This is not your typical car show. Instead of boasting slick and shiny paint jobs, the vehicles clustered together at Alpine Village came in dusty, matted hues mottled with rust splotches. Weighted down by spare tires and supplies and marked by details that more closely resemble graffiti than custom car pinstriping, the cars looked as though they had been through sandstorms and end-of-the-world battles. That's the point.

At Wasteland World Car Show, believed by its organizers to be the first event of its kind, the focus is on post-apocalyptic rides. It's an offshoot of the annual Mojave desert gathering Wasteland Weekend and, while its roots are in the fan community surrounding the Mad Max movies, the party that attendees call “the Wastes” has become much more than that.

Inside an old horse trailer, Jared Butler, event director for Wasteland World Inc., explains the history of the group. Back in November 2009, there was a one-off event called Road Warrior Weekend that celebrated the Mad Max films. Some of the people involved, Butler included, wanted to keep the vibe of the desert party going and so they launched Wasteland Weekend the following year. Since then, the event has grown into a community of people known as Wastelanders, about 3,000 of whom are expected to attend the main event in September.

“It's almost more like a counterculture, whether it be rockabilly or punk or goth or anything like that,” Butler says of the Wasteland community. While the attendees might have similar tastes in film, literature and music, he adds, there's more to it than what's on the surface: “It's becoming a well-rounded, complete culture for everyone.”

The cars are part of that. After all, if you're going to head two hours outside of Los Angeles to an area that's largely surrounded by nothing, you're going to need something that can handle the terrain and hold all your gear. Over the years, Butler says, more people have been heading out to Wasteland Weekend in customized cars. The party's car culture got to the point that organizers felt like this work needed to be shared with people who weren't going to go to the Mojave Desert for the four-day, 21-and-up event.

“In my mind, it's a new wing of car culture that's happening,” Butler says. “It's a lot of fun, and also the barrier to entry for that kind of car can be lower. There's a lot of creative freedom, but you don't have to spend as much as if you're, say, building a classic hot rod.”

The horse trailer that we're in is an example of that. It's called the War Rig and it's the Wasteland World crew's headquarters for various events, where they take care of administrative work. The exterior features custom welding, making it durable enough for people to climb across the roof, which they often do. There's a crane to support performances, such as the aerialist who moved through a hoop at this show. There's also a 1940 Cadillac body fixed to the roof, which just looks cool. “It's kind of like half practical workstation and half artistic statement for the kind of work we do at our Wasteland workshop,” Butler says.

This is hardly the setting one would expect for a post-apocalyptic car show. We're inside a kitschy, German-themed village in Torrance, next to a beer hall. There's a swap meet on the other side of the parking lot and a cluster of people shopping and eating at the hybrid market/cafe across from us. Still, that's all attracted a crowd of onlookers checking out the desert-punk details on the vehicles. While some customizers might go for Mad Max imagery, that's not necessary. These aren't all replicas — or even cars.

The Mule is ready for Wasteland Weekend.; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

The Mule is ready for Wasteland Weekend.; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

Megan Cottage, of Lancaster, brought out the small scooter that she uses in the Wastes. Her wheels serve a very practical purpose; Cottage has lupus and this helps her get around the grounds easily. She added a few odds and ends for the show, such as a small box that holds gloves and other supplies. Her goal was to show people that they can be part of the community even without a car or welding skills. “You can get a little thing and zip-tie stuff to it and still have a great time,” she says.

Megan's husband, Tim Cottage, recently started work on customizing a Scion. There are some references to the Mad Max franchise on the car, such as a set of thundersticks, but he's added personal touches as well, like the logo for his post-apocalyptic band AHTCK (which is pronounced “attack” and stands for All Hail the Crimson King). The band has played Wasteland Weekend for the past few years, and Tim also helps with the production of the event. That latter duty explains why he had spare sheet steel at home that he was able to use to help build up the car. The night before the car show, he added a hood scoop to the Scion, complete with a wrench that stands in as an ornament.

For some Wastelanders, the cars become an ongoing project.  “It is never complete,” says William Johnson, from Frazier Park, of his tricked-out 1991 Jeep Wrangler. Johnson, who goes by “The Padre” in Wastelander circles, leads the Mutant Hunters, one of a number of groups that attend the annual event. His “tribe” has a story that plays out in the Wastes, where they find and hunt mutants who are dangerous to humans. His Jeep, known as the Mule, fits into that narrative. It's inspired by British SAS Jeeps used in North Africa during World War II. There's a prop machine gun topping the car and an assortment of survival supplies attached to the sides and hoods of the Jeep. In reference to Mad Max, a sticker on an orange gas can bears the logo for Seven Sisters Petroleum.

“I started plain Jane with this and built it up over the years, and I'm always looking for new ways to improve it, to expand it,” Johnson says. “It might even get to the point where I might get another vehicle and then start working on that.”

That's what has helped the spirit of Wasteland Weekend travel beyond the annual campout. For the attendees, getting ready for the pilgrimage can take up a big chunk of the year. “We're building our vehicles. We're making our outfits,” says Johnson, who is wearing a leather vest that he sewed by hand. “Half the fun of this is prepping for Wasteland Weekend.”

LA Weekly