One day, 30 years ago, while looking at the boats docked at the Aylmer Marina, Jean-Pierre Sylvestre had an idea that would change his life.
“Sure, people like looking at boats,” Sylvestre, 75, recalls. “But I knew there were more people who liked cars than boats, so I put the two together: boats for the water and cars for the land.”
Recently retired, the former Bank of Canada executive approached local boat show organizers with his idea. They agreed that vintage cars in the parking lot would be cool. The next year, with Sylvestre at the helm, the Aylmer boat show added an exhibition of 50 vintage vehicles.
It turned out the display of vintage cars dating back from the 1930s was a bigger hit with the locals than the boats.
“Some people see cars as a conveyance, a way to get from A to B,” Sylvestre says. “People who love vintage cars don't see them that way, they see them with as industrial art.”
Since 1991, the Auto Show Gatineau has become one of the biggest outdoor events of the summer, with more than 30,000 visitors expected to attend the exhibition this Saturday, August 7, at Cedar Park near the Aylmer Marina. (Rain date is Sunday, August 8, see the website for details).
Operating on a shoestring budget, Auto Show takes a full year to organize and shows hundreds of vintage and unique cars; many coming from as far away as Detroit, Quebec City, Vermont, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
“The only thing people love more than seeing old cars is driving them and owning them,” Sylvestre explains. “It brings back memories of their fathers and their childhood. There are so many stories. It's a warm feeling they want to share.”
A vintage car lover himself, Sylvestre once owned a formidable collection, including a '64 Ford Ranchero, a '56 Oldsmobile, a '66 Ford Mustang convertible, a 1970 Chevy SS, a Ford Harley-Davidson pickup and a 2003 BMW Z4.
“I had to sell them when the neighbours complained I had too many cars in the driveway,” he says, laughing. “It's a good thing I'm not a millionaire. I'd have too many.”
Now retired to his farm in Bristol, Quebec, Sylvestre was surprised when Auto Show executives called him at the height of the COVID pandemic last year, asking for help. He hadn't heard from anyone at the Auto Show at all since retiring in 2011.
It seems that previous management wanted to cut ties to the old guard and reinvent Auto Show into something new and it didn't work.
Wanting to right a wrong, the current executive asked Sylvestre to join the management team as a consultant. They also renamed the trophy for the most popular car at the show the Jean-Pierre Sylvestre prize.
“I was surprised when they called me to ask for my advice,” says Sylvestre. “I hadn't even thought about car shows for years. I was happy to help. It was my life. I put 100 per cent of my life into the show. It was all I was doing. I didn't go a day without talking about the car show. We love cars. It's a sickness!”