Bob Vernon’s looks down at his recently purchased 1966 Thunderbird convertible. It’s red, just like his 2014 Corvette, and not surprisingly that’s his favourite colour. In fact, the colour red seems to be in his DNA.
Bob grew up with a father who bought a new convertible every year – almost always a red one. Jim Vernon loved cars and he had a talent for picking good ones. These included a 1954 Buick Skylark and Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz ragtops from 1954 on up. He thought the fins on his new 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible were a bit too flamboyant, so he traded the big-finned Caddie in on a 1960 model with more subtle fins which became a favourite he kept for years. Little did Jim know that the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible would become an iconic collector car now worth up to a quarter of a million dollars.
Jim Vernon also loved sports cars having started out with a Jaguar XK120 in 1952 and then graduating to a 1966 Corvette with the 425 horsepower engine. Reaching for the pinnacle of Corvettes, Jim ordered a red coupe with the 435 horsepower L89 engine featuring aluminum cylinder heads of which there were only 629 built. Today, this is a prime collector car that could fetch as much as $300,000.
He bought most of his fabulous Corvettes and convertibles from Brett’s Chevrolet-Oldsmobile in Chilliwack – a company he had done business with since the 1950’s.
Being forced to drop out of school in 1929 at the start of the Depression, Everett James ‘Jim’ Vernon got a job as a $5-a-week salesman at Copps Shoes in Vancouver. In his off hours, he fixed wrecked or derelict cars and sold them for a profit. Ultimately, his employer got tired of people coming around the shoe store looking to buy a used car and Jim Vernon found himself in the car business full time in his early 20’s.
In 1946, he found a rundown car repair garage on Vancouver’s east side at 3rd Avenue and Commercial Drive. The owners wanted $12,000 for the business. The ambitious young man scraped together a $3,000 down payment and Vernon Motors was in business.
Within a few short years of 16-hour days, he turned the business into a thriving Richfield gas and service garage, which also sold, used cars with more than a dozen employees. His mechanics would fix up older cars for sale and Jim would buy wholesale trade-ins from well-established GM dealers like Brett’s in Chilliwack and Bowell McLean Motors in Vancouver.
“My father would sometimes buy twenty to thirty cars at a time,” recalls son Bob who began working weekends at his father’s car lot from the age of eleven onward. “He could look at a group of cars and come up with the value just like that.”
Cars were much sought after following the war and Jim Vernon sold every car he could get his hands on.
Opportunity knocked again in 1949 when a car lot in the key location of Kingsway and 12th Ave. became available. In those days, Kingsway running through east Vancouver to Burnaby was lined with used car lots and the new location for Vernon Motors was closer to the action than any of them.
Son Bob remembers cleaning cars and applying black paint to floorboards with the regular employees. They would sell 100 cars a month and sometimes up to 17 on a weekend. That’s when the sports cars and new convertibles started coming home with Jim, much to the pleasure of his teenaged son. From 1951 on, Jim Vernon would buy a new Cadillac every year – and sometimes other special cars.
“I remember he ordered his cars through Brett’s in Chilliwack but he would pick them up himself from the rail yard under the Queensborough Bridge on Annacis Island,” Bob recalls.
His father was a pioneer in financing the cars he sold in the early 1950’s, and started Vernon Finance and soon was doing loans on used cars sold by other dealers along Kingsway.
But by 1960, the car business was changing. New cars were inexpensive and there was increasing competition in the used car business. So Vernon Motors was shut down and Jim Vernon was left with a prime piece of property at 12th and Kingsway where he had added lots from two houses adjoining his used car business.
Always the entrepreneur, he had an idea to build a hotel well outside the established downtown area on the land he had assembled. He opened the 100-room Biltmore Hotel on Dec. 6, 1962. Within four years, his hotel was turning a nice profit and he would go on to be president of the B.C. Hotels Association.
Bob Vernon drove a lot of cars that were on his father’s lot. But his father wasn’t as generous in lending his son the new red convertibles and Corvettes he bought regularly – as mentioned, most of them red.
Bob recalls one weekend when his parents were away ‘borrowing’ the red 1960 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible, which had been sitting in the garage. He disconnected the speedometer for a top-down run down to Bellingham, Washington.
“It was a hoot and, years later, I told my father what I had done,” Bob says. “He didn’t like it and got mad.”
Commenting on the fabulous cars that his father brought home every year, he admits, “When you grow up with it, you don’t appreciate it as much as you should.”
Bob had a white 1960 Pontiac Laurentian hardtop with a red interior when he started dating Carol, his wife of 54 years. The couple have a pristine low mileage white 1960 Pontiac Bonneville in their collection to remind them of the time when they met.
Jim Vernon sold the Biltmore Hotel on a whim in 1979. When he passed away in 2000, his son Bob inherited his dad’s V12 Mercedes-Benz that had traveled less than 4,000 miles and two Cadillacs. His father had already given him the red 1968 Corvette L89 with the 435 horsepower engine featuring aluminum heads. That car was subsequently sold to Corvette Mike in California who deals in high value ‘Vettes.
Alyn Edwards is a classic car enthusiast and partner in Peak Communicators, a Vancouver-based public relations company. [email protected]