Back in 2005, CBC Radio One went searching for the essential songs in our country’s pop music history. The Barenaked Ladies scored the number two spot with “If I Had $1,000,000” (right behind Alberta favourite “Four Strong Winds” by Ian and Sylvia Tyson). The band’s options for spending the money included a monkey, a K-Car and John Merrick’s remains.
The entrepreneurs who shared their collections with us similarly have unique interests, sinking small fortunes into collections that stem from childhood fascinations.
There’s really nothing unique about being a car guy. Unless, like Fred Phillips, being a car guy means spending millions of dollars and travelling millions of kilometres to build a collection of rare automobiles.
As a teen, Phillips became smitten with the 1969 Ford Shelby Mustang – partly because of the car’s sequential tail lights – and naturally gravitated to the car business, opening an automobile restoration business in Calgary shortly after high school. In the late 1980s, as automakers switched from a standard headlight to custom designs for each make and model, the price of headlights moved up from single to triple digits and Phillips saw an opportunity to get into manufacturing. Gravel on the roads has a habit of breaking headlights and, figuring people might want to save a few bucks, he got out of the restoration business and started manufacturing plastic headlight covers. He had amassed a small collection of seven cars and sold them off, along with most of his other possessions, to start Focus Auto Design in 1987. “Thus,” he says, “the madness began.”
A few years after Focus was up and running, Phillips decided to restart his car collection. But rather than focus on a single make or model and “pigeonhole the collection,” he went looking for the rarest cars. “There are so many car manufacturers I don’t even know about,” he says. “There are well over 3,000 companies that have sold vehicles in North America.”
The first car Phillips picked out for his new collection was a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Copo with a factory-built, 427-cubic-inch engine. “It was brown,” he says. “It was the ugliest colour on the planet.” Phillips’s collection now features more than 80 cars, including a couple of one-offs like a 1966 AMC Vignale AMX prototype. His favourite, he says, is always the one he doesn’t have yet. “When I chase cars, I take them the way they come. Whether it’s rubble or perfect, the thrill is the same and it’s in the chase.”
In the spring of 2010, Phillips decided to start offering private tours of his collection. He matches all the donations from people who take the tour and donates the money to the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre. “It costs about $50,000 a year to put a family through treatment,” he says. “I could write a cheque and get it done, but I was talking to a friend and he said you should do tours of your collection, generate donations and spread the word.” Phillips’s goal is to put one family through treatment every year. He says the draw of his car collection was able to accomplish it last year, and that this year it’s on track to repeat the feat.
One Man’s Trash is Ian MacGregor’s Treasure
For most people, when their garage reaches the point where the assemblage of stuff inside it prevents the car from getting in, it’s time to have a yard sale. Instead, Ian MacGregor decided to build a museum.
MacGregor developed a fascination with metal objects when he was just four years old and would visit junkyards on the weekends with his father. During his career in Alberta’s oil patch – first as owner of a machine and welding shop, then building small gas plants and, most recently, as a partner in North West Capital, the driving force behind the construction of a heavy oil upgrader near Edmonton – the 62-year-old has managed to amass an impressive collection. It was a sense of the history behind each artifact that so enthralled MacGregor as a young boy and led him to create the Canadian Museum of Making. “It comes with some history from somewhere else,” he explains. “It will be around after you are gone, so you’re just a custodian of the article, not the owner. You don’t realize that when you’re four or five, but you know it in your heart.”
MacGregor meticulously grew his collection as his career progressed, ensuring that each piece fit within the theme of machinery and tools that were built and used between 1750 and 1920. The focus was primarily on tools made in Great Britain, although the museum also has a collection of ancient tools and currency from Africa. “All the pieces have a reason to be there,” he says. “It’s not just a random collection of junk.” One of his favourite pieces is a machine from 1860 that was used to create the first drill bits with flutes on them. “Having this is akin to having the very first computer,” he says.
Not wanting to spoil the view of the Rocky Mountains from his ranch between Cochrane and Canmore, MacGregor built the 20,000-square-foot museum underground. He has five full-time employees, including a curator and a blacksmith. “They make new things all the time and restore things,” he says. “They use traditional techniques to make modern articles.
We’re really trying to illustrate the connection between art, manufacturing and engineering. If you’re an engineer and if you want things to survive a long time, they have to look good.”
While MacGregor constructed the Canadian Museum of Making with room to expand, he hasn’t had to yet. How much has he spent on his personal passion? “I’ll say not enough, let’s go with that,” he says. “It’s not finished yet and it never will be.”
A Collection Worth Saluting
Getting up close and personal with a battle tank is an impressive experience, but it pales in comparison to seeing one roll down the hill in your town for the first time. “It was 6 a.m. and traffic was lined up, but everyone stopped and pulled over to take a look at it,” says Jack Cross, whose military-themed collection includes a Chieftain Mark 10 battle tank that stopped traffic in Fort McMurray one day.
The green army tank was stationed in the Rhine Valley until 1991, and the British Army deemed it surplus equipment in 1995. When Cross found out it was up for sale, it took him three years to finally secure all the permits necessary to bring the 62-ton tank, which he dubbed “Alberta Crude,” to his residence in northern Alberta. On July 1, 1999, it made its presence felt in its new home for the first time.
Cross’s interest in the military started decades earlier. “I collect firearms, armoured vehicles and jeeps. When I was younger, it was anything green,” he says. “Ever since I was a little boy, I liked [military paraphernalia] and studied it. Then when I got older and stuff became available, I started to purchase things.”
The 68-year-old is retired, but between 1965 and 2006 he was the owner of Cross Contracting. For the last 23 years, the company’s heavy-machinery services were contracted to work at the Syncrude oil sands project. In 1972, the work earned Cross enough spare change to purchase his first military vehicle – an American Willys military jeep. “We modernized it, but I’ll never do that again,” he says.
Cross’s military collection now totals 16 pieces, including a second battle tank – a Desert-Sand-camouflaged Chieftain Mark 11 tank named “Melissa.” One of the battle tanks is on display temporarily at the local legion, while the other is at Cross’s home. Cross has spent about $750,000 buying and restoring the military vehicles in his collection. He’s also helping to build a monument for the legion in Fort McMurray, which he hopes will be done this spring. It will feature a piece of British artillery from his collection, the 433 Abbott.