Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Map of T-Bird Lounge
9465 S. Eastern Avenue, Las Vegas
The 22-foot-long monster of a pink 1959 Cadillac swings into the parking lot of the T-Bird Lounge and Restaurant on South Eastern Avenue in the dim, early hours of a Wednesday morning. This classic beauty of a car is too long for a parking space, so it glides to a stop at the curb.
John Bergler steps out and heads into the restaurant about 15 minutes before the 7 a.m. breakfast; he’s one of the last to arrive. Bergler and a handful of friends started a weekly gathering a decade ago as a way to enjoy a mutual passion. Now, the Breakfast Club of Automotive Enthusiasts has ballooned to more than 100 members, mostly retired men. The weekly gathering gives them a way to transport back to their youth, when the oldies they now listen to were new and the classic cars they still drive were cutting-edge.
The T-Bird, 9465 S. Eastern Ave., was chosen as the gathering spot about eight years ago because of a few crucial characteristics: It’s always open, it has plenty of space, and at least one waitress doesn’t mind doing separate checks for the dozens of regular attendees at the breakfast.
Bergler’s wife doesn’t get it.
“Why would you get up early and go somewhere you don’t need to go?” she has asked.
“I dunno,” Bergler has replied. “I guess it’s a guy thing.”
Bergler bought his Cadillac in 1989 for $15,000 at a Las Vegas convention. He’d grown up in Michigan learning to work on cars with his older brother, and he loved the process of customizing a vehicle to reflect his own style.
“You have something you can make your own,” he said. “It’s an extension of that person in a sense.”
On this Wednesday, around 50 of the more than 100 members are at the T-Bird. The Ford guys sit together in a booth. The Corvette guys sit together, and the Porsche guys sit together in their corner.
Most of them hail from other parts of the country, and like Bergler, live in Sun City Anthem. Many moved to Las Vegas because of the inexpensive living, the weather, and the dry, salt-free roads that won’t wear down the bodywork of a car.
But the peace of mind for their cars ends there.
“I don’t like driving here,” said Jim Dodd, 74, who drives a ’71 Corvette. “The wrecks, the accidents stymie me.”
Fixing damage on a decades-old car isn’t exactly easy. Basic repairs can be costly, and finding someone who knows how to fix an engine from the 1930s can be a tall order. Most of the club members learned to repair cars when they were young and short on money; these days most of them have the financial flexibility to send them to a mechanic.
They help each other to keep their relics of automobile history intact with advice, parts and the occasional small-scale repair.
Larry Henrichsen, 77, has had his 1936 Ford Cabriolet since 1981.
“Any problem you have, they’re willing to come over and help you fix it,” he said.
Now the Cabriolet has modern comforts, like cruise control and air conditioning.
But the weekly gatherings are about more than car-repair advice or a way for retirees to while away time each week.
The club is about the people, the friendships, the memories.
“You feel the freedom of getting into an old car, the nostalgia of high school or college,” Henrichsen said.
It’s like a drug, he says.
The friendship the club members find here is what keeps those memories of the old days and past girlfriends fresh. It also keeps them coming back.
They may forget faces, but each man better remembers some of his comrades by the kind of car they drive. It’s the cars that drag the all-but-forgotten past back into current memory.
“I’ve been in my car listening to a song, and I can picture myself driving down Jefferson Avenue in Detroit,” said Bergler, who grew up in the Motor City.
His wife tells him he’s living in the past.
“Yeah, I am. Isn’t it great?” Bergler says.
Around 7:30 a.m., waitress Joanie Johnson starts taking orders. She doesn’t have any help. If she’s ever made a mistake or forgotten an order, no one at the table remembers. With few exceptions, each member, sitting in his usual seat, orders his usual breakfast.
The men don’t remember everything through the years. But the cars they had and the times they had with them, those they do remember.
One member, sipping on coffee, recalls the girl he had a crush on in high school and the Mustang her boyfriend drove. By the time he had gotten his own Mustang, he was in college and his crush was gone.
The food — pancakes, oatmeal, toast — begins to arrive around 8 a.m. The conversation dissipates.
Not long after, Johnson collects dozens of individual bills. The men slowly file out into the parking lot to stand among the brightly colored cars that almost look like a garden of exotic flowers. Alongside Bergler’s Cadillac sits a 1962 Ford Thunderbird, a 1965 Ford Mustang, a 1963 Ford Falcon Futura, and Packards, Studebakers and hot rods.
They pass around wallet pictures of cars like most grandfathers smile at photos of grandchildren. They slowly filter out, and around 8:45 a.m. they all are gone, including Begler, gliding down Eastern in his pink Cadillac. They'll be back the next week. They’ll remember.