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Vernon Smith with 1933 ChryslerImperial from his collection
Vernon Smith with 1933 ChryslerImperial from his collection

Classic Cars

Vernon's toy shop home to century of rarities Add to ...

He's one of the wealthiest men in Atlantic Canada. Newfoundland's Vernon Smith made his money in the power-line construction industry, but it's his passion for cars that attracts attention these days.

He has a jaw-dropping collection of classic cars worth millions of dollars. It took him more than two decades to build, but his 12,000-square-foot showroom dubbed "Vernon's Antique Toy Shop" is a hidden gem on The Rock.

So far, Smith has 34 classic cars and counting - dating back to a 1908 Buick Model 10. Four others are currently under restoration, including a 1970 Ram Air 4 GTO Judge on its way to the showroom shortly.

It all started in 1984 with his first buy - a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere that he describes as "a plain-Jane four-door sedan, slant-six. I bought it on a Sunday afternoon excursion for $1,000."

His second car came years later in 1990 - it was a 1960 Thunderbird Convertible with a retractable soft-top roof, a 352-cubic-inch V-8, and loaded with options. It's the only car he ever sold. Deep down, he probably regrets it since it ended up briefly in some famous hands.

Shortly after he sold it, an agency representing Paul McCartney called him looking for a red-and-white 1960 T-bird for the cover of his album, Driving Rain . He passed on the new owner's info.

"There's some humour about the photo on the album. Paul is suspended in mid-air with no socks on. The new owner laid down ground rules. He told Paul that he couldn't get aboard the car with his shoes on. And Paul took his socks off as well," he laughs.



Shortly after, Smith bought another 1960 T-bird - better quality, of course, with a 430-cubic-inch engine to replace the old one. It's on display along with a few tokens of appreciation he received from McCartney's agent - a book, album and a T-shirt.

Since childhood, Smith has been addicted to cars. "I had a passion for the automobile. I liked the chrome - those big fins always grabbed my attention."

Nowadays when he's collecting, he often looks for limited-production vehicles and convertibles.

Everything in his collection is a convertible, except a 1942 Chrysler Town & Country Barrel Back, which he just bought. "I broke the rule when I bought the Barrel Back, but it's such an outstanding vehicle. There's only 16 of them known to exist."

Often the cars are in rough shape when he purchases them; he'll invest tens of thousands to restore them to perfection.

Trophies line his shop from antique show competitions across North America including the Meadow Brook Concourse D'Elegance in Rochester, Mich., Amelia Island Concourse in Fernandino, Fla., and the Willstead Concourse in Windsor, Ont.

Two of his prize winners are a 1956 Lincoln Premiere that won Best in Show and a 1941 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet that won Best in Class at the Lincoln Nationals in Pennsylvania last summer.

His favourite vintage vehicle is a black 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. It took him five years to find - in Atlanta. "This was a limited-production car in 1959; only 1,320 were produced - 99 out of 1,320 had bucket seats and only 46 were fully optioned … power steering, the brakes, the windows.

"Even the back windows and door locks are powered, there's a six-way power seat, cruise control, air conditioning, the fins were 42 inches above ground level, built-in fog lights with a 390-cubic-inch engine …," he says.

"To put this in perspective, this was $7,401 back in 1959. At that time, you could buy a '62 base-series Cadillac and a convertible, a Rambler American car, and go home with $111 dollars in your pocket for the price of this. It was quite elegant at the time."

Vernon paid "in excess of $100,000" for it nine years ago. Nowadays, he's not sure what it would fetch at auction. "It changes every day. It's significant. Maybe a quarter [of a million dollars]"

His hobby is expensive and it's no money maker. The most expensive vehicle in the showroom is a 1933 Chrysler Imperial. "Talk about limited production - there were only 36 of them produced.

"It has a 384 straight-A engine - the level of design was phenomenal for its day. We've got the V-windshield, suicide doors," he walks around it, gently displaying its top features. He won't disclose the price he paid, saying only, "It was a lot of money."

His collection also includes muscle cars like a 1970 Oldsmobile 442, a 1957 Chrysler 300 with a hi-fi turntable that plays 45s, and a 1969 Ford Shelby GT500 428 Cobra Jet with an old eight-track stereo system autographed by Carol Shelby himself on the glove box.

Right next to it is a newer model - a 2007 Ford Shelby GT500, because "it's the first year they made the GT500 since. So I have the old with the new," he boasts.

And his cars don't just sit in the showroom. On special occasions he'll drive them. "On Mother's Day this year, I took the '56 Lincoln Premiere and took my mom to church. Last year, I used the '29 Cadillac. Every year, it's a surprise for her."

Maybe next year he'll take her for a spin in a car he wants desperately to add to his collection - a 1935 Auburn Boattail Speedster. And judging by his track record, he'll likely add one soon.

pgentile@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

 

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