AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY PIONEER AND SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW FOUNDER MOURNED
SAN FRANCISCO, CA (November 8, 2013) – San Francisco auto retailing visionary Kjell Qvale, who introduced California motorists to “foreign” cars in 1948 at time when American-made cars reigned supreme in the United States, died Nov. 1 He was 94.
The British Motor Car dealer’s vision in bucking the establishment made him a legend, but one of his lasting legacies is the San Francisco International Auto Show.
Now the largest exposition of new vehicles in Northern California, the show evolved from the upstart Import Car Show Qvale founded in 1958 to compete with the established domestic auto show which he felt treated imported car manufacturers unfairly.
Eventually, the Import Car Show outdrew the domestic vehicle event forcing American manufacturers to go to Qvale and asked to be allowed to exhibit in his show. Thus the San Francisco International Auto Show was born.
When this year’s show opens on Thursday, Thanksgiving, Nov. 28 at the Moscone Convention Center, with 38 of the world’s major manufacturers exhibiting their products for the year 2014 and beyond, it will be tribute to the vision of Qvale.
Qvale’s road to the pinnacles he reached in America is the stuff of legends.
Born in Norway, Kjell Qvale, pronounced Shell Kev-all-ee,, immigrated to the United States in 1929. The 10-year-old brought with him an infatuation for anything fast on a track—cars, horses and people—and that has not changed.
His speed in the 110-yard-dash earned him a scholarship in 1939 to the University of Washington. His college career was cut short by World War II, in which he served as U.S. Navy pilot.
Qvale settled in California after the war with $8,000 in his pocket and the drive to open his own business, selling Jeeps with partner and future wife, Kay.
The couple began selling MGs and Jaguars in 1947 and later added Bentley and Rolls Royce to his retail inventory. They also acquired sole Northern California distributor rights for Volkswagen.
When the Qvales opened their first business in 1949 on Van Ness Avenue, it certainly was no competition for the palatial showrooms on San Francisco’s Auto Row.
In one of his last extensive interviews, Qvale reminisced about his 65 years in the automotive industry, including his challenges to the established auto manufacturers and and his lifelong love of speed.
“It was a tiny little space at 214 Van Ness Ave., Qvale said. “Since then, I have owned most of the big showrooms on Auto Row at one time or another.”
Over the years, Qvale’s infatuation with speed grew into a full-blown love affair. He was instrumental in creating local auto races, including one in Golden Gate Park, still remembered with affection by local race fans who can recall drivers shooting onto Fulton Street after taking a wrong turn. Qvale also had a hand in convincing the U.S. Army to set aside a portion of Fort Ord near Paso Robles for a race track that became the fabled Laguna Seca Raceway.
But what’s a track without a car? Qvale bought a Lister Jaguar to race. But what’s the point if you don’t win? When he lost to Joe Huffaker, Qvale wasted no time in hiring him. Over the next few years, they raced British-built cars throughout the West Coast and at Indianapolis, driven by racing greats A.J. Foyt and Bobby Unser. Although never a winner at Indy, Qvale popularized British cars in the most important race in the United States.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Qvale began looking around for new conquests—and in 1970 he bought the Jensen factory in Great Britain. Under his ownership, 14,000 Jensen Healey’s were built. He subsequently bought the developmental rights for the Italian Bigua, renamed it the Qvale Mangusta and manufactured 280 cars.
Qvale has had more than his share of successes, some against all the odds. In the late 1960s, he was approached by the legendary Billie Jean King urging him to buck the entrenched tennis establishment and sponsor tournaments in San Francisco and Los Angeles for women only. Qvale backed the events which eventually lead to what is not the highly regarded women’s professional tennis tour.
Qvale’s fondness for winners was not confined to the two-legged kind. He bought the renowned Silky Sullivan to put out to stud. His ranch in Sebastopol stables more than 50 horses, including foals, yearlings, mares, a number of racers and a few retirees.
However, it was cars that made his a big wheel in the automotive industry, for which he will always be remembered and honored.
“I don’t worry about the mistakes I made,” Qvale said in a 2004 interview with Automotive News. “I’ve done more right than wrong. I’m an eternal optimist who doesn’t mind taking a chance—although that can be deadly.”
Qvale is survived by two sons, Jeff and Bruce, seven grandchildren and one great grand-child. He had been married to his wife, Kay, for 57 years when she died in 2005. Bruce Qvale will lead the Qvale Automotive Group, which includes numerous dealerships form California to Florida.
About the San Francisco Chronicle|SFGate.com 56th Annual International Auto Show: The San Francisco Chronicle|SFGate.com 56th Annual International Auto Show is presented by AutoTrader.com and supported by the California New Car Dealers Association. The International Auto Show will offer Bay Area auto buyers their first opportunity to see the new 2014 model cars, SUV’s, trucks and vans representing the work of 38 of the world’s major manufacturers.
Show hours are:
Thursday, November 28 – Sunday, December 1: 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Monday, December 2: 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Admission is $10 for adults with children 12-years and under free when accompanied by an adult. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For more information visit www.sfautoshow.com.