Hot August Nights Evokes Memories of Cheaper Gas

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When it comes to gasoline, Wayne Mancebo's bright blue 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle SuperSport has expensive taste.

The "muscle car" with a 454-cubic-inch engine refuses to drink what Mancebo calls "pump gas," preferring to gulp what Mancebo calls "racing gas" that costs $4 a gallon back home in Tulare, Calif.

To a Hot August Nights automobile, it's the difference between beer and champagne.

"We're trying to make horsepower here," said Mancebo, his SuperSport part of a row of late 1960s and early 70s muscle cars at the Reno Hilton.

The 18th annual celebration of classic cars and old-time rock n' roll music is taking place in Reno and Sparks this week, with casino parking lots full of autos, such as the SuperSport, built during an era when gas was cheap and mileage didn't matter.

For Mancebo, who says "pump gas," the way a sophisticated drinker might say "jug wine," mileage still doesn't matter, at least when he's driving the SuperSport.

"If you romp on it real hard, a quarter-mile would take a gallon and a half," Mancebo said of the car made to go fast, not save gas, when he bought it brand new almost 33 years ago.

Most of the classic cars aren't for everyday driving. They're for show, coming out for special occasions, such as Hot August Nights. Fuel economy isn't an issue.

The SuperSport, which Mancebo said gets eight miles to the gallon if he drives it "real easy," has a 610 horsepower engine installed in 1988 and a speedometer that goes up to 120 mph.

Mancebo's SuperSport and other Hot August Nights cars may seem out of place on 21st century highways filled with motorists worrying about $2 per gallon gas. But, for this week, they're at home in Reno-Sparks, bringing back memories of a different age.

"We paid around 32 cents a gallon," Mancebo said of gas that powered the SuperSport when he was 22 and a young husband. "I bought it for my wife so I could have it."

Earlier this week, the average price in Reno for a gallon of unleaded regular, which is light beer to the SuperSport, was $2.06, according to Nevada AAA. The average price for premium was $2.25.

But that "pump gas," is too "weak" for the SuperSport, Mancebo said. So, he paid $64 to fill the car's 16-gallon tank with 110 octane gas before leaving home for Hot August Nights. Mancebo, who pulled the SuperSport on a trailer, figures he's got enough gas to drive around Reno-Sparks for the week before returning home.

Mancebo said the SuperSports engine accepts unleaded, but he can't use "pump gas" because the octane rating isn't high enough. The premium gas sold at most service stations usually has a rating of 91, said Larry Yarborough, a Reno service station operator.

"We had 101 octane," Mancebo said of the early 1970s. "We called it premium. "

The classic cars need higher octane today because, unlike the 1950s and 60s, most gas doesn't contain lead, Yarborough explained.

"It's the demands of the motor," Yarborough said of classic cars need for high octane. "It's a cleaner, quicker burning fuel."

It's still available, but you've got to look hard. Yarborough sells it at the Village 76 on California Avenue. The price is $34.95 for a five-gallon barrel, for leaded and unleaded versions.

It's illegal to pump leaded fuel, but it can be sold in bulk, Yarborough said. It can only be used for racing.

Jerry Neal of Sparks doesn't need "racing gas" for his red 1953 Ford pickup, which has a 390 cubic inch engine that runs on modern premium.

Neal estimates the tank costs about $35 to fill.

"I'm from an era in the 1950s when gas was 15 cents a gallon," he said. "You could drive all day. You can't now."

The pickup gets 10 mpg "going downhill," Neal said with a laugh.

Neal made one concession to the modern era, modifying the pickups engine with "hardened valve seats" to handle unleaded gas without "tearing up the heads."

A few yards away from Neal in the Hilton lot, Mike Weldon of Antioch, Calif., stands before his 1965 Ford Mustang 350 GT, which looks like another premium gas sucking muscle car.

Sure enough, it runs on premium, for which Weldon pays about $2.30 a gallon in California. But, the Mustang doesn't guzzle, at least by Hot August Nights standards.

"I'm going to surprise the heck out of you," Weldon said. "It gets 19 miles per gallon. You can still have horsepower and get fuel economy, if you do it right."

For Weldon, that means a lot of tinkering.

"You keep changing the dynamics of the car," he said.

Apparently, it pays off.

"I got up here on a tank of gas," Weldon said of his trip from the San Francisco Bay Area.

For Weldon and the rest of the Hot August Nights drivers, that's a bargain.


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