to spread out among the Truckee Meadows’ 300,000 residents.[page]
Who saved the electric car?
For symbolism of a radically different sort, I headed out to the Alternative Transportation Club & Electric Auto Association of Northern Nevada’s July 24 meeting in Northwest Reno. These guys prefer electrons to octane and whirring brushes to blaring exhausts, and most of them think the internal combustion engine is on the way out very soon. Ironically, they plan to enter some of their converted classics in Hot August Nights next year.
Bob Tregilus, a hearty looking, middle- aged man with a ponytail and a background in politics, gets excited when he talks about local, homemade electric cars. They can be fast, he says. Some run as fast as 10 seconds in the quarter mile.
“I like the economy, too,” he says. “Pissing on big oil.”
The other gentlemen at the meeting seem to like that last part, “here-here” spontaneously popping from several mouths. Poor ExxonMobil, nobody loves a parasite.
The benefits are compelling. Electric cars emit no CO or CO2 and practically no ozone. An electrical fill-up, while it can last hours, often costs less than a dollar. They’re quieter than internal combustion cars and consume no fossil fuels. They make a compelling environmental case. According to Tregilus, using an electric car can cut total CO2 emissions, including the largely coal-fired power generation system, by up to 82 percent. That’s impressive and almost as good as cellulosic ethanol.
William Brinsmead, a mustachioed development tech for the University of Nevada, Reno’s physics department, built his own electric van. This thing started out as a Chevrolet 1-ton diesel utility van. Now it sports a comically sparse engine bay, a literal ton of batteries hanging from under the chassis and a big electric motor near the rear bumper. Brinsmead drives the 7,000-pound monster between UNR and his home daily. He says it’s been very reliable, and that the working air conditioning, power steering and heater keep him comfy year round. He also enjoys the rare combination of giant truck size and Vespa “fuel” bills.
“The demand is there [for electric cars],” he says. “If we don’t meet it, China will.”
Brinsmead’s Chevy Van is an impressive piece of engineering. And certainly electric cars make serviceable in-town runabouts, but everything has a downside.
Electric cars, when they do make it to the general public, are expensive. The best currently in production, the Tesla Roadster, costs $98,000, or more than double the similarly performing Lotus Elise, which it’s based on. It has other issues as well. You can go a reasonable 220 miles between charges, but you’ll need three-and-a-half hours at “the pump” to completely recharge. Then there’s the matter of simply moving the pollution from a car to a power plant. Finally, that 220-mile figure comes about largely because the Tesla is a tiny sports car crammed full with almost 1,000 pounds of batteries. Figure out a place for a trunk, or more than two people, and the range will fall.
Leaving the meeting, I pondered the 1912 Baker V Special Extension Coupe I’d seen at the National Auto Museum. That strange phone booth on wheels also relied on electric motors and batteries, and it too suffered from a short range and high price.
Dude, where’s my car?
Don Schmitzer doesn’t own an electric car. He owns a pickup truck that he’s used to drive to his volunteer posts every one of the last six Hot August Nights. Schmitzer even schedules his vacation around the event. To hell with symbols, Hot August Nights is all about passion for guys like him.
“I think it’s a hoot,” Schmitzer says. “If you want to be a volunteer, there’s a place for you. You don’t have to be a classic car expert.”
He loves the old cars—cars with more soul and personality than the modern family haulers—and he loves seeing the friends from afar who come down for the auto shows. There’s a sense of camaraderie, he says, among automobile hobbyists.
“Car people relate to cars the way [fishermen] relate to fishing,” Schmitzer says.
Steel seems to play a big part in it all. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he says, cars had distinct styles pounded into their proud steel bodies. Their steel fenders held distinctive taillights, and their steel hoods closed down over expansive chrome grills. All this steel, as opposed to the supposed plastic construction of modern cars, makes Schmitzer believe the older cars are safer and more durable. Each of these claims is dubious.
But even beyond that glorious steel, a classic Hot August Nights car indicates a certain prestige, a certain sense of awe at driving something so many others seek. When Schmitzer drives an old muscle car, he knows someone put time and effort into restoration and preservation. He knows that ‘69 Camaro Z28s don’t show up on car lots, and a huge, thunderous ‘68 Charger 440 can’t be ordered from the factory. No, these machines were sought. They were hunted in ways no sane person would ever seek a Corolla.
“Driving a classic car is like driving a piece of history,” he says.
But are they also ridiculous? With their monstrous power, meager brakes and huge thirsts for gasoline, are they still to be taken seriously?
The National Automobile Museum displays a 1910 Oldsmobile Limited Touring Seven Passenger. The machine is huge—huge in its 8.2-liter engine, huge in its seven-passenger bodywork. Huge wheels lift it so far from the earth, passengers need two sets of running boards to climb in, and huge in that it made more power than any car of 1910 could possibly use. Seventy mph on wooden wheels, no thank you. In this vehicle, perhaps exuberant and ridiculous overlap.
There’s no harm in celebrating an awe-inspiring but flawed piece of Americana from 35 years ago. Perhaps the Alternative Transportation Club & Electric Auto Association of Northern Nevada will break through our fossil fuel barriers, and perhaps one day they’ll do it in a machine as romantic and exuberant as a ‘71 Hemi ‘Cuda.
I eyed the 1911 Franklin Averell Special Speed Car sitting very nearly dead center in Gallery One of the National Auto Museum. It is achingly beautiful. Slight and spare with nothing unnecessary to fetter the lines, the little two-seat roadster hides its small, four-cylinder engine behind ogling headlights and under its slender hood. Delicate fenders cover its white, natural rubber tires and small strips of varnished wood trim the minimalist cabin. While the Franklin puts any Camaro to shame in the romance department, a quick glance at the information plaque in front of it reveals that 95 years ago, in 1913, it achieved 83.5 miles on a single gallon of gasoline.