Kjell Qvale, an auto retailer who helped pioneer the importation of European auto brands to the United States after World War II and also played a key role in motorsports, died Saturday at the age of 94.
Qvale started out by importing imported British sports cars to his network of California car dealerships, and went on to purchase the Jensen brand. Developing an interest in motorsports, Qvale produced cars for the Indianapolis 500, along with his namesake sports car, the Qvale Mangusta. He established San Francisco’s International Auto Show, was one of the founders of the venerable Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Monterey, Calif., in 1950, and is credited with the vision that contributed to the creation of the tricky ?Corkscrew? turn at the Laguna Seca Raceway.
The first foray into the automotive field for “Mr. Q” was a Willy’s Jeep franchise he purchased in Alameda, Calif. 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. At one point he was the distributor for more than 100 dealerships, selling 10 different brands of German and British cars.
Qvale’s interest in manufacturing led to his involvement in a series of BMC-powered MG racecars, including the ?MG Liquid Suspension Special? that ran in the Indianapolis 500 in 1963-’65 (RIGHT), 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, Qvale 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 one of his sons, 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.?