We used to build cars that were unique in the world
Canada's first car?
The first commission
All on its own
An American steams north
The most successful of all
Not to be
Under one roof
Selling it all
Paying the tax
More to sell
Trucks present a problem
A Valiant effort
Frontenac times two
Two new Pontiacs
Quebec's sports car
New Brunswick boondoggle
Good money after bad
"Kind of" Canadian
- Canada's first car?
- The first commission
- American influence
- Shaky foundation
- All on its own
- An American...
- Cross-Canada cars
- The most...
- Not to be
- Under one roof
- Selling it all
- Paying the tax
- More Mercury
- More to sell
- Trucks present a...
- Going Canadian
- A Valiant effort
- Frontenac times two
- Two new Pontiacs
- The split
- Last gasp
- Quebec's sports car
- New Brunswick...
- Good money after bad
- Building global
- "Kind of" Canadian
Thousands and thousands of vehicles are built in Canada each year, however, all of the auto plants are owned by companies based in other countries. At one time, though, there were a number of Canada-specific cars, including some that weren’t made anywhere else in the world. Come along for some highlights of Canada’s automotive history.
As old as Canada, this steam-powered buggy was built in 1867 by Henry Seth Taylor, a Quebec watchmaker. It blew a steam hose on its first exhibition at a local fair, and even though it worked perfectly at other events in Canada and the U.S., Taylor couldn’t convince anyone that it was a viable means of transportation. Built without brakes, its life almost ended when it crashed on a downhill slope. Taylor gave up and stowed the pieces in a barn. It was found almost a century later when the property was sold, and was restored in 1969 using the only known photo of it. It now resides in the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
It’s believed the first Canadian to have a car built was Frederick B. Featherstonhaugh, a well-to-do patent attorney. That vehicle is also thought to be Canada’s first electric car. It was built in 1893 in Toronto, with motor and batteries produced by electrician William Still in a body made by a local carriage company. Featherstonhaugh used it for some 15 years, and it’s shown here alongside a more “modern” electric car in 1912. No one’s quite sure what happened to it as the years went on.
Once automakers started opening factories south of the border, it didn’t take them long to come into Canada, either selling them through sales agents, or by building cars here. Ford of Canada built its first car in 1904, a year after Henry started his successful venture in Michigan. This 1912 show in Toronto included manufacturers such as Ford, Reo, Packard, and Detroit Electric, all of them U.S.-based. Those American ties would also result in some uniquely Canadian automobiles.
Just as it is today, it was extremely time-consuming and very expensive to engineer and build a vehicle from scratch. Some auto companies used components from U.S. manufacturers, or in many cases, built a copy of the car under license, adding unique trim and a different name. That was the case with the Tudhope, built in Orillia, Ontario from 1908 to 1913 and based on the Indiana-sourced McIntyre.
While a number of Canadian companies relied on U.S. companies, it was a risky business. A huge number of automakers started up in the car’s early days, but only a select few became successful, and many Canadian companies had to close when their American suppliers failed. That was the case with Gray-Dort, built in Chatham, Ontario and one of the biggest sellers in Canada in its day. Founded in 1915, Gray-Dort folded a decade later when the Flint, Michigan-based Dort ceased production in 1924.
A few Canadian cars were completely home-grown, including the Toronto-built Russell, which lasted from 1905 to 1916. Its history traces back to bicycle maker CCM, the Canada Cycle & Motor Company, founded in 1899. CCM made some motorized bicycles and then copies of the U.S.-based, steam-powered Locomobile. It also made an electric car, the Ivanhoe, designed in-house and built for two years before the company created the gasoline-powered Russell. Eventually the firm’s automotive venture ran into financial problems and was purchased by American automaker Willys-Overland.
Along with gasoline- and battery-powered cars, steam held promise in the early years. In 1920, a banker named Oland Brooks moved to Toronto from Buffalo, New York to start a mortgage company. From there he got into cars, and created a company in Stratford, Ontario to build the Brooks Steamer. It was also sold in the U.S. where, for a while, it was second in sales only to the more famous Stanley Steamer. Brooks also ran taxi fleets of them in Stratford and Toronto. Steam cars were costly and complicated though, and the company couldn’t turn a profit on them, folding in 1929.
There were a few short-lived models from across Canada, including the McKay of Nova Scotia; New Brunswick’s Maritime; the Standard, built in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; and Quebec’s Bourassa, Ledoux, and Oxford. But possibly because of its proximity to Detroit, Ontario became Canada’s main auto manufacturing hub. That included cars like the Galt, shown here, an unusual early hybrid that used its gasoline engine as a generator to power the car’s electric motor, a setup similar to today’s Chevrolet Volt. Only two were made, starting in 1911, and one still exists today.
But let’s backtrack to 1908 and the founding of Canada’s biggest success story, the McLaughlin of Oshawa, Ontario. The McLaughlin Carriage Company was already the country’s top producer of horse-drawn vehicles when Sam McLaughlin, son of the founder, decided to make a car. As many Canadian companies did, he approached U.S. automakers for their products, and almost made a deal with Buick. When that fell apart, Sam hired an engineer to produce an original prototype for production. (Pictured is the company’s very first car, a McLaughlin Model F that cost $1,400.)
Just before production began, however, McLaughlin’s engineer fell ill, and Sam abandoned the car. The official story was that it couldn’t be done without the engineer, but it’s just as likely that Sam saw how many upstart firms quickly went under and feared failure if he went out on his own. He inked a deal with Buick in 1908, and built versions that used either the McLaughlin, Buick, or McLaughlin-Buick name. With the company’s extensive carriage experience, the Canadian versions were generally better-built and more luxurious than those coming out of Michigan.
William Durant made Buick the cornerstone of his new General Motors in 1908, but he built the company too rapidly for his directors’ liking, and they turfed him. Working with race driver Louis Chevrolet to develop a new car in 1911, he eventually used this to leverage his way back to control of GM, which acquired Chevrolet in 1917. But Durant had also approached his friend Sam McLaughlin, who took on the new car and formed the Chevrolet Motor Company of Canada in 1915. Thus, Buicks and Chevrolets were built together by the same company in Canada, two years before they were built side by side in the U.S.
GM in the U.S. owned a minority share of McLaughlin. Sam McLaughlin had no sons to carry on his firm, and with so many smaller Canadian automakers failing around him, he sold the rest of his holdings to the U.S. giant in 1918. McLaughlin’s company was now General Motors of Canada. Over the next two decades, it would build all of GM’s American models: Oldsmobile, Oakland and its “sister car” Pontiac, Buick and its sister Marquette line, and Cadillac and LaSalle. But McLaughlin was used less and less on Buick, and when the plants reopened following the shutdown for the Second World War, the McLaughlin name didn’t return.
On both sides of the border, very few of the very small, independent automakers survived the Depression. The larger companies did, but they faced another issue: taxation. To protect its manufacturing base and prevent American firms from dumping cars across the border, Canada levied a 17.5 per cent tax on imported cars in 1936. As a result, the Detroit manufacturers made cars specifically for the Canadian market, most of which were just U.S. cars with trim changes and unique names. The Canadian-only Monarch, for example, was really just a version of Ford’s Mercury.
The Mercury was also transformed into the Meteor from 1949 until 1961, and then again from 1964 to 1981. In addition to the unique brand name, Mercury also sported such all-Canadian trim levels as the Rideau, Montcalm, and LeMoyne. But while Monarch and Meteor helped Ford get around the import tariffs, they also played a unique role in Canada’s dealer network.
The Detroit automakers’ dealer networks were set up differently here than they were in the U.S., with each manufacturer’s brands divided between dealers. Mercury, which debuted in the U.S. in 1939, was sold alongside Lincoln, and these brands were not part of a Ford dealer’s inventory here. But Ford dealers didn’t have a premium nameplate on their lots, and Lincoln-Mercury dealers couldn’t offer anything below their higher-priced brands. So Monarch went to Ford dealers, where it was priced higher, while Meteor went to Lincoln-Mercury dealers, who offered it as their entry-level brand.
Canada’s dealer network split also presented a problem when it came to truck buyers, since dealers whose brands didn’t build a truck were left without work vehicles to sell. The solution was to take the company’s truck, switch some trim, and give it a new name. So Lincoln-Mercury-Meteor dealers got a Mercury-trimmed version of Ford’s pickup, while Plymouth-Chrysler dealers, who couldn’t get Dodge trucks, got a version called the Fargo. Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealers sold Chevy trucks, while Pontiac-Buick dealers got GMC trucks, but there was also a heavier-duty Chevy called the Maple Leaf that was sold in the 1930s and 1940s.
Among the Detroit automakers, nobody “did Canadian” like Chrysler, which formed the Chrysler Corporation of Canada in 1925, a year after the U.S. company was founded. The bargain-priced Plymouth was added in 1928 and given to Chrysler dealers, which left Dodge-DeSoto dealers without an entry-level model. So Chrysler created the lower-priced Dodge DM, which used a Dodge front end on a Plymouth body. Drivers dubbed it the “Plodge.”
Chrysler also mashed models together following the 1960 introduction of its compact Valiant. Ours was the same as the U.S. model, but in 1963, the Valiant became a smaller car, and was joined by the new, slightly longer Dodge Dart in American showrooms. Strangely, for Canada, Chrysler took the Dart’s longer body, hung the Valiant’s front sheet metal ahead of the windshield, and shoved the Valiant’s interior inside. It was sold as a Valiant and was the only model available here. Canadians couldn’t buy a Dodge Dart until 1967.
Two cars bore the Canadian historical figure’s name, some 29 years apart. Ousted for the final time from General Motors, William Durant built a car under his own name, both in the U.S. and in a plant in Toronto. That company, Durant Motors of Canada, became so successful that it broke away and became the independent Dominion Motors in 1931. It produced a luxurious version of the Durant, called the Frontenac, but succumbed to the Depression in 1933. And in 1960, for one year only, Ford trimmed its all-new Falcon with maple leaves and the Frontenac name for its Canadian Mercury dealers to sell.
Of all GM brands, Pontiac was the most likely to be specialized for the Canadian market, with full-sized U.S. models trimmed specifically for us and given such names as Parisienne and Laurentian. In 1962, Chevrolet introduced its compact Chevy II to compete with Ford’s Falcon. Canadian Chevrolet dealers sold the Chevy II, but Pontiac dealers got a specially-trimmed version called the Acadian. The two initial trim lines were the Beaumont and Invader, joined a year later by the Acadian Canso. The Acadian name proved popular and was last used in 1987 on Pontiac’s version of the Chevy Chevette.
In 1964, Chevrolet introduced the new Chevelle, and it was time for Pontiac to split its lines. The Acadian name remained on cars based on the Chevy II, but the new Chevelle-based versions were badged as Beaumont. The new car proved to be very popular, and there are stories that some Americans purchased the better-looking Beaumont grille to replace the ones in their Chevelles. But time was running out for most of the Canadian-only cars. In 1965, Canada and the U.S. signed the Auto Pact, which let manufacturers send new cars and parts across the border duty-free. There wasn’t much reason to make the Canadian-only cars anymore, so, they were gradually discontinued.
The 1960s also marked the winding-down of the few remaining independent automakers still around. One of these was Studebaker, based in South Bend, Indiana, and which closed its doors in 1964. Its plant in Hamilton, Ontario was still active though and continued to produce cars that were sold in both countries. The Canadian subsidiary did what it could to stay afloat, including importing duty-free cars from Germany on behalf of Volkswagen of Canada, and trying to set up similar deals with Datsun and Toyota, but it wasn’t enough. The Studebaker Corporation of Canada folded in 1966.
From 1969 to 1971, Quebec produced the Manic, a rear-engine fiberglass car with Renault mechanicals. It was the brainchild of Jacques About, Renault’s public relations rep for Canada. He thought the Renault Alpine would be a good fit for Canada, but when the company disagreed, he decided to build his own two-seater. The Manic was a great performer, and at $3,400, it was a contender with Camaro and Mustang. About couldn’t secure a steady enough supply of parts from Renault to make his operations viable though.
And then there’s the 1974-1975 Bricklin, named for Malcolm Bricklin, the American investor who convinced the New Brunswick government that he could build a sports car there. A factory in Minto would make the car’s unusual colour-impregnated plastic panels, shipping them to Saint John for the car’s assembly. But the gull-wing cars were a headache right from the start. Only about half of the innovative panels came out well enough to be used, there were problems getting the doors to work, and costs were mounting.
Canadians also couldn’t buy a Bricklin. Instead, Malcolm Bricklin sold them—for much less than they cost to build—to his American distribution company for sale in the U.S. Each time the production facilities floundered, he went to the New Brunswick government and begged for more funding. The province finally said “enough” after sinking some $23 million into the project. About 2,875 cars had been built when the venture closed.
Over the years, several global automakers have made their way to Canada, with varying success. In the earlier days, Packard, Willys, and Kaiser all made a few cars here. Volvo had two assembly facilities, starting in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1963, and a larger one in Halifax from 1967 to 1998. The plant reassembled knock-down models shipped from Sweden, including this 1980 DL wagon that Garry Sowerby and Ken Langley drove around the world. In 1989, Hyundai opened a $400 million plant in Bromont, Quebec to make the Sonata, but the car’s slow sales couldn’t support the operation, and production ended in 1993.
Chrysler, Ford and General Motors still operate plants in Canada, as they have since the 1920s. Canadian workers also build Honda and Toyota vehicles at plants in Ontario, along with Toyota’s alloy wheel manufacturing plant in British Columbia. But with all of them owned by companies based outside our borders, the truly Canadian car is now pretty much just a memory.