Fun is the only constant in Ms. Helen’s car collection
Helen descends from her Vancouver apartment wearing a fur coat and Puma driving shoes. “Sorry I’m late,” she says, proffering a jangling bundle of metal. “I couldn’t find all the keys.”
One of the great privileges of being interested in classic cars is all the interesting people you meet. Helen Poon, who is wearing a bandage on her hand to cover a cut suffered while making martinis earlier in the week, certainly qualifies.
She owns a pub. She takes her bus-conversion motorhome camping in winter. She used to park a V-12 Toyota Century— a Japanese-market executive saloon that’s basically Toyota’s Rolls-Royce—next to a bright yellow Fiat 600 Jolly beach car. She once bought a Land Cruiser that proved so unreliable that she went back to her much more faithful—checks notes—Ferrari Mondial and Citroën 2CV.
Last winter, she drove that 1970 2CV 300 miles into the coastal mountain ranges. Then she took it ice racing.
I first came across Helen Poon at an informal car show down at Spanish Banks, near the local university. Vancouver being a city flush with wealth, most of the locals choose to flaunt brand-new Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis at such events. Not Helen.
Then in her mid-twenties, she was driving a 1937 Rolls-Royce 25/30 with coachwork by Thrupp and Maberly. It had belonged to a British army officer who was also an Olympic figure skater and the president of the Royal Philatelic Society of London. (Stamp collecting, for those less cultured.)
This deeply charming flavor of eccentricity seems to come easily to the British upper class. Think of Mad Jack Churchill, who surfed the River Severn and startled fellow commuters by throwing his suitcase out the window as the train went past his back garden. (He didn’t have to carry it home.) I do not wish to insult Helen by suggesting that she is cut from this same cloth, but she is most certainly a unique and individual person.
She enjoys life with an enviable and inspiring zest, and when it comes to cars, she is having all the fun she possibly can.
It should be pointed out that hers is not a case of wealth inherited and squandered, Downton Abbey–style. Helen makes a decent living, but she works for it, having made a career investing in real-estate as a shrewd fixer-upper. She is also involved in politics, a city councilor in the town of Port Alberni, where she lives much of the time. Helen is quite a booster for the small town, always pushing for tourism and local business.
She may be living comfortably, but when it comes to car collecting, Helen is a fearlessly cheeky low-baller. This 1979 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II was originally purchased for the princely sum of just $1500.
Obviously, the Rolls was in need of some mechanical work, but Helen got it up and running. Later, a friend bought it off her and extensively restored it. It was then offered back to her. Into her garage the Wraith went—again.
“Why not?” is the story behind much of Helen’s ever-revolving collection. She once saw a 1970s Lincoln Continental coupe up for sale, offered $600, and drove it home. She picked up a Ford Crown Victoria and took it on a long-distance gravel tour, with a cat aboard.
“You have to drive as many cars as possible,” she once told me. “That’s how you find the one you want to keep.”
It’s a refreshingly open-minded take on enjoying vintage cars: seeing them not as investments or as collector items, but as experiences. There are certainly cars that Helen has long had on her list—she recently acquired a much longed-for Intermeccanica and would probably love a BMW Z1 at some point—but there is no guarantee any vehicle will hang around long.
“I usually get bored after about a year,” she says. “I like to try something different.”
This smorgasbord approach results in all kinds of adventures, because Helen expects to drive all her cars. When she exchanged her Ferrari Mondial for a Porsche 930, she fitted the 911 Turbo with the winter tires required by provincial law on many rural highways. They came in handy when navigating a surprise April blizzard.
Once, on a classic car tour in her 1963 Alvis TD21, the brake caliper fell off at highway speeds. She got it stopped on the handbrake, caught a ride back to Vancouver, and returned to finish the event in her V-12-powered Century.
An emerald green first-generation Dodge Viper. A backdated, right-hand-drive Mini. Two Alfa-Romeo 164 sedans bought together for $375, now sold and much missed. Saabs and Jaguars and MGs, of course, but also a Cadillac EXT and a C5 Corvette Z06 and a high-mileage E39 M5. More recently, a white Peugeot 204 she bought on the spot at a cars and coffee event.
All these, and more, have either passed through or are currently in Helen’s hands. Something is always for sale, and you can never tell what might crop up next. The only thing for sure is that she’ll be driving it, regardless of weather, out there having the time of her life.
Car collections are often built around a theme, whether prewar racing specials or ground-breaking 1960s designs. While there’s nothing wrong with indulging a specific passion—1971 Dodge Chargers, for instance—those who are open to all facets of automotive interest do seem to come away with more stories.
Broadening your automotive palate introduces you to more people. A genuine appreciation for vehicles of all varieties bridges the gap between, say, a love for air-cooled Porsches and an appreciation for quirky French engineering. Such openness breaks down the walls between the well-heeled collector and the backyard mechanic who’s just trying to get his Triumph on the road for the summer driving season.
The most important focus of a collection isn’t make or model, as the fabulous Ms. Helen proves. It’s fun.
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