Vernon Smith figures he was 12 when he fixed on the Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster as beautiful beyond belief.
“Well, it had to be in a book (where) I initially saw one,” he says. “As you can imagine, there was nothing like that in Newfoundland.
“Not until I was maybe 30 did I really see one, at an RM auction. No, I didn’t consider buying it: I couldn’t afford one.”
Now he can – and Smith’s 1935 Supercharged Boattail Speedster is prominent among 17 classics arrayed along with related period advertising in the Art & the Automobile exhibit at Toronto’s Canadian International AutoShow.
A 1904 Oldsmobile is the oldest, Buick Riviera and a Studebaker Avanti the most recent, new in 1963, while cars of the 1930s and 1950s predominate.
Even Mercurys and Lincolns were rare sightings in Swift Current, Nfld., for the boy who believed he could identify any automobile that passed by on the Burin Peninsula Highway, 20 kilometres from the Trans-Canada, 182 kilometres west of St. John’s.
“At that time, most of the local people bought inexpensive cars, and believe me, not heavily optioned,” Smith says. “That’s why I started off with a desire to own special blue oval (Ford) cars and restore them to perfection.”
Perfecting old cars requires new money, as anyone in the hobby knows. Smith worked seven years for a company constructing power lines before buying a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere “just to have a clunker to drive on Sundays, plain Jane.”
Only after becoming a partner in the firm did he indulge himself. A 1960 Ford Thunderbird convertible he imported from Chicago in 1991 established a predilection for fully-optioned, higher-priced models of the sort seldom seen on the Peninsula Highway. Rare Cadillacs, special Lincolns.
By the time Petrina Gentile introduced Smith to Globe Drive readers in 2009, 34 cars and trucks were on show in Vernon’s Antique Toy Shop. He’d bought the power line company in 1996, then 15 years later sold out to Emera Inc., the Maritime power firm, continuing as managing director, buying vehicles that caught his fancy all the while.
He was desperate, he told Gentile, to add a 1935 Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster to his collection.
What makes Auburn’s Boattailed Speedsters so desirable? Rarity. Only 147 were made. Speed. Better than 100 mph, certified by a dash plaque on every car signed by test driver Ab Jenkins. Mojo. Through half-closed eyes that swept-back windshield and cascading lines transport you to another time ripe with possibility.
This one was twice reborn. First, Californian Harry Bragg, its second owner, stewarded its restoration in the 1950s, only to have it catch fire in 1963 as it was trailered across San Francisco’s Bay Bridge after taking top honours at an Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club West meet.
Successive well-intended owners never got around to dealing with the remains, most recently Mike Fairbairn, a co-founder of RM, the restoration and auction firm in Blenheim, Ont., who bought it for his own collection.
“I kept telling Vernon it wasn’t for sale,” says Fairbairn, “and then he asked again just as I was running low on funds developing two cottages on the Gulf of Mexico.”
The deal was made in 2011. Smith prefers to not reveal the exact figure, but safe to say the investment easily tops $500,000 – including the subsequent restoration. “Vernon is one of the fussiest guys I know,” Fairbairn says of Smith. “He’ll see a fish-eye in the paint that 99 out of 100 guys wouldn’t see, and want the whole fender repainted.”
In September, the Speedster, freshly restored to Smith’s satisfaction, won the Auburn Cord Duesenberg class at the Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance. This summer it will be contesting the Concours d’Elegance of America at St. John’s, near Plymouth, Mich., July 29-31, and the ACD Club’s Labour Day Meet at Auburn, Ind.
Only then will Smith ship it home to Swift Current, the 64th car in Vernon’s Antique Toy Shop and counting. “I’ll drive it, but only on very special days,” Smith says, noting that an 852 sold for $1.2 million at the Gooding auction at Pebble Beach in 2014.
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