Gay gearheads show
off their wheels
by Matthew S. Bajko
Cruising down Howard Street in his baby blue 1964 Lincoln convertible last Friday, Michael Sousa explained why the vehicle fulfills his love for vintage wheels.
"It's just a piece of Americana for me," he said.
While Sousa is stopped at a traffic light waiting for it to turn green, the driver of a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV pulls alongside and exclaims, "Now that's a car. That rocks!"
A few minutes later a female panhandler in the median of Market Street near the LGBT Community Center shouts out, "I like your car. Can I have it?" as Sousa headed toward his home in the Castro.
His car regularly evokes such reactions from fellow drivers and passersby, noted Sousa.
"I always get a thumbs up. It's great; I love it," said Sousa, 45, who works as a loan officer.
His classic car will be among the 54 automobiles featured during the Freewheelers Car Club's 29th annual benefit car show this Sunday in the Castro. Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, the world's oldest gay car club is returning to the heart of the city's gayborhood after a five-year absence.
It previously had held the event on the ball field at Collingwood Park but was evicted from the space when the city's Recreation and Park Department renovated the outdoor facility. Since 2009 the fundraiser for local nonprofits has been held in the parking lot at Everett Middle School off 17th Street.
Attendance there has dwindled over the years, partly due to the cars not being visible from the street, so the car club members decided to seek permission this year to close down sections of Collingwood and 19th streets for their event.
While it cost the club $3,000 for the needed permits, the expense has been worth it, said Eric Whitney, 52, a board member and the club's registration director, as "there is so much excitement" about the show returning to its old location.
All of the money raised from the $5 suggested donation at the gate is to be donated to the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, an alternative public elementary school that was recently vandalized. To date, community fundraising efforts have raised more than $25,000 for the school to help pay for repairing the damage and buying school supplies.
The car club has more than 200 members scattered throughout northern California, from San Jose to Sacramento. Less than 10 percent of Freewheelers live in San Francisco.
The club dates its start to May 1978 when Sunnyvale residents Tim Van Nattan and Van Rojas came together with 14 other car lovers "to create an enjoyable social setting for people to meet and exchange ideas and information about their automobiles."
It started as a place for gay men with a love of cars to connect with one another in a welcoming environment, as they were often shunned by straight car clubs, said Concord resident Larry Salvador, the club's co-president and a 33-year member.
"At that time gay guys weren't comfortable in the other car clubs," recalled Salvador.
To be a member, said Salvador, who is in his 50s and owns a 1969 bronze Imperial LeBaron, one merely must possess "a genuine interest in the hobby and collection of classic and collectible automobiles."
And if you like "hunky guys into cars, our club is for you," added Whitney, the owner of a 1986 Mercedes-Benz 560 SL two-door white convertible with a blue wool collapsible roof that he bought at auction more than a year ago for roughly $20,000.
Ownership of a vintage vehicle, defined as being more than 25 years old, is not required to join the Freewheelers. Nor does the club discriminate based on sexual orientation, as there are several straight members, or gender, as there are a few female Freewheelers.
"I don't think being gay was ever a requirement," said Salvador.
Non-gay membership is likely to grow, predicted Salvador, due to the demise of straight car clubs in the Bay Area.
"Other car clubs are falling by the wayside because the members are older and dying off. And younger people aren't into cars as they once were," he said. "With the Freewheelers, we are still fun to hang out with."
That was what drew Whitney to join in early 2012, as his partner of close to 10 years, Richard Bae, supports his car hobby but does not share in it.
"It's growing on him," said Whitney, who now counts Sousa as a close friend.
Sousa's husband, Mark Culbert, also is supportive of his "internal combustion habit" but does not share in his love for old cars.
"It is really hard to find guys in my age bracket who really like to wrench, get into cars and appreciate them," said Sousa, who also owns a 1978 Mark V Lincoln two-door hard top. "I am a total gearhead."
He has owned his Continental – President John F. Kennedy rode in the same model of vehicle when he was assassinated – for four years and spent two years repairing it with a friend. Its license plate "MRS KNDY" is also the car's name, and Sousa affixed a "Kennedy-Johnson" bumper sticker to its rear fender.
"It's never been out of California," said Sousa, the third person to own the car, which can sell for $40,000 to $85,000 depending on condition of the vehicle.
He joined the Freewheelers nine years ago not only to support LGBT charities but also to meet other car enthusiasts.
"It's a thrilling thing for me," said Sousa, who won the Lavender Dipstick award, given to the car owner with the "cleanest, prettiest engine," at this year's West Coast meet-up for gay car clubs.
The Freewheelers' car show takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, September 22.
For more information about the car club and its events, visit http://www.thefreewheelers.net/.