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Story by JOE LEARY

As we reflect on the launch of Brian Jessel BMW and its milestone 35th anniversary, it fittingly coincides with Vancouver’s legendary Centennial celebrations, also thirty-five years ago today. It was May 2, 1986 when Expo 86 opened its doors and eventually hosted over 20 million visitors in the ensuing five months. Vancouver would welcome the world and the world responded. And it quite literally put our city on the international stage. With an official launch attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales, the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication was

held on the north shore of False Creek, the second such fair to be staged on Canadian soil, after Expo 67 in Montreal, and the final World’s Fair to take place in North America. The transformation of the area was bold and dramatic and owes much to the vision of Sam Bawlf, BC Minister for Recreation and Conservation, who eight years prior had proposed an international exposition to celebrate our city’s centenary. The proposal was based on an architectural study and after much consultation, upon which varying sites were reviewed and considered, the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris approved the concept and Expo 86 was born.

Rain or shine, visitors came to the Fair. Over five months, Vancouver hosted more than 20 million people. Flags from countries around the globe flew at Expo 86 to welcome, bring together and share ideas and innovations on transportation and communications.

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To eliminate any possibility of being considered a trade fair, it was classified under a separate category exposition, the largest ever held, bearing the theme ‘World in Motion  World in Touch.’ A truly collaborative venture, Expo 86 was sponsored by both the federal and provincial governments and established as a non-profit agency to operate the fair, headed by billionaire Jimmy Pattison. Jess Ketchum, Vice President of Communications for Expo 86, recalls the pivotal occasion that inevitably became the genesis of Vancouver’s World’s Fair. “Minister of Tourism and Deputy Premier Grace McCarthy, BC Agent General in London, Lawrie Wallace and Patrick Reid, Minister in charge of Government House in London and President of the Bureau of International Expositions, had a chance meeting in London in 1978 and that gave birth to what we know as Expo 86,” says Ketchum. “Patrick went on to become Commissioner General of Expo and was instrumental in a record number of international participants.”

Peter Armstrong was one of those participants. He was an early believer right out of the gate as then Vice President of Gray Line Vancouver. “At that time the general population was against Expo 86,” he notes of the excitement such an event could, and ultimately would create for Vancouver. “My philosophy was better to be on the bus, so to speak, in support of an initiative like that than to watch the bus go by. Many times I met with Jess Ketchum in his capacity as senior executive with Expo 86. One morning as I was driving and listening to CKNW Radio, they had a live interview with Jimmy Pattison, announcing the ticket prices for Expo 86.

Hundreds of thousands of World’s Fair goers finally got to experience the excitement of Expo 86, opened Friday, May 2, 1986 by Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales, and Canada’s then Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney. “Transcending the Traffic,” a 26-metre-tall sculpture by Canadian sculptor Bill Lishman.

From May 2 until October 13, the Fair themed “Transportation and Communication: World in Motion World in Touch” completely transformed the skyline of Vancouver and the city itself.

I was intrigued and immediately turned the car in the direction of their headquarters and within 20 minutes of that announcement I was in Jess Ketchum’s office telling him I wanted to buy the first 5000 tickets to Expo 86.” Jess said, “Peter, we don’t have any tickets, we just announced the price” to which I replied that I still wanted to buy the first 5000 tickets as I wanted to show my support to Expo 86 and this great city. Jess replied, “That is kind of you but we still don’t have any tickets, we are not set up to sell tickets.” I was determined and told Jess I had my chequebook with me. Jess stood up, walked out of the office and later told me he had gone into Jimmy Pattison’s office. Jess told Jimmy that he had a guy by the name of Peter Armstrong who was determined to purchase the first 5000 tickets to Expo 86 and was ready to write a

check. After a brief chat, without missing a beat, Jimmy told Jess to “give him a receipt.” Construction of the first pavilion began in October 1983 and, while labour disputes in 1984 disrupted work, all pavilions were completed on schedule and $8 million under budget to boot. Expo Centre opened May 2, 1985 as a preview, showcasing the site. It was divided into six zones, each containing pavilions, theatres, rides and restaurants, while the centre of the site was dominated by BC Place Stadium. In all, there were 65 pavilions, 41 of which were of an international nature. Seven Canadian provinces were represented, along with two territories and three US states. Nine corporations also hosted pavilions. To say it was an overwhelming success is an understatement, as overall attendance during Expo 86 actually doubled initial targets.

Ron Baird’s Sea Monster, created for Expo 86, was owned by collector Alexander Sellers for 30 years until he generously donated it to the city of Barrie, Ontario, where it’s now displayed on Barrie’s water front near its Expo 86 companion, Spirit Catcher.

The popular Expo 86 Highway to Nowhere was a film studio’s impressive vision of transportation frozen in time.

Vancouver designer Bob McIlhargey’s iconic Dream Ship, created by Architects Neale-Staniszkis, was the main focus at Marine plaza.

The monorail shuttled visitors to every zone in Expo 86. Later, after noise protests blocked its use as a shuttle service from English Bay to downtown, it was sold to Alton Towers, a UK amusement park.

“A great deal of credit can go to the strategy of focusing much of the marketing into California,” says Ketchum. “The advice we received from marketing strategists was that if you’re looking for “turns through the turnstiles,” go after California as they are travelers. They see Canada as safe and friendly and are within easy reach.” Armstrong also looks back fondly on his early belief and subsequent contribution. “It was a proud moment for me to be an early and significant contributor of what became a phenomenal success,” he says. “People had to believe that Expo 86 was a reality. I felt it because I knew the calibre of the people who were being drawn and

attracted to work for Expo. While the general public took a while to come around, they sure enjoyed it, with 22 million people visiting the site.” And while it seems a distant memory thirty five years later, the legacy and resulting infrastructure and imminent impact still resonates over three decades later. In the end, Expo 86 put Vancouver on the world stage and became a precursor to the 2010 Winter Olympics experience that

would take place to similar acclaim. “Expo 86 proved to everyone — but most importantly British Columbians — that we could stage major events,” adds Ketchum. “While you can’t compare staging a six month exposition with a seventeen-day sporting event, there are similarities in the high quality standards of both events. Expo 86 was seen as the best international exposition of that era, just as the 2010 Olympics were to be viewed years later.

“I was confident Expo 86 would bring great things for Vancouver and the surrounding area, but it well surpassed my expectations. This fair really put Vancouver and British Columbia on the world stage and was a key part of developing BC into the international tourism destination it has become.”

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Highway 86, the winning competition entry for public space at the 1986 Canadian World Exposition, celebrating the history of 20th Century air, land and sea transportation, Designed by James Wines of SITE Architecture Art Design in New York.

The Air Plaza featured Flight Path, a series of aircraft that included the giant nose of a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet that soared 36 feet into the sky.

Locomotive # 374 carried the first transcontinental passenger train into Vancouver in 1887 and occupied a place of honour in the courtyard of the Roundhouse, a former locomotive servicing shed declared a heritage building and restored for Expo 86. An international competition to furnish the building was won by the Art Centrum design team from Czechoslovakia. 

top row: The USSR pavilion, Transportation and Communication for Peace and Cooperation, to celebrate 25 years of manned space flight. The Vancouver skies were lit up by the Italian Air Force’s display of the Italian flag colours at dazzling supersonic speed over Expo 86 .

middle row: High above the green zone looking down on Science World, the popular Air Canada Gondola provided an expansive view of the Fair. Yukon Territory Pavilion displaying the Queen of the Yukon plane under a sky modeled after Yukon resident Ted Harrison’s painting.

The iconic John Lennon Rolls Royce was displayed at Expo 86 . Thousands of people were moved on the quiet waters for a view from the outside looking in. The False Creek Ferries became a staple of the Expo 86 experience. 

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