This small-town Michigan enthusiast’s legacy proves that one car lover can make a difference
The sheer scale of the automotive hobby can be a blessing and a curse to a newcomer. The vintage car community, in all its detail and lore, can be intimidating. Perhaps you lack the shop, the skills, or the budget to put together a 100-point concours winner that might someday sit in a museum. Maybe you’re a Gen Xer or a millennial, and you feel like the golden age of motorsports passed you by—you don’t have stories of racing with Paul Newman, memories of Ford’s 1960s triumphs at Le Mans, or standing in a milling crowd of Group B rally spectators. What do you have to contribute to the conversation?
The legacy of Michigan native Bob Sovis, now 85 years old, stands as a heartwarming testament to the influence a single, “normal” person can have.
Born in the tiny Michigan town of in New Lothrop, Bob attended the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint and took a job in GM’s parts operations division. Still, his involvement with the automotive titan that was GM didn’t cause him to lose sight of the automotive community surrounding his home of Fenton, Michigan, and, 23 miles to the north, the city of Flint.
Bob started with his own family. “Dad’s plan was to give a collector car to each kid,” says his son Russ, “and restore it with each of us.” Then, tragedy struck the Sovis family. Russ’s older brother Ronald was killed by a freak gun accident at the age of 15. The 1947 Chevrolet Fleetmaster convertible Bob had intended to restore along with his son became, in a bittersweet way, the project that helped him recover from the catastrophe.
“It was very difficult to work on,” Bob tells patch.com. “but it was something I vowed to do.”
“He just dove into collector cars,” Russ recalls. “Years later, he got it fully restored, and donated it to the Sloan Museum.”
This pattern of channeling his individual passion into programs that would benefit others was a consistent them in Bob’s life. In 1972 he started the Sloan Auto Fair in association with Flint’s Sloan Museum in an effort to bring tourism to the museum and to Flint itself. He spoke to his contacts at Chevrolet, and the automaker ended up donating two vehicles to the Sloan Museum: a 1967 Caprice and a 1915 Baby Grand. The Sloan Auto Fair soon took on a life of its own, growing from a few hundred cars to anywhere between 800 and 1200 cars, depending on the weather. Though Bob has since retired from running the show himself, it’s still active today.
He didn’t stop after helping to establish the Auto Fair, either. “I’m a purist,” Bob said.
“He likes cars that are all just how they made them,” says Russ.
Bob noticed that, by the 1990s, car shows were saturated with street rods and newer vehicles, and that cars 50+ years were becoming a rare sight. He knew that the community surrounding these older classics cared deeply about them, but that the cars usually led sheltered lives in private garages. Bob recognized the need for a well-organized event that would inspire these owners to bring their treasured vintage vehicles out in the open and share them with younger generations. Thus, the Golden Memories Automobile Gathering began in 1995, free to the public, and “exclusively for original or authentically restored vehicles produced in 1968 or earlier.” No visual modifications are allowed, and there’s no judging portion of the show.
His own vehicles have included, in addition to an all-original 1939 Chevrolet: a 1986 four-door Chevette diesel hatchback, a 1984 Oldsmobile Toronado, and a 1968 Chevrolet Corvair.
Bob seemingly has always had energy to give to the automotive community. He helped start Chrome & Ice, a mid-winter indoor car show held inside the Dort Financial Center in Grand Blanc, Michigan. “One weekend in February, they put the boards down, people trailer their cars there, and unload them right into the area,” Russ says. His love for Flint, however, never faltered.
He volunteered consistently with Flint’s Back to the Bricks car cruise, founded in 2004. (The bricks reference pays homage to Flint’s brick-paved Saginaw Street.) In 2013, at the age of 78, he even participated in the statewide “Lakeshore to Lakeshore” promotional tour affiliated with the Flint-based show.
In 2019 he organized a parade to celebrate Flint’s 100th anniversary. He supported the Back to the Bricks-driven initiate to place statutes of Louis Chevrolet, David Buick, and William “Billy” Durant to be placed in downtown Flint. Bob saw these status a teaching tool for younger generations, and even established a separate non-profit fund to ensure the maintenance of the statues independent of the Flint city government.
Bob Sovis is still at it, and his name doesn’t grace the flanks of a Chevrolet or some honorary statue. But dozens of Michigan families, their friends and their children, have walked the grounds (or ice rinks) of the shows he helped organize. The car community has gotten a little bit stronger because of one man’s work—and that can be true for anyone.