RIP motor mogul and ex-Jensen boss Kjell Qvale

| 5 Nov 2013

One of the most fascinating characters in the motoring world, Kjell Qvale, died on Saturday aged 94.

Born in Trondheim, Norway, he moved to the US at the age of 10.

He kicked off his association with motoring when he started importing MGs and selling them from premises in San Francisco.

He built his business rapidly through shrewd publicity and other British marques soon followed, including Jaguar and Rolls-Royce, before he added other prestige European brands to his stable, eventually running 80 outlets on the West Coast.

In 1970 he took control of Jensen and was instrumental in the creation of the Jensen Healey in a bid to replace the sales he would lose from the demise of the Austin-Healey.

Later he founded his own company Qvale to finance the launch the Qvale Mangusta before selling the rights on to MG Rover.

There was far more to Qvale than cars though. When interviewed by C&SC, he boasted of being the holder of the 100 yard sprint world record, a co-creator of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and also the famous Corkscrew at Laguna Seca.

A businessman first and foremost - he once said of the British cars: "You could say that for many years we sold junk" - his other great passion was racehorses.

Qvale on:

Jowett Jupiter: "We used to call it the Jowett Jumpiter because the thing had a gearbox that lasted about a week. It was the most horrible damn thing."

Singer: "Oh God it was awful, but it did look kind of cute."

Austin Atlantic: "What a useless piece of junk!"

Jaguar XK120: "Fantastic."

Renault Dauphine: "The most awful car ever built."

Triumph TR7: "It was a disaster - it was a disaster because it was a terrible car."

Jensen: "I made some big mistakes at Jensen. I guess mistake number one was trying to make the Healey in the first place."

For a full feature on Qvale see the September 2000 issue of C&SC.

Here's the official tribute from the Qvale Automotive Group:

SAN FRANCISCO (November 4, 2013) -- Kjell “Mr. Q” Qvale, a legendary powerhouse in the international motor industry, died this weekend in San Francisco at the age of 94.  Qvale was the quintessential car guy and a pioneer for more than 67 years in the introduction of European sports cars for the Western United States.

His passion for foreign vehicles inspired him to import MG, Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi, Maserati, along with virtually every other notable British manufacturer. He also ventured into manufacturing, producing his namesake sports car, the Qvale Mangusta.   He built race cars for the Indianapolis 500 and established San Francisco’s International Auto Show. Qvale was also one of the founders of the venerable Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey, Calif., in 1950, and credited with the vision that contributed to the creation of the tricky “Corkscrew” turn at the Laguna Seca Raceway.

He was born in Trondheim, Norway in 1919 to a sea captain and his wife who immigrated to Seattle in 1929.   From a young age, Kjell lived and breathed speed. He became a star athlete in track and field, and at age 20 unofficially tied the world record in the 100-yard dash.  He attended the University of Washington, and during his service in World War II, became a U.S. Navy pilot.   It was after the war that Qvale’s attention was captured by automobiles.

Fascinated with cars, his first foray into the automotive field was a Willy’s Jeep franchise he purchased in Alameda, California in 1947.  Later, during a meeting with the James motorcycle importer in New Orleans, Qvale got a glimpse of one of the first postwar MG-TC Roadsters. The next year, Qvale became the MG distributor for the West Coast, calling his San Francisco based company, British Motor Car Distributors, Ltd.  In 1953 Qvale, along with partner Reynold C. Johnson, gave his first order to Volkswagen Germany for 12 VW Beetles to sell in Northern California.   Along with his brother Knute, Kjell started Riviera Motors as the sole Volkswagen importer for the Pacific Northwest in 1954, which eventually grew to over 2,500 Volkswagen, Porsche and Audi vehicle sales per month.  There was a time Mr. Q was the distributor for more than 100 dealerships, selling 10 different brands of German and British cars.

Qvale’s interest in manufacturing produced a series of BMC-powered MG race cars, including the “MG Liquid Suspension Special” that ran in the Indianapolis 500 in 1963-1965, with famed fabricator and designer Joe Huffaker. Qvale/Huffaker produced over 40 Genie and Formula Junior race cars together and many years later campaigned a factory SCCA Trans-Am winning Mangusta.

In 1970, Mr. Q bought the Jensen factory in West Bromwich, England, and with Donald Healey, built the fast and sleek Jensen Healey. The Jensen factory produced more than 12,000 Jensen Interceptors and Jensen Healey sports cars from 1970-76. The roadster also became one of the few cars in Sports Car Club of America history to capture five SCCA national “D” production championships.

“My father’s passing leaves us with big shoes to fill,” said Bruce Qvale. “His determination to succeed and passion for the car business has inspired me ever since I was a young boy and our whole family has shared a love of the business as a result of his enthusiasm.   We will do our best to carry on the legacy Dad created.”

Mr. Q was a consummate gentleman whose guiding philosophy was optimism and whose highly-principled business practices earned him kudos, even from his fiercest competitors, across various industries.  His other business ventures over the years ranged from banking to apparel. Impeccably dressed, and a brilliant promoter, Qvale had a flair for publicity which propelled him to the cover of Life Magazine in the late 40’s.

His excitement for cars was only surpassed by his love for his family and his passion for horses. Being a racehorse breeder with more than 100 wins was one of Kjell’s greatest life pleasures. He was president of the Pacific Racing Association; Chairman of the Board of Bay Meadows Racetrack, Chairman of the Board of the California Jockey Club and owned several large horse ranches. Always a charitable man, he donated a large supply of medical equipment to other tracks to help injured jockeys and horses.

Qvale loved sports of all kinds; he skied, played Golf in the Bing Crosby Pebble Beach Pro-Am 20 times, and built two golf courses in Las Vegas. He even sponsored the Women’s Pro Virginia Slims Tennis Tour in 1971.   Always eager to try something new, he decided to start taking daily piano lessons when he was 90 years old.

“My father’s passing ends an era in the Bay Area that started in the late 40’s after WWII,” said Jeff Qvale. “He started a partnership with our Mom Kay that led to a successful business and then a family. They were proud of what they built both professionally and personally.  Their business family was special to them and they were pleased to have had so many dedicated and long term employees over the past decades. At 94, he had a long and eventful life; he now joins Mom in a better place to watch over the other great joy and accomplishment in his life, his own family. His seven grandchildren always brought a sparkle to his eye. Bruce and I and our families will miss him very much.”

Kevin Nelson’s book, “Lunches with Mr. Q,” published in late 2012 covered a range of lengthy conversations and reminiscences with Qvale and presents insights into his career, belief system and approach to life. He was astounded at the vitality and energy his subject presented even in his ninth decade.  During their informal get-togethers, Nelson said Qvale urged him to take risks and blaze a trail.

He leaves a legacy that few others have achieved; his accomplishments are a tribute to the American entrepreneurial spirit he embraced and encompassed. Kjell Qvale is survived by two sons, Jeff and Bruce, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.   His wife, Kay, had been by his side for 57 years when she passed away in 2005. Moving forward, Bruce Qvale will lead the Qvale Automotive Group, which includes numerous successful dealerships from California to Florida.