SWIFT CURRENT, NL — Newfoundland and Labrador has many unique attractions and not all of them are directly related to the province’s human or natural history.
There are the fjords of western Newfoundland, a Viking settlement, Iceberg Alley and whale-watching, to name a few.
Then there’s Vernon Smith’s collection of antique cars in the tiny community of Swift Current, which many consider to be one of the best private collections of vintage cars in North America.
Smith’s collection is so vast, he opened his own museum to house and display his cars.
Located in Swift Current, on the Burin Peninsula highway, Vernon’s Antique Car Museum is a hidden gem.
Smith recalls being a small boy sitting on the side of the road and watching the 1950s and 1960s Burin Peninsula taxi cabs driving to St. John’s daily, which he said were like the “neon lights of Vegas,” to him.
His first favorite car as a kid was a 1970 Dodge Charger.
“Every time I saw one, I would drool,” he said.
When asked when his fascination with cars begin, Smith replied with typical Newfoundland and Labrador wit.
“I’ve been told I was born with gas in my veins,” he joked.
His interest in cars actually began at around six years of age and, by the time he was 20, he had started collecting.
Smith’s passion is in collecting cars that were produced in small numbers.
His first acquisition was a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, and his most recent acquisition was a 1970 Mach 1 Twister Special Mustang, of which he says there were only 24 ever built.
It is his 1935 Auburn Boattail Speedster, however, that he calls the crown jewel of his collection.
“It’s an amazing piece of art,” he said. “In 1935, it was capable of doing 100 miles per hour at that time and was pre-tested for speed before it was sold. There is a plaque on the dash of this car that verifies this.”
Smith noted that early designers of cars had little resources to work with, so it is impressive they could produce vehicles such as this.
“They had such creative minds and they had nothing to work with — no computers, they basically had a pencil and a slide rule,” he said.
Smith has 60 cars in his collection, dating from 1908 to 1970.
Every car in his collection is on display in his museum, and almost all the cars are convertibles.
Every car is unique in its own way and each one has a story behind it.
There are a few cars with accessories that truly stand out.
His 1956 Desoto Indianapolis 500 Pace Car has a Highway Hi-Fi 45 RPM record player.
“My 1967 Amphicar has two propellers on it and it goes in the water,” he said.
Smith has tested it in the water and admitted, when taking it to do so the first time, he was terrified. But it stood the test and he now takes parents and kids out in it.
“The 1954 Kaiser Darrin was only built for one year and only 436 were ever made,” said Smith. “It has pocket doors and was a real lady’s car.”
With respect to Smith’s 1929 Willys-Knight 66B Plaidside, he noted there were only 400 built, and only 250 with the rumble seat and plaidside configuration are known to exist.
He shared an interesting piece of trivia about that car.
“The Willys-Overland company was next to Ford in international sales in 1914,” he stated.
Smith’s Museum website contains a wealth of information about the cars in his collection. Although it varies from car to car, the vehicle specs include information about the engine, transmission, wheels, top speed, production details, various details about the car, what the price would have been when the car was purchased new in the year it was made, as well as awards Smith has won with the respective vehicles.
Competitions of elegance
Smith is no stranger to North American car competitions.
He has competed and won multiple awards in every major car competition event in North America, including the prestigious Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida, and the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California.
Concours d’Elegance translates as a competition of elegance.
Smith’s attention to detail and high level of standards in restoring his cars have resulted in a collection of antique cars that embody the epitome of elegance.
“When I go to the United States to the big car shows I’ve heard (people say) ‘there are standards and then there are Vernon standards,’” he said.
On Sept. 18, Smith will compete at the Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance, located near Owen Sound, Ont.
Smith described it as a first-class show to which he plans to bring his 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.
“They want to see it,” he said. “There were only 400 ever built. It is so sophisticated that, if a back door was open, the car would not start.”
Sense of community
Three generations of Smith’s family have resided in the rural town of Swift Current, which currently has a population of about 200 people.
Growing up in a small town often results in its residents becoming community-minded citizens at a young age. Smith is no exception.
Contributions from his museum admission are distributed throughout the Swift Current community and benefit the local school, the fire hall and the kids’ playground.
And every year, Vernon opens his museum to the local graduates.
“Every spring, the graduates come here on prom night to get their photos taken with the cars.”
His generosity doesn’t stop there.
Smith allows the local graduates to take the car of their choice to their prom.
Vernon’s Antique Car Museum
Smith’s collection started as a private collection about 25 years ago. After opening it up for a community fundraiser, community members helped him realize it needed to be shared.
Smith says it is “extensively fun” to share his collection with the public via his museum.
“I have seen grown men cry for different reasons as a result of seeing a car that had an emotional connection to something in their life,” he said. “It’s always a nice thing when you can make other people happy.”
The museum is second to none — in the vastness and uniqueness of the collection, the attention to detail in its displays and with respect to Smith’s vast knowledge of and enthusiasm for his antique cars, which he generously shares with all who visit.
When asked if he has any tips to offer to someone who wants to buy an antique car, Smith replied, “Come and see me.”