Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The driving force behind a 14-year quest to bring some classy wheels home

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 11, 2008


Chris Yarrow pursued the object of his boyhood crush with the fervour of a lovestruck teenager.

The schoolboy was aged 14 when his quest began.

What he sought was a magnificent machine that had slipped from family hands two generations earlier.

It had been admired by passersby and even enjoyed by royalty.

The boy needed to see it. Once he did, he needed to have it.

He had learned from his mother about an automobile purchased from a Victoria showroom for a princely sum in the early days of the Depression.

The vehicle was a 1930 Packard Model 740 with a Super 8 engine.

The boy's grandfather had gone to the Plimley's dealership in downtown Victoria. Luxury cars were not a hot item in the months following the Wall Street crash, so sales were few.

An engineer by profession and mechanically minded by personality – with a personality that was less flamboyant than the design of automobiles he most admired – he asked a question of the salesman.

How did this vehicle perform in terms of fuel economy?

“Sir, if you need to ask, you cannot afford it,” the salesman sniffed.

The customer had yet to introduce himself, for if he had done so the salesman would immediately have recognized the family name. Norman Alfred Yarrow, 39, was president of Yarrows Ltd., the Esquimalt shipbuilders. He lived at Edgecliffe at 925 Foul Bay Rd., a landmark mansion on an escarpment with a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains. Born in London, he was the son of Sir Alfred Yarrow, a “visionary lunatic,” as one critic called him, who built the first private overhead telegraph line in England, designed a steam road car at age 19 in 1864, and turned a modest business constructing river launches “about the size of a bathtub” into one of the world's greatest shipbuilding firms.

Despite the salesman's snobbery, the purchase was completed. Norman Yarrow drove away with his chosen car.

He held onto it for a few years before it passed into other hands.

In 1939, a new owner lent it for the use of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their stay in Victoria on their tour of the Dominion and the United States. The royal couple were rear-seat passengers in their travels from their ship's berth to the Empress Hotel to Government House.

This is what young Chris Yarrow knew when he went searching for his grandfather's car in 1972.

The first stop in his sleuthing was at the old Classic Car Museum in downtown Victoria. The owner was the father of his schoolmates, as well as a Packard fan. The boy showed him a black and white photograph of the King and Queen riding in the car and shared what he knew.

“He mumbled away and went into his office,” Mr. Yarrow recalls, “and came out with the owner's name and number.”

The boy called the owner, Art Fulawka, insisting he needed to see the car, which was stored in a damp garage in Port Coquitlam on the mainland.

Thus began a friendship between two families, not to mention a dedicated wooing of a veteran car aficionado by a younger one.

Mr. Yarrow made two annual pilgrimages to the car even as he grew from a carefree boy to a busy man.

At one point, the car's original trunk and fitted luggage, found among his grandmother's possessions, were reunited with the Packard.

Years passed.

“One day, out of the blue, he called,” Mr. Yarrow said.

“I always promised you first refusal,” he remembers the owner saying.

“Do you want it?”

A 14-year pursuit was nearing an end. The asking price: a hefty $70,000.

With financial assistance from his family, the Packard returned to the Yarrows.

It was restored and, yesterday, it was on display at the Blethering Place Collector Car Festival on Oak Bay Avenue, just a short jaunt from his grandfather's old place.

Photographers snapped the hood ornament, a winged woman holding a wheel known to collectors as the Goddess of Speed. Others admired the letters NAY on the doorposts, monograms in sterling silver kept by the family after the car was sold in 1937.

The sleek machine gets about seven miles to the gallon. Mr. Yarrow believes it to be the last of its kind in Canada. It could be worth as much as $200,000 at auction, he said, though we're not likely to find out.

“Someone could offer me a fortune,” he said, “and I wouldn't sell.”

Mr. Yarrow, 50, is the owner and pilot of Wolverine Air, a charter airline based at Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories. He is the descendent of pioneer aeronauts. His great-grandfather took a 4,500-kilometre flying tour of Europe in 1931 at age 89, while his Packard-purchasing grandfather was an early member of the Aerial League of Canada and owned Dominion Airways of Vancouver.

Chris Yarrow's obsession with automobiles was sparked by an incident early in his life.

One day in March, 1958, his parents jumped into the family sedan, roaring through the streets of Victoria at speeds more than double the posted limit before screeching to a halt at the front doors of the Royal Jubilee Hospital.

Despite the daredevil driving, the couple were a little late.

There, on the front bench of a 1957 Lincoln two-door coupe, the boy to be named Christopher was born.

The car long ago passed from family hands. The whereabouts of his birthplace are unknown.

“I'm looking for that car right now,” he said.

He knows the old licence plate number, figures he can track down his original spin with a little help from someone with access to vehicle registration computers.

He is a driven man.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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