5 February 2013

A heart of gold, and a collection to match

 

There are two questions Jean-Pierre Viau relishes answering, usually tongue-in-cheek, when asked at events where he shows one of his rare antique vehicles. The first: How much did you pay for that car? Answer: As always, whatever my heart dictates. And the second: How many cars do you have? Answer: Never as many as my heart desires. “JP,” as he is known to his friends across North America, is, without doubt, a man of heart; and, as the song says, he's got miles and miles and miles of it.

His love affair with the automobile began around the age of six. He recalls with emotion how he would sit on the lap of his loving dad driving the family Chevy pickup 1938. Safety rules may have been different back then, but the fun of it all ... priceless! Especially when little Jean-Pierre was allowed to steer the big wheel or, better yet, honk the horn while dad pushed the pedals. That first connection was to be life-lasting. Long gone are those days, though; much like the years that followed when he was hired to repaint uncle Lionel's Ford T's and A's with a brush or roller for five bucks apiece.

Later came that other defining moment when his first “old” car got purchased, in this case,
a Chevrolet Sedan 1939 bought in Montréal in the late ’50s. Numerous others would follow as part of what JP admits is a serious disease, and gradually added up to an eclectic collection of truly unique vehicles, mainly “rag tops.”  Among them is a stunning Harley Earl Fleetwood-bodied Cadillac V-12 Boattail 1937 whose full history only came to light after he bought it through Barrett-Jackson at the Scottsdale auction in 2003. Turns out the car was built as a one-off for country music singer and movie star Tex Ritter, father of actor John Ritter.

But JP's unconditional passion didn't stop at mere collecting. On two occasions, he took part in the famous Great Race, one of few Canadians to do so. His first time was in 1995 when contestants traveled from Canada's capital, Ottawa, to Mexico City via Washington, D.C. —soon after the historic NAFTA trade agreement had been signed between the three nations — a total return distance of nearly 6,000 miles. He is proud to say that his LaSalle 1938 finished 19 seconds behind the winner that year. The experience was repeated the following year with the Tacoma-Toronto Great Race, this time in a Ford Model A Boattail Speedster 1930, when his team came first in their class.

Back home, he's always been an active player, too; among other things, he’s represented the Province of Québec twice, in 2000 and 2010, in a wild adventure known as “The Coasters.” Every decade or so, the Coasters undertake to cross all of Canada in some 150 antique cars and trailers, celebrating the first such event held in 1967, the year of the 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. That's a distance of some 12,000 to 13,000 miles depending on where people arrive from and counting their return home. The two-month-plus odyssey takes the caravan from St. John's, Newfoundland, in the East to Victoria, British Columbia, out West, or alternating in the opposite direction the next time around.

It's obvious JP loves driving his wheels no matter how far or for how long. “Cars were built to be driven,” he says. Which explains why he has done so with every single member of his collection many times over — his “mistresses,” as he calls them, adding that his wife and love-of-his-life Nicole knows she has nothing to fear because they're kept under lock and key in the barn at night.

The couple has visited more car museums around the world than anyone would know existed. Over the years, JP has also earned numerous trophies and awards at concours and shows across the continent. But as much as he appreciates a thoughtful comment from a judge, there is one form of recognition that pleases him more than any other: the public's choice. When asked about his top personal anecdote over these last six decades of auto mania, he will readily tell of his relentless quest for, and odd unearthing of, the vehicle dearest to his heart: the 1938 Chevrolet family pickup truck of his childhood.

One summer day in 2006, he was participating in a vintage Cadillac tour along Route 66. The ride took him and Nicole between the Arizona towns of William and Kingman, near their ranch in Wickenburg. The group had just stopped for lunch. And there, of all mythical places, he spotted “the one and only” parked along the road, popping out of the proverbial blue. With his heart fluttering at the very thought of finally catching his dream, he nearly went into cardiac arrest when noticing that, sitting quietly a few steps away, was... a second one. Same model, same year. That's two in the same day, literally in the same spot, some 60 years later. Of course, he grabbed the first one he had seen which, even more incredibly, also happened to have the identical color scheme (forest green with black fenders) of the old family one.

So as we come to discover once again, there are many magical stories in the vast, exciting and often unpredictable universe of the antique automobile. Jean-Pierre Viau's is yet one more, reminding us that big car love knows no frontiers, both in terms of time and geography. You might even say: have passion will travel, in more ways than one. And now, for a little traveling music, please.

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