Import auto retailing legend Qvale dead at 94
LOS ANGELES -- Kjell Qvale, the auto retailing visionary who along with Max Hoffman was a pioneer of importing European auto brands to the United States in the post World War II era, died Saturday. He was 94.
In a 2004 interview, Qvale estimated that he had sold more than a million cars, as a dealer, distributor and importer, during 55 years to date in the car business. But Qvale also was involved in racing thoroughbred horses; he sponsored the women's pro tennis tour in the 1970s and bankrolled professional golfer Jim Colbert early in his career.
"My father's passing leaves us with big shoes to fill," his son Bruce Qvale said in a statement. "His determination to succeed and passion for the car business," he said, have "inspired me ever since I was a young boy. 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."
Qvale is survived by two sons, Jeff and Bruce, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He had been married to his wife, Kay, for 57 years when she died in 2005.
Bruce Qvale will lead Qvale Automotive Group, which includes numerous dealerships from California to Florida.
As an entrepreneur, Kjell Qvale (shel kah-VAH'-lee) always was willing to invest with his head but also with his heart. Sometimes things worked out brilliantly, while other times they failed disastrously. But he waved off the failures.
"I don't worry about the mistakes I made," Qvale said in the 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's family emigrated from Norway in 1929, arriving in Seattle. At age 10, Qvale became the only member of his family to own a bicycle -- earning the money to buy it by selling playing cards, phonograph needles and newspapers door-to-door.
He was a star sprinter at the University of Washington, and during World War II he flew DC-3s and DC-4s for the Naval Air Transport in California. After his discharge, Qvale considered becoming the regional distributor for Jeep and for some British motorcycle brands before seeing a MG-TC roadster while standing on a street corner in New Orleans.
Qvale became smitten with importing foreign cars. He began bringing in any car that looked like it had half a chance. But he also learned some hard lessons about foreign-built cars.
"Most of those terrible cars were English," he remembers of several brands that vanished overnight.
After several near misses in business and a couple of flops, Qvale scored a huge hit when he snapped up the Northwest U.S. regional distributorship for Volkswagen in 1953. Soon afterward, he also snagged the regional rights for Porsche and Audi.
At his peak, San Francisco-based British Motor Car Distributors Ltd. was the distributor for more than 100 dealerships, selling 10 different brands of German and British cars, wholesaling 2,000 VW Beetles a month.
That bankroll enabled Qvale to get involved in big-time racing. He entered the famous Huffaker-MG liquid-suspension cars in the Indianapolis 500 for two years in the mid-1960s. One year the cars were running second and fourth at the 300-mile point before they expired with broken fuel pumps. Racing fanatics who dream of driving the infamous "corkscrew" at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca have Qvale's vision to thank.
Qvale also tried his hand as venture capitalist, investing in British manufacturer Jensen in the mid-1970s and forming an alliance with DeTomaso in the '90s. But Jensen was crippled by labor union strife, and the Qvale Mangusta was tripped up by U.S. regulatory hurdles.
Of all his ventures he said: "Whatever money I lost, it was always mine. And in the end, I've come out way ahead.
For the in-depth 2004 Automotive News story about Kjell Qvale, click here.
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