VICTORIA, BC—On her hundredth birthday, Canada did what many bon vivants do: headed for Montreal to par-tay. It was 1967 and the World’s Fair was in town, laid out on man-made islands in the St. Lawrence River. Families came from all over; the crowds were ridiculous, with more than a half-million people in attendance on the third day.
For a moment, people all across this huge land felt connected and invigorated to get out there and explore from coast to coast. And, if you had a bit of luck on your side, Esso had just the way to do it.
Fifty years later, as we prepare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our home and native land, a huge and hulking beast sits in the lobby of the Royal BC Museum. Even with the totem poles of the coastal First Nations peoples towering above it, it is still colossal, an enormous orange machine a half-metre longer than an extended-wheelbase Cadillac Escalade.
It’s called the Esso 67-X, and it’s just a stone’s throw from the marker at Mile 0 on the Trans-Canada Highway. Fifty years ago, it was meant to be the ultimate cross-Canada companion.
Stanley Cups, road trips, and Gordon Pinsent
In the late 1960s, Imperial Oil had the idea to create a unique giveaway. All across the nation, people who stopped at an Esso station to brim their tanks could have a go at an instant-win prize card. The prizes included luxuries like colour televisions and cameras, but there was an overarching contest.
Ads of the time urged you to “Go In The Know with Esso.” Specially outfitted kiosks at marked Esso dealers had free maps, details on points of local interest, and even a printer that would keep you up to date on local events.
Among the specialty items to collect were five different Esso road safety tips: get all of them and you could send away to have your name entered in a draw for a unique car. During an ad break in the 1967 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, a folksy trio played guitar and sang a jingle, and actor Gordon Pinsent touted the 67-X’s advanced design.
“One could be yours,” he said, “Complete with all the Esso products and services you need to travel Canada ’67. Gasoline, insurance, the works.”
Hockey, road-trips, and a contest that sounds suspiciously like the forerunner for Tim Horton’s Roll Up the Rim to Win: we’ve reached peak Canadiana. For all that, the 67-X was actually a product of American showmanship, and California kustomizing culture.
Vents, pontoons, and eggcrate grilles
In 1966, Motor Trend awarded the Oldsmobile Toronado their Car of the Year trophy. It was a ground-breaking car, the first to feature front-wheel-drive since the Cord motor company went out of business some three decades previous.
Riding on the same platform as the Buick Riviera – which it would later also share with the Cadillac Eldorado – the Toronado championed Oldsmobile’s engineering efforts. It came with a “Rocket” 7.0-litre V8 making 385 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque, a three-speed automatic transmission, and a curb weight approximately the same as Baffin Island.
However, for the time, the Toronado provided relatively effective performance, with Indy 500 racing legend Bobby Unser even hammering one up the mountain at Pikes Peak. His time of 14 minutes and 9.9 seconds was only about twenty seconds off the record set by Parnelli Jones in a Mercedes-Benz, and must have been absolutely terrifying, careening around the blind corners on gravel, with sheer drops falling away below.
Suitably impressed as to the Toronado’s bona fides, Canadian Imperial Oil executives called up well-known customizer George Barris, to see if he could improve the Toronado for the Canadian customer. Barris apparently looked at an atlas and decided that what Canadians really needed was a car that was even larger than the standard Toronado, to go with their sprawling country.
Four cars were made for the giveaway, with Barris making himself one more before the molds were destroyed, and tucking it away to use as a tow vehicle. He cut each chassis in half, then lengthened it by some 40 cm. The wheelbase was now 3.4 metres, and the overall length 6.1 metres.
Next, Barris set about making the most of the additional room, installing built-in radios with headphones for the kids, a swivel-round passenger seat, and a pop-out table for card games. The rear seat looked like a sofa sectional, and there was also a built-in ice cooler for Molso—for, um, Canada Dry.
Barris then set about restyling the Toronado front and rear with some of his signature no-holds-barred style. Both front and rear arches got swooping curves, with vents and pontoons and an eggcrate treatment front and rear.
When all was said and done, the 67-X cost about three times what a standard Toronado would. Estimated values ranged higher, to as much as $50,000, with collectors willing to pay top dollar to those early winners. Adjusted for inflation, this’d be enough money to buy a small condo in Vancouver, or the entirety of PEI.
From the spotlight to the background
First to win was Cliff Hackett of Edmonton. His win was nationally televised during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Hackett was reportedly conflicted about what to do with such a valuable car. Eventually, he ended up taking advantage of Esso’s free year of gasoline, service, and insurance, selling the car a year later.
The car in the Royal BC Museum was won by a Walter Scales of Okanagan. It then passed into the hands of consummate showman and restaurateur Frank Baker, who parked it out front of the Attic restaurant in West Vancouver, alongside one of the promotional Aston Martin DB5’s from the James Bond movie Goldfinger.
Later, the car was sold into the US, and lost from the public eye. However, about five years ago, current owner Trevor Weflen spotted the 67-X in the background of an ad from a St Louis classic car dealership. During that summer of 1967, Weflen had been based in Winnipeg, serving in the air force. He remembered the 67-X well, and had long wondered what had become of the contest cars.
He bought the 67-X sight unseen, and brought it up to Canada, where some work was needed. A new engine was required—Weflen found one that had been built for a marine application, but then left high and dry when the boat’s owner changed his mind and sold his vessel.
Further, the interior was all wrong, and required going through. Eventually, with a set of 67-X wheel covers machined as a final touch, the great orange machine was ready to go.
Lucky for folks like you and me
Weflen, who in a nice parallel owns the Great Canadian Oil Change chain of service garages, doesn’t often display his car. However, he does believe in driving all the machines in his collection once in a while, and the 67-X is no exception. In order to get it from Chilliwack in the Fraser Valley over to Victoria, he simply fired up the big V8, and pointed the nose towards the ferry terminal.
“They put me in the truck lane,” he chuckles, “But it wasn’t too long before there were a crowd of about fifty or sixty people around. It’s almost always like that.”
The 67-X will be on display at the Royal BC Museum, which also has John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls-Royce in its collection, until March 14. After that, there’s a chance it may move East to an Ontario-based museum for a short time.
As the only original licensed 67-X known to survive, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see anything like it again. Unless, that is, you happen to be mooching around town on a warm summer day in Chilliwack, and you just happen to see Weflen stretching his big orange car’s legs. You’d have to be pretty lucky to catch a glimpse, but as the jingle from the ad once said, “It’s for lucky folks like you and me-ee-ee.”
(Photos courtesy Royal BC Museum)