KIAWAH ISLAND — As a kid growing up in Ohio, Dave Sondles loved visiting the local Ford dealership to see the white 1956 Thunderbird for sale there.
He would buy a Coke and a bag of peanuts and watch the car turn slowly on its elevated pedestal in the showroom.
Then, one day, he discovered his favorite automobile was gone.
“And I cried,” he said.
But now Sondles has the next best thing — a black 1955 T-Bird in mint condition.
“I’m still looking for a white one,” he said.
Sondles and his vintage vehicle were at a recent Sea Islands Cars and Coffee gathering at Freshfields Village that attracted dozens of auto enthusiasts. The line-up included a new Corvette Stingray with its own phone number and an immaculately restored 1938 Plymouth pickup truck outfitted with modern amenities such as power steering and disc brakes.
The event, which happens on the third Saturday of the month, reflects the popularity of motoring meet-ups around the Lowcountry. Its a chance for enthusiasts to get together for a few hours to show-off and socialize. There is a Charleston Cars and Coffee group that meets on Saturdays at Towne Centre in Mount Pleasant.
Next spring, the town of Kiawah Island is taking enthusiasm for vintage and antique cars to a new level. Council members approved $90,000 for a motoring retreat in April that will draw the cream-of-the-crop in high-end autos from the Concours d’Elegance circuit. Typically the cars are not driven except for short distances from their trailers to the display fields, and often they are not seen outside of museums or private collections.
Critics feel that town funds for the motoring retreat could be better spent, but supporters argue that it is an investment in an event that will bring more national and international exposure to an island already recognized as a top tourist destination and a golfing mecca.
Organizers didn’t have estimates on how much money the retreat would generate for local business. “We would hope it would be thousands of dollars,” Stemerman said.
The retreat does not reflect the priorities of many islanders, said resident Kathy Parks, who is a retired teacher and volunteer at Sanders Clyde Creative Arts School.
“It makes my stomach turn. I’m embarrassed,” she said.
“It’s so sad because it’s not the majority of people here. That’s not who the people are but that’s what it’s going to read as,” she said.
The highlight of the April 15 to 17 motoring retreat is on the third day, when judges rate world-class domestic and foreign cars and antique automobiles. More than one hundred unique and rare cars will compete for the Best of Show trophy and other awards at Ocean Park, according to organizers.
“Kiawah Island provides a unique and beautiful location for a major automotive event. Kiawah is a very special destination. We are capitalizing on that,” said Bruce Stemerman, co-chair of the Motoring Retreat.
Fellow co-chair John Wilson said, “This is a great opportunity for the collector car community to experience all that Kiawah Island has to offer.”
The event will include seminars led by respected experts, a motoring tour through the Lowcountry and dining on area cuisine. Celebrated automotive artist Barry Rowe will create a commemorative poster.
KIMR is a nonprofit organization. Net proceeds will benefit Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic, the Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding Program at Brickhouse Equestrian Center and the Kiawah Conservancy, officials said.
Proponents said the motoring retreat and Concours d’Elegance will promote the island to a well-heeled group.
“We’re taking this one step at a time. Town Council chose to make available $90,000 to get that one up and running,” said Mayor Charles Lipuma.
“Fundamentally, this is the kind of event that would be supported by state accommodations tax dollars,” he said.
The motoring retreat will fill hotel rooms and villas and generate accommodations tax funds. And the crowd that it would draw might include someone who invests in island property, supporters said.
The motoring retreat debuted in spring 2012 at the island’s Night Heron Park with a moderate-sized, one-day affair, transitioning from its predecessor show known as Cars in the Park. Even then plans were in the works to ramp up the retreat while relocating to one of the island’s posh golf courses.
A similar event has proved successful on Hilton Head where more than 20,000 enthusiasts gather annually for the Island Motoring Festival, now in its 14th year. It is held on three fairways at the Port Royal Golf Club from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 and includes a collector car auction for vehicles valued up to $425,000.
Kiawah Cars and Coffee, which is about a year old, has attracted vehicles ranging from a Model-A Ford to a monster truck. Stemerman said the idea for the local gathering came from an event he attended while a resident of the Washington area.
“I thought it would be fun to do here,” he said.
Wilson, a town councilman, recused himself from the Council vote that authorized $90,000 for the motoring retreat because of his position as co-chair of the event.
“There’s always a mix, always something different,” he said of Cars and Coffee. “We just like cars.”
Sondles, who lives at Kiawah River Estates on Johns Island, said he would probably attend the motoring retreat if his car is accepted into the show. He is a building contractor who raced stock cars until three years when he was sidelined by back surgery and leg problems.
“Hopefully I can get back into it,” he said.
Although he misses racing, the restored T-Bird has plenty to offer with its new upholstery and chrome. It has a rebuilt 292-horsepower V-8 motor. The hubcaps and bumpers are original.
“This is just a whole lot more fun at my age. The ladies seem to go for it more,” he said.