“I'm a sick man,” confesses Serge Monette, behind the wheel of his sumptuous Rolls-Royce Phantom V 1962 limousine, a car fit for royalty, “but my disease, though incurable, is one that I'm thankful for,” he quips, tongue-in-cheek. And with good reason, since the man's self-admitted illness has yielded over the years an impressive collection of antique limos, including some rare specimens, whose indisputable elegance is only matched by their regal aura.
The condition that Serge reports is not uncommon among serious collectors. Symptoms include agitated behavior, compulsive pacing, sweaty palms and recurring palpitations, especially when standing in front of, or right next to, THE car. Do you know the vehicle in question? It's the one you just must have, whether on the spur of the moment or after years of coveting. But what is particularly interesting about this story is the singular convergence between the man's career as an entrepreneur running a major limo company and his lifelong love affair with the automobile — all of which began, as is often the case, during childhood.
The memories of that defining period abound and endure. Among them, Serge remembers that proudest of days at age 4 when his father brought home their first Chrysler Windsor 1947. It was to be followed by several other shining beauties of the marque, including a second Windsor purchased in 1953 by his mother, Rollande, soon after the passing of his father. So significant were those cars for the boy that, at age 12, his single most exciting dream was to one day have a Chrysler dealership of his own.
In the meantime, he would revel in maintaining contact, literally and physically, with the family car — washing it (and others) on a frequent, even daily basis. By the time his mom was ready to go to work in the morning, she could drive away in her freshly polished Chrysler while little Serge looked on. For Serge Monette, the tools of his work later turned into the finest of his play: luxury limousines to be restored, driven and collected. And yet, his unconditional attachment to the automobile coincides with simple beginnings.
While limousines have been universally associated with wealth, glamour or power, the term originates also from humble beginnings, referring to a hooded cloak worn by shepherds in the South Western region of France known as Limousin. According to an alternate etymology, the word may have designated the coat itself worn by a driver, in what eventually became the rag top extending over the driver's open compartment. Although it appears that the first such automobile was built in 1902, the concept of stretch limos was originally developed in Fort Smith, Ark., circa 1928, by a coach company named Armbruster. These unique vehicles, also called “big band buses,” were designed and built primarily to transport renowned band leaders, their crews and instruments.
Seen as somewhat intriguing and a subject of popular curiosity, limousines are still widely regarded as emblematic of fame and fortune while often used to help mark significant life events.
Running his own executive limo company enabled Serge to catch an occasional glimpse of Hollywood glitz. Among his most memorable up-close and personal experiences, he recalls chauffeuring celebrities like Henry Fonda, Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren, “moments both thrilling and exacting,” he adds. “Fonda was the archetypal gentleman, prince of a man. Gardner, one of the great cinematic beauties of all times. Same with Sophia Loren, plus the Italian flair.” Several of his cars got quite a taste of that world too, notably his Imperial 1981 bodied by AHA Toronto, one of only three ever made. It starred in the 1984 comedy Cannonball Run II as Burt Reynolds' (JJ McClure) speeding bullet, water- painted khaki green for the occasion. Reynolds was actually the owner of the car during the making of the movie.
With the years passing, traveling in Miss Daisy style seems to never go out of fashion. And while modern limos still carry the old spirit of days gone by, driving antiques from a personal collection such as Serge Monette's provides the ultimate degree of enjoyment — one steeped in history, tradition and mystery. It's all about reliving pages of an illustrious past, ensconced in plush surroundings, imagining how it might have been back then, decades away; and savouring the experience for as long as it can be stretched out... in time.