Driven to dedication

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Gary Kanekkeberg, a 75-year-old lifelong South Kitsap guy who has 16 classic cars in the garage at his house. LARRY STEAGALL / KITSAP SUN

A lifelong South Kitsap resident treasures his love for classic cars.

PORT ORCHARD — Gary Kanekkeberg doesn’t change course very often. He’s been married to the same woman for 54 years. Except for a stint in the army, he’s lived in South Kitsap his entire life. And when he buys a car, he rarely gets rid of it.

That’s how the 75-year-old semi-retired plumber has ended up with two garages full of 16 classic cars, ranging from a 1930 LaSalle to a 1978 El Camino.

“From way back as far back as I can remember, I have loved the automobile,” he said.

Kanekkeberg remembers sitting in the driver’s seat of his family’s parked car as a child, pretending to drive, and visualizing every curve and hill on the route. Even more thrilling, when his mom was driving on a deserted stretch of country road, she would occasionally let him steer or put his foot on the gas pedal.

He was only 14 when he bought his first car for $150, using money from his Bremerton Sun paper route and the proceeds from the sale of a motorbike. The 1938 Plymouth is one of the few cars he’s bought that he doesn’t still own.

A sentimental favorite in his collection is a purplish cranberry 1952 Chevrolet that he and his then-girlfriend Mary drove to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 1958 when they eloped.

“Ten minutes and $10 and there was a justice of the peace everywhere you looked,” he said of the Idaho town just over the Washington-Idaho state line that catered to eager young couples.

The marriage has lasted and so has the car. At 87,000 miles, Kanekkeberg rebuilt the Chevy, replacing the engine, transmission, front and rear ends, and installing rack and pinion steering. It now has another 10,000 miles on the odometer. While much under the hood is new, the exterior, with its sleek airplane hood ornament and chrome grille and hubcaps, evokes an era when men wore fedoras and women wore white gloves.

With the sturdy, stained hands of a born mechanic, Kanekkeberg does a lot of the work on his cars himself, including painting them. Most are a glossy black, but a few jewel tones brighten up his collection.

One is a sapphire blue 1940 Pontiac two-door sedan, which the Kanekkebergs and their dog Sophie often take on trips with a tight-knit group of fellow car enthusiasts. It has 129,000 miles on it and is totally rebuilt under the hood.

“It drives like a Cadillac,” said Mary Kanekkeberg. “It’s so comfy and cozy. You sit really close together. I love riding in it with (Gary).”

Mary Kanekkeberg admits to sometimes wondering why her husband has so many cars, especially since most of them are admired more than driven. But, she said, her long marriage has taught her that if your husband loves something, you should love it too. “It makes him happy, really happy.”

What makes her happy is the camaraderie with other car-collecting couples. “I have met the most wonderful people I’ve ever met in my life,” she said.

Gary Kanekkeberg, said he and Mary go on three to four trips a year with the group, exploring back roads and staying in motels along the way, usually heading toward a car show in the western United States or Canada. They drive 200 to 250 miles a day and stop often to see the sights.

A member of Port Orchard’s Saints Car Club, Kanekkeberg said he goes to car shows to look, but has no desire to compete.

The father of three, grandfather of 13 and great-grandfather of four has not passed his automotive zeal onto his offspring. Only one grandson has shown any interest in cars, and he likes Volkswagens – a make not represented in his grandfather’s collection.

Kanekkeberg doesn’t mind. He can’t explain their lack of interest any more than he can explain his compulsion to collect. “I was just born to be a car nut, I guess.”

— Terri Gleich

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