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BLADE 50: A 50-year gay love affair with cars

Long-time Blade autos columnist recalls adventures

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Joe Phillips, gay news, Washington Blade, auto column
Joe Phillips when he started writing for the Blade and today. In the vintage photo, he’s test driving a Jeep Wrangler similar to the one on ‘Queer as Folk.’ In the new photo, he’s seen with a Jaguar I-Pace EV. (Photos courtesy Phillips)

For almost two decades, I’ve written the monthly auto column for the Blade. Back then, I didn’t know any gay publication that covered cars. That seemed a shame, considering all the gay gearheads out there. 

My partner Robert — who could care less about horsepower and antilock brakes — broached the topic during dinner with the editor of the Blade at the time. We all had a story to tell about memorable cars and this jump-started the column. I soon found that Lynne Brown, who would later become publisher, loved cars as much as I did.

Since then I’ve reviewed all sorts of vehicles, from Jeeps to Jaguars. And no, I don’t have a favorite (everyone always asks). 

But then, how could I? There are hundreds of new vehicles arriving in showrooms each year, and they now include traditional hybrids, plug-ins, electrics, hydrogen fuel cell, various types of autonomous rides and the like. The list of gadgets has grown from one-touch windows, which now seem like no big whoop, to blind-spot monitors, massaging seats, self-parking systems, night-vision windshield displays and more. 

Yet the thrill of anticipation when I get behind the wheel of a new car has stayed the same. Think butterflies before a first date. 

Yes, there have been some absolutely fabulous rides: the first Mazda Miata in 1989, the 2000 Audi TT, 2005 Ford GT, 2016 Rolls-Royce Wraith and others. With many cars, my partner and I have driven across country to see family and friends. And our beloved dog (a 70-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback who loved riding in cars) had especially good taste — she preferred vehicles with deep rear seats, like the BMW 7 Series and Lexus LS. 

Of course, there have been real clunkers. Most notorious was the short-lived Yugo in the early 1990s. Full of creaks and rattles, this econobox had the herky-jerky steering of a dumpy go-kart. I should have known better than to attend a ride-and-drive event with other journalists in Napa Valley, where Yugo execs started things off with a two-hour reception full of wine and little food. Only then were we sent off in test cars on narrow mountain roads. The assumption: We journalists would be so overcome with good cheer as to overlook all of a Yugo’s foibles. This desperate tactic didn’t work and, as it turned out, neither did the car.

Good or bad, the vehicles I remember most aren’t necessarily the ones I’ve driven. That’s because over the past half century there have been plenty of iconic cars in gay movies, TV shows, books and even concerts. 

These vehicles, which moved me as much as the LGBTQ productions they were in, are a major reason I enjoy reviewing cars. With that in mind, here’s a quick drive down memory lane to celebrate just some of them. 

 Liberace — Mr. Showmanship, who described himself as a “one-man Disneyland,” would arrive onstage in flamboyant, chauffeur-driven cars, including a 1961 Rolls-Royce Phantom V (which also appeared in the 2013 HBO movie “Behind the Candelabra”) and a crystal-covered roadster at Radio City Music Hall. 

 “Thelma and Louise” — Sure, this film has Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis and Brad Pitt. But the real star is the 1966 Ford Thunderbird that Sarandon and Davis drive across country and over a cliff into the Grand Canyon. A classic film with a classic car.

“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” — This cult fave is renowned for its soundtrack as much as its positive portrayal of two drag queens (Hugo Weaving and hunky Guy Pearce) and a transgender woman (Terence Stamp) as they trek across Australia in a lavender tour bus named Priscilla.  

“To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” — One year later, another film follows three drag queens (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo) on a similar soul-searching road trip from New York City to Los Angeles. Their ride: a 1967 Cadillac DeVille convertible. 

Subaru — The automaker targets the LGBT market — especially lesbians — when it features Martina Navratilova in ground-breaking TV commercials and print ads in 2000. 

“The Birdcage” — In this movie, there are more cars than stars. A Lincoln Town Car ferries Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest and Calista Flockhart to Miami Beach. Christine Baranski drives a BMW 325i convertible. Nathan Lane, dressed in a chic canary-yellow outfit from head to toe, gets behind the wheel of a matching 1957 Ford Thunderbird. And dozens of vehicles cruise past The Birdcage nightclub on Ocean Boulevard, including a Buick Roadmaster, Ford Mustang, Geo Tracker, Suzuki Sidekick and more. 

“In & Out” — Tom Selleck drives a Ford Taurus when he stops to confront Kevin Kline and give him a big manly kiss. Debbie Reynolds and Wilfred Brimley show up in a dowdy Plymouth station wagon. And jilted Joan Cusack speeds off in a Toyota Camry. 

“Will and Grace” — Grace inherits an old Chevy Citation from her Uncle Larry, sells it to charity, then tries to buy the car back from wisecracking Ellen DeGeneres as a nun who delivers cheesecakes. 

“Queer as Folk” — In the first episode, Brian drives new boy-toy Justin to high school in a Jeep Wrangler. The car was vandalized the night before, with “Faggot” spray-painted on the side. But Brian doesn’t care, and his defiance sets the tone for the rest of the series. 

Cat on the Scent — Part of the Mrs. Murphy mystery series by Rita Mae Brown, Cat on the Scent features three sleuths — two cats and a corgi — who work together to drive a car.   

“Brokeback Mountain” — Various trucks appear throughout the tragic love story, including Ford and GMC pickups from the 1950s and 1960s.  

“Cars 3” — Finally, the Disney/Pixar franchise gets a butch lesbian. Lea DeLaria is the voice of Miss Fritter, a decked-out school bus, who is a force of nature at the demolition derby. 

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Surprise rides of 2022

Fun, frugal, and full of frills

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Nissan Frontier

Each January, I list my top vehicle picks of the year. But with so many contenders this year, the focus this time is on surprise rides: Three solid choices that are unexpectedly fun, frugal and full of frills.

NISSAN FRONTIER
$29,000
Mpg: 18 city/24 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.3 seconds

Sure, Tesla, Rivian and other newcomers may be garnering lots of press these days. But other automakers also have been upping their game. Cue the Nissan Frontier pickup, completely redesigned with bold, bad-boy styling. This includes a pugnacious grill, menacing headlights and sleek LED taillights. Inside, new laminated side windows reduce wind and road noise. Refined, soft-touch surfaces are a pleasant surprise, as are various clever storage spaces. And then there are the zero-gravity seats, built to alleviate driver fatigue. Despite the space-age description, these NASA-inspired seats have a traditional design but are built with 14 different pressure points to reduce stress on tired muscles. They may not be as fancy as massaging seats in luxury vehicles, but they feel just as effective. Other cabin niceties include large easy-to-read gauges and an optional 9-inch touchscreen, along with wireless charging, Wi-Fi and 10-speaker Fender stereo. One minor annoyance: the steering column tilts but has no telescopic function. While there may be a few less-expensive pickups on dealer lots, none come with as many features. As for performance, the 310-horsepower V6 is the best in its class, and overall handling is more akin to a well-mannered SUV than a workhorse hauler. For off-road enthusiasts, a Pro-4X model comes with heavy-duty Bilstein shocks, electronic locking rear differential for better grip and beefy all-terrain tires.

JEEP WAGONEER
$60,000
16 city/22 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7.3 seconds

Jeep Wagoneer

While oversized rides don’t really fit my urban identity, the all-new Jeep Wagoneer had me almost pining for a Brady Bunch lifestyle in the burbs. Out of production since 1991, this resurrected land yacht made me feel safe and secure on the road. It also tapped into my love of a beloved cruiser: the Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon that I drove across country in my 20s. (Alas, those tawdry travel tales are another story.) But while such behemoths may be described as big and boxy, the Wagoneer is definitely chic, echoing many of the more sculpted elements of a ritzy Range Rover. Powered by a gutsy V8 Hemi engine, this super-sized SUV quickly hustles down the road. A mild-hybrid system not only helps conserve fuel but also adds some extra oomph. Front-wheel drive comes standard, though many buyers will prefer one of the four-wheel-drive options for even better drivability. Air suspension lets you raise and lower the Wagoneer, which has up to 10 inches of ground clearance and can trek through two feet of water. Along with offering more standard features than most competitors, there’s also more second- and third-row legroom. The rich interior, with contrast piping and stitching on the seats, includes a wraparound dashboard with up to three large screens. Two more screens are available for rear-seat passengers, who can stream thousands of programs via the Wi-Fi. Notable amenities include automated parking, rear-seat monitoring camera and premium 19-speaker McIntosh stereo. Fully loaded, a Wagoneer can reach $75,000. That’s still less than the primo Grand Wagoneer ($89,000), which can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in a wickedly fast 5.7 seconds. That glam model, with goodies such as a refrigerated front console and a hidden touchpad safe to store valuables, can easily top $100,000.

MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER
$28,000
Mpg: 24 city/31 highway
0 to 60 mph: 8.6 seconds

Mitsubishi Outlander

Of the three vehicles reviewed here, the updated Mitsubishi Outlander was the biggest surprise. After all, the automaker isn’t the most popular or reliable brand on the block. But like a washed-up diva making a stunning comeback, the Outlander is now taking its star turn in the highly competitive crossover market. The overall styling is dazzling, with sheet metal that has been stretched and pulled into an edgy origami design. Built on the same platform as the Nissan Rogue, this new Outlander is taller, wider and longer than that popular compact. It also offers a third seat, even if legroom here is miniscule. And despite what is a capable but rather tepid engine, the Outlander handling is crisp and spirited. Driver visibility is especially good, and I found the cabin to be pleasantly quiet. But most notable are all the amenities, including head-up display, wireless smartphone integration, 10-speaker Bose stereo, panoramic sunroof, power tailgate, heated steering wheel, heated seats (both front and back), a full slate of the latest safety gear and much more. Another plus: the 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty. All in all, it’s nice to see Mitsubishi start to regain its footing—with the Outlander center stage.

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Merry motoring

These rides will bring miles of smiles along the way

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Kia Carnival

KIA CARNIVAL SX PRESTIGE
$46,000
Mpg: 19 city/26 highway
0 to 60 mph: 7 seconds

The all-new Kia Carnival is an apt name for this comfy cruiser, a fun ride with room for eight passengers. This ultramodern minivan—Kia calls it a multipurpose vehicle—has the same rugged profile as a rough-and-tumble Land Rover Discovery. While you won’t be taking the Carnival on any off-road adventures, it does deliver a well-balanced ride. There’s no body sway when tackling sharp corners nor is there any of the annoying bounciness found in other minivans. 

Surprisingly, there’s also no all-wheel-drive option, which is offered by many competitors. But acceleration is peppy, and braking feels solid. Standard features include LED headlights, power-sliding doors, push-button start, smartphone integration and nine USB ports. I drove the top-of-the-line SX Prestige, which comes with larger 19-inch wheels, hands-free power tailgate and heated steering wheel. It also costs $15,000 more than the base model. But the list of safety features is impressive, including lane-departure warning, drowsy-driver alert, collision-avoidance warnings (for both the front and rear) and side cameras that show you an image of vehicles in your blind spot. While drivers will appreciate the two 12.3-inch digital displays—one for vehicle gauges and the other for navigation and audio—it’s the rear-seat passengers who get some extra thrills. This includes a robust entertainment system, dual sunroof, in-vehicle intercom and VIP lounge seats—luxe-like captain’s chairs that fully recline, are nicely heated/ventilated and come with power footrests. Who knew a minivan could be such an adventure. Add in some cotton candy, and you could almost be at a real carnival. 

Lincoln Nautilus

LINCOLN BLACK LABEL NAUTILUS
$65,000
Mpg: 19 city/25 highway
0 to 60 mph: 5.9 seconds

Long known for its land yachts, Lincoln sent the iconic Continental into the sunset in 2020. But though sedans are no longer in its lineup, the automaker offers a crop of comely crossovers that still exude plenty of old-school luxury. Such is the case with the midsize Lincoln Nautilus, a refreshing antidote to crossovers that try too hard to be sports cars but end up being a real pain in the butt—literally. The comfy ride and handling in the Nautilus are more akin to a Lexus RX 350 rather than some glorified go-kart racer. 

With soft-touch surfaces, tasteful wood and snazzy chrome accents, the cabin is refined yet modern. It’s also quiet, almost too quiet. I drove the premium Black Label trim level, featuring 22-way powered seats with massage functions and a 19-speaker premium stereo. With the stereo turned up at the end of a quiet tune, I didn’t expect the next song to start with a rimshot so staggeringly loud it is still ringing in my ears. That’s how crystal clear the acoustics are in this anechoic chamber. There’s a choice of two engines: turbo four-cylinder or twin-turbo V6. Along with the latest tech and safety features, there’s also an automated parking system and evasive steering assist, which quickens the vehicle’s response time when you try to avoid a collision. Other amenities include a simulated suede headliner, panoramic sunroof and the ability to use your smartphone as the vehicle key. While the base model starts at $44,000, opting for the Black Label does add $20,000. But all those extras will be hard to resist.  

Mercedes E450 Wagon

MERCEDES E450 S4 WAGON
$68,400
Mpg: 21 city/28 highway
0 to 60 mph: 4.4 seconds

Yes, you read that right. The Mercedes E450 wagon explodes from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds. It also gets decent gas mileage for a 4,585-pound hauler, thanks to a 48-volt hybrid system that assists the 362-horsepower V6. I’ve always had a fondness for station wagons, ever since I drove a hulking Pontiac Bonneville Grand Safari across the country many times in my early twenties. But the Mercedes E450 is like piloting a rocket ship, with speed-of-light performance and space-age electronics. 

Despite a slightly firmer suspension this year, the E-Class wagon feels like it’s floating on air. Everything here is upscale, from the handsome exterior styling to the first-rate fit and finish inside. And there is so much room, even in the backseat for tall passengers with long legs. Cargo space is also huge at 35 cubic feet—which, in case you were wondering, means it could hold about 90 basketballs. Along with two 12.3-inch screens for driver info and the entertainment system, there’s a “Hey Mercedes” digital assistant that responds to voice commands. It’s extremely effective and doesn’t require you to keep repeating yourself, as with other systems. If only it could have joined my partner Robert and me in some holiday karaoke.

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Autos

Fun holiday gifts for car fans

Something for everyone, from Bentley trikes to a Mercedes tree topper

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For all those gear heads in your life, here are some fun holiday gifts to get their motors running. Many of these stocking stuffers are affordable. Others, well, not so much.

Bentley Trike for Tykes

Leave it to Bentley to create a fancy fuchsia trike ($500). With six modes, from stroller to tricycle, parents can adjust this three-wheeler as a toddler gets older. Along with the “Big B logo,” the Bentley name is emblazoned on the down tube. Yes, there are more subdued colors, but why bother?

Ford Sherpa Blanket

Cuddle up with a warm and fuzzy Sherpa blanket ($30), made of 100% polyester and the Ford logo embroidered in the corner.

MINI Travel Bag

For quick weekend getaways, MINI has a large soft-luggage travel bag ($190) with extendible handle, two wheels, large main compartment, outer pocket and removable zipped pockets.

Porsche Table-top Clock

The alarm tone on this tabletop clock ($250) sounds just like a throaty Porsche 911 engine. Includes Martini Racing design, as well as a countdown function and analog/digital display.

Rolls-Royce Portable “Pursuit Seat”

Rolls-Royce, known for its relentless pursuit of perfection, now has a portable “Pursuit Seat” ($8,800) — perfect for any derriere. The adjustable seat is anything but old school, made of carbon fiber, polished aluminum and cushy leather (tastefully embossed with the Spirit of Ecstasy insignia, of course).

Mercedes Tree Topper

What better tree topper than a Mercedes three-pointed metal star ($52), which measures 8 inches across. Post on social, and dare anyone to top that!

Aston Martin Wrestwatch

Just in time for the holidays, there’s the Laureato Chronograph Aston Martin Edition ($18,000). Made by Girard-Perregaux), this ritzy wristwatch has a high-grade stainless-steel case, finely polished edges on the bezel, sapphire-crystal pane on the back, and racing-green paint applied to the dial 21 times.

Jaguar Suitcase

Simple but elegant, Jaguar’s compact suitcase ($282) has a polycarbonate shell, aluminum frame and multidirectional wheels that look like real alloy car wheels. Two larger suitcases also available.

Subaru Holiday Sweater

Just shy of being an entrant at some ugly-sweater contest, this festive Subaru holiday sweater ($70) is 100% acrylic and incredibly comfortable.

Front End of a 1962 Ferrari 268 SP

Only one 1962 Ferrari 268 SP race car was ever built, and now there’s a full-scale replica of the front end ($22,000). A pedestal is available, or enthusiasts can mount this work of art on the wall.

Ferrari Vintage Steering Wheel

For more frugal fare (kinda sorta) Ferrari offers a vintage three-spoke steering wheel ($4,010). Such steering wheels were used in Ferraris between 1959 and 1965, and this full-scale repro—made of mahogany and polished aluminum—features the iconic prancing horse in the center.

Bentley Heritage Bear

Many automakers offer cuddly teddy bears, and Bentley is no exception. The limited-edition Heritage Bear ($57) is decked out in snazzy fleece jacket, suede-like helmet and racing goggles. There’s even a dust bag with drawstring for safekeeping.

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