MEMORY LANE: A lifelong passion for autos, skiing and all that jazz

Fred Ernst came to Canada with “no ambitions, open mind and seven dollars”

Fred Ernst has lived more than two thirds of his 90 years on the North Shore. He met his wife here. They raised their family here.

Plus or minus their three children, they have inhabited eight homes on this side of the inlet, as it used to be possible in Vancouver and on the North Shore, when there was a neighbourhood and housing to suit every stage of life.  

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 Fred’s life on the North Shore began with a room in a little house on Sentinel Hill, near the home of Varick Hewitt, his wife-to-be. Their first home was an A-frame at Eagle Harbour.

A house Fred and Varick designed and built in that neighbourhood was the family home for 26 years. There was a cottage on Gambier Island and later, one on Bowen Island. When their three children married, around 1990, Fred and Varick downsized to the Bowen cottage and then upsized to a house on Hood Point. After Bowen, they lived in Lions Bay and Rockridge.

Since 2011, Fred and Varick have made their home in the mountains of North Vancouver, about as high as one can go on pavement. They celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary, every year lived on the North Shore, in March. “We love the North Shore,” says Fred. “What else can I say?”

The proximity of water and mountain in this corner of the world is a reminder of Fred’s home in Austria. Born May 21, 1929, in the Austrian Tyrol, he was raised in Bregenz on Lake Constance, with Pfaender Mountain and its ski slopes rising behind the town.

His grandfather made Fred’s first pair of skis: slats of wood the right length for a six-year-old, with a string system to hold his boots on the skis. He joined his family hiking, skiing and climbing in the mountains, usually, since he was the youngest, as the “tail-end Charley.”

The custom in Austria was to work until noon, take two hours for lunch at home, and return to work in the afternoon. Fred would take the gondola up the mountain and ski back in time to return to work.

“In Austria up to the war,” Fred recalls, “we learned to do everything.” He drove a truck, worked as an office clerk and played drums with a small dance band at local hotels. Playing endless tangos and waltzes was tedious. Fred liked jazz, and cars, as well as skiing.

After the war, Fred recalls, the future promised little in Austria. He knew one person in Canada, fellow Austrian Hans Brunner, who ran a ski school on Mount Seymour.

Fred arrived in Vancouver “with no ambitions and an open mind. And seven dollars.”  A good attitude, because his job teaching skiing was only part-time. 

Fred Ernst
Fred Ernst with his first Bentley at Wetmore Motors in West Vancouver. The Bentley was built in 1951, the same year the dealership opened. - Supplied

“When I came to Vancouver in 1953, skiing was just getting accessible. I saw wooden skis made in Austria for sale at Eaton’s.” Rope tows replaced steep hikes to the North Shore ski runs and soon after Fred arrived in Vancouver with his skis made from wartime aircraft aluminum, steel skis came on the market.

There were few jobs to be found in Vancouver in those days. Thanks to his varied work experience in Austria, Fred could turn his hand to anything, including playing jazz. On weekends, Fred and his drum set, clarinetist Lloyd Arntzen and trumpeter Ian Hayes would cram into Fred’s Morris Minor convertible and set off to play Dixieland jazz downtown at the Dugout cabaret.

At the boarding house that had been his first home in Vancouver, Fred met Karl Stittgen, and a lifelong friendship began. They opened the European Watchmaker shop in Ambleside, but repairing timepieces was not lucrative for even one person. Karl went on to international renown as a jeweler and Fred went into the automotive business.

He rose from salesman to manager of the downtown branch of Volkswagen Pacific Motors. When the company moved to the suburbs, Fred opted to stay close to home. He worked with John and Ted Wetmore at their West Vancouver dealership for 26 years, until the business closed in 2003. Fred displays a photograph of himself posing with his first Bentley, vintage 1951, at Wetmore Motors. The Bentley was built in 1951, the year the dealership opened.

Fred was 75 when he retired. Or did he? Over the years, Fred bought and sold vintage and specialty automobiles, a sideline that keeps him connected with the North Shore’s car culture. A beauty is in his garage right now, looking for a new home. If you’re interested in a 1991 500 SL Mercedes Roadster in mint condition, call Fred at 604-971-3179.


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