Collector Classics: The Wheels that Bond

VANCOUVER – When Jonathan Wong wed his lovely bride Lily last summer, it was a proud moment for two reasons. Jon and Lily had taken their vows in front of family and friends and there was a strong representation of family love waiting outside.

Jon and his grandpa had spent four years working together to restore a 1951 Studebaker Champion. The newly married couple would have their wedding photographs taken with the car that means so much to them and other family members.

Grandpa Pete Yuen spent his working years as a millwright repairing equipment in factories and bakeries. He collected skills and tools over the years that he wanted to pass on to his grandson.

“He was academic and needed practical experience,” Pete says.

At the age of 17, grandson Jon began his Commerce studies at UBC. Pete bought the Studebaker as a restoration project that would become a catalyst for spending time with Jon.

“I knew that every day that goes by is a day less that we’ll be together. If we didn’t do something then, it may never be done,” the 85-year-old recalls of that time.
Pete didn’t want anything to interfere with Jon’s studies, so they would mostly work on the car in the summer when Jon had spare time
“I love spending time with Jon and wanted to teach him so that he could do things for himself. If I did it myself, he wouldn’t see what was going on.”

Jon didn’t sacrifice his studies for the project. He was on the honour roll throughout university and was among the top 50 Chartered Accountant graduates of the approximately 4,000 across Canada in 2012. He really values the time spent with his grandfather.

“I had no experience with anything mechanical and never thought about doing anything like this. It was just school, sports and video games,” he says. “It was great to spend time with my grandfather, do something different and have something to show for it.”

Pete Yuen had grown up on a farm located on property where the Richmond Ikea store is today. He was expected to work on the farm because farm labour was hard to get during wartime.

“People were working in the shipyards and didn’t want to do farm work,” he notes.

Always handy and mechanically inclined, he was fascinated with machinery and cars. He has been a member of the Studebaker Drivers Club for over 40 years and has restored several cars, including a 1962 Studebaker GT which he gave to his daughter Sandy for her wedding car. She still owns it.

In the 1990s, Pete learned of a widow who lived nearby with two Ford Model T’s that she wanted to get out of her garage. Pete bought them and turned the 1927 Model T coupe into a street rod powered by a Buick V6 that he has been driving for 14 years.

In 2006, he bought the low mileage original 1951 Studebaker with a rare automatic transmission as a restoration project with grandson Jon.

The pair decided to make improvements for roadworthiness and safety including front disc brakes, a dual master cylinder and bucket seats with built-in shoulder harness seatbelts salvaged from a Chrysler Sebring convertible.

They completely disassembled the car, had the original six-cylinder engine and Detroit Gear automatic transmission rebuilt, did all the bodywork themselves and had the car painted in a brilliant metallic colour called Graceful Red originally used on Mazda cars.

The vintage Studebaker was rewired with a modern 12-volt electrical system with relays to protect the car’s original switches.

Jon and his grandfather have driven the restored Studebaker on trips to Vancouver Island and elsewhere. It performs beautifully. Jon is now using the mechanical skills taught by his grandfather to move forward on his own project — a 1989 Ford Mustang GT with a 5.0-litre engine. He has made many performance modifications to the engine and suspension himself.

“I never thought I would be able to do anything like this but I have come a long way to becoming mechanically inclined,” Jon says.

Jon is now a CA working for Big Brothers of Greater Vancouver, an organization that he has been a volunteer for in past years. Lily is a pharmacist.

Grandpa Pete Yuen had these words to say at their wedding: “Jon is a happy, quiet, caring and considerate young man and I love spending time with him. Being at the football games, restoring and modifying a 1951 Studebaker car together or at family gatherings. I want to compliment Jon and Lily for choosing each other for lifetime partners.”

Restoring cars is over now for Pete Yuen. But his relationship with his grandson is stronger than ever.

“Jon has enjoyed working on his Mustang without any help from me and I am most impressed with the work he has done on it,” he says.

Alyn Edwards is a classic car enthusiast and partner in Peak Communicators, a Vancouver-based public relations company. Contact him at [email protected]

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