February 20, 2013
Review and photos by Paul Williams
Lunches with Mr. Q
Lunches with Mr. Q
By Kevin Nelson
Southampton Books, 2012, $20.95
In the decades during which I have been reading and writing about cars, the name Kjell Qvale has been a constant presence. Well, it’s an unusual enough name, so you do notice it, but beyond that, Mr. Qvale is frequently mentioned in conjunction with exotic high performance cars, the Pebble Beach Concours, the 12 Hours of Sebring, along with automotive luminaries such as Sir William Lyons, founder and managing director of Jaguar.
So who is this guy? Is Mr. Qvale himself a luminary? Perhaps not on a global scale like Sir William, but he most definitely is a shining star, especially when it comes to the introduction and proliferation of sports cars in North America. He seems to have met – and often befriended – just about everybody associated with the car industry in North America and Europe at one time or another. He’s comfortable in many milieux, from automotive to entertainment to advertising to horse racing to finance.
At 92 years of age (when Lunches with Mr. Q was published) and still going strong, you’d think, therefore, that Mr. Qvale would have some fascinating tales to tell, and you’d be right. Author Kevin Austin combines lunchtime interviews with background research to generate a fascinating account of “Mr. Q’s” automotive (and other) activities since acquiring a San Francisco Willys Jeep dealership as a young man in his 20s following WW2.
Mr. Qvale’s story begins after emigrating from Norway to the US as a boy with his family in 1929. Kjell (pronounced shell) Qvale (pronounced cav-al-ee) excelled in sports in high school and university. Enlisting in the Naval Air Corps after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, he cut his college career short, piloting Douglas DC4 planes during his tour of duty. Upon leaving military service, he managed to acquire that Jeep dealership.
An optimistic entrepreneur by nature, he likely could have made something of this, but one day his head was turned by an MG sports car hurtling down the road. He’d never seen the likes of a car like this; a tiny, two-seat convertible, clearly built to have fun first, and provide transportation second. Mr. Qvale, already a long-time car-nut, was smitten.
He abandoned Jeeps and made an arrangement with the east-coast importer of motorcycles and MG-TCs from England. Mr. Qvale managed to secure the rights to distribute the car on the west coast, thereby beginning the sports car craze there. The MG-TC turned out to be the first sports car of actors James Dean, Clark Gable and Steve McQueen, along with racers Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby and Briggs Cunningham. Good advertising!
Mr. Qvale grasped the appeal of this car – and imports in general – immediately. There was nothing like it in the US market, and he figured if he thought it was awesome, others would, too, especially in sunny California with its twisty canyon roads and scenic highways. This “gut feeling” often propelled Mr Qvale’s career, sometimes in unexpected or unwanted directions. In the long run, these outcomes are what add colour to his life and career.