Fred Phillips is grinning from ear to ear. His arms are crossed as he poses next to a 1954 Alfa Romeo 1900 CSS Ghia Savonuzzi Special – only nine of these cars were ever made. “No two are alike,” says the collector of rare automobiles. “Two have suspended headlights, but this is the only one with a curved bumper.” The car is a beauty. It’s the type of car that would make people who aren’t car enthusiasts reflexively open their mouths and mutter a, “wow.” But it’s the suit that’s making Phillips smile.
It’s the first time he’s ever worn the black, pin-striped zoot suit and aside from the suit he wore on his wedding day, it’s the only suit he owns. He reminisces about the trip to California with his wife and how they thought it was a costume shop. “You know people actually wear these for serious occasions down there,” he says and hitches the pants a little further up past his belly button.
Of course, Phillips wasn’t down in California just to buy a suit. He was there for the cars. He’s a car guy through and through, and has been since childhood. He built a small collection of cars while running his own restoration business shortly after graduating from high school in Calgary. Phillips ended up selling that collection to help finance a new business in 1988, Focus Auto Design Inc. The switch from working on cars in a local market to manufacturing aftermarket acrylic parts for resale across the continent proved to be a lucrative switch. Shortly after Focus Auto Design was up and running, Phillips was able to resume his habit. He started a new car collection, focusing on rare vehicles. In about 20 years, Phillips has put together a collection of more than 80 cars. Phillips spends a good chunk of his time adding to the collection. He has good people, real car guys, running the company and for the last 10 years Phillips has been semi-retired. “If buying cars is a job, then I work overtime,” Phillips says. “Buying cars is my life.” His favourite car is the next one. It’s all about the chase.
AV – What’s the farthest you’ve traveled to get a car?
FP – Geneva, Switzerland.
AV – What’s the longest you’ve chased after a car?
FP – 16 years.
AV – What’s the car you’re chasing right now?
FP – That list is bigger than what I have.
Neon lights from antique service station signs reflect off the gleaming silver car and the photographer asks if Phillips would mind leaning against the rare automobile. Phillips is happy to oblige, but first he wants to spot polish the already sparkling car and disappears in search of a rag. Phillips first laid eyes on this particular Alfa Romeo about 15 years ago when it was sitting in a garage down in California, but he only got his hands on it three years ago. Someone else had purchased it in the meantime and finished the restoration. With a large network of enthusiasts, collectors, dealers and brokers it was easy for Phillips to keep tabs on the cherished prize. Brokers, especially, have played a large part in helping Phillips amass his collection of rare automobiles. “I paid stupid money to one guy in one year,” he notes.
While the manufacturers vary from Ford to MacLaren, most of the unique cars have similar qualities and it’s obvious Phillips has a penchant for two-door, Italian, custom build sports cars with curves.
What’s just as impressive as the collection is the history behind each vehicle. Off the top of his head, Phillips will recall the genesis for a particular model and lineage of the car as it’s been passed on from owner to owner. Few of the cars in Phillips’s collection have seen the light of day since he’s acquired them, although he’s taken some out to car shows more recently. He points to a blue two-door convertible that wouldn’t look out of place with Dick Tracy behind the wheel. “We just took that one on tour,” he says of the 1937 Tommy Lee speedster that he drove down to Colorado. “We did 1,064 miles in four days – in rain.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of Phillips collection is he really doesn’t care if anyone else sees it. He says he has enough car friends and only started giving private tours of his collection last spring. This decision wasn’t to show off the cars, however, Phillips figured they would be a good draw and allow him to raise money and awareness for a cause that hits close to home – the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre.
“When we graduated from AARC, I felt obligated to give back,” Phillips says. “It costs about $50,000 a year to put a family through treatment. 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 matches all the money donated by people who take the private tour and gives the money to the institution. In the first year in 2010, Phillips achieved his goal of raising enough money to put one family through treatment per year and says so far this year, they’re well on their way. “It’s the ability of the collection,” he says. “I’m just one guy and more people are interested in cars then Fred.”
The rest of Phillips’s collection is waiting in another room and he’s anxious to show off some of the other cars, including the 1953 Fiat 8V Ghia Savonuzzi Supersonic he waited 16 years to get his hands on. Then, he remembers he purchased a fedora to go with the zoot suit. “Oh! Can we do a couple pictures with the hat?”