In 1963, with the help of a group of local auto enthusiasts, the Canadian Automotive Museum opened in Oshawa, Ontario. It’s had its share of ups and downs over the years, but it’s slowly undergoing a revitalization that could put it up among the most important museums in Canada.
Much is due to what’s inside: what could be the world’s most significant assortment of vehicles made only in Canada. And it’s the goal of new manager and curator Alex Gates to be sure everyone knows it.
Gates doesn’t have an automotive background but is trained in museum work, and he’s determined to transform it from a simple car collection into a significant museum. (Although Oshawa is headquarters for General Motors of Canada, it’s not affiliated with it.) There’s now grant money to improve the exhibits, add bilingual signage, update the building, maintain the cars, and offer tours to visitors.
And there’s a lot for the tour guides to explain. While all of the major auto manufacturers operating here today are foreign-owned, we used to have numerous companies that made cars in Canada for Canadians. The museum owns a considerable number of them, including a Nova Scotia-built McKay, steam-powered Brooks, Brockville-Atlas, Redpath, Gray-Dort (pictured below), Tudhope, a Manic from Quebec, and a recent addition, a 1909 Kennedy built in Preston, Ontario.
One of the museum’s rarest and the sole survivor of two built, an Ontario-built 1914 Galt, isn’t here right now. The Galt had a gasoline engine that worked as a generator to run the car’s electric motor—in effect, it was an extended-range car built almost a century before the Chevrolet Volt. The car is currently at the prestigious Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles as part of a special exhibit on hybrids. Gates hopes the loan will raise the Canadian museum’s profile, and open the possibility of vehicles being lent to it from other collections.
Not that such a thing is always easy. There’s a lot of paperwork when a car crosses the border, and as one of only two prototypes ever produced, nothing in its history showed that the Galt was ever registered. “I had to spend three hours at (the license bureau) trying to explain this,” Gates says.
There are some 75 cars on display, and while their automotive stats are well known, what’s turning Gates’ crank is their personal history. “Provenance is becoming very important to museums, to know the chain of who owned it,” he says, adding that in the case of cars, it can help to determine what’s original on a vehicle and what had been done in previous restorations.
He points to a 1935 Rolls-Royce, part of a large donation in 1995 from the estate of Canadian business magnate John “Bud” McDougald. “It was originally owned by J.P. Bickell, who has his name on the Stanley Cup seven times,” Gates says. “He was president of the Toronto Maple Leafs back in the 1930s and was instrumental in building Maple Leaf Gardens.”
“We found that out through the Rolls-Royce foundation archives, and I’ve been in touch with a relative of Bickell who has come up with family photos. Mr. Bickell had this type of money and was getting new Rolls-Royces on a regular basis. It’s a tiny glimpse into someone’s life that’s more exciting than mine.”
One of the exhibits highlights is a Rolls-Royce that belonged to Lady Eaton, of department store fame. “You don’t just see this as a Rolls-Royce, you think of it as Lady Eaton’s Rolls-Royce, and then you think of Eaton’s, where the money came from, what their lives were like,” Gates says.
“It’s a 1912, the same year the Titanic sank. My family was still walking or had a horse, while someone else was driving that vehicle. That’s the type of great story our guides bring out.”
Gates also points to premium foreign marques in the museum, including Bugatti, Isotta-Fraschini and Hispano-Suiza, their spots indirectly tied in to Canada’s auto industry. “The wealthy families all had this idea of being a proper British aristocrat living in Canada, they all sought royal titles, they all wanted to be ‘sir’ and ‘lady,’” he says.
But they were limited if they wanted something other than Rolls-Royce, since Canada protected its auto manufacturing with high tariffs on U.S. cars that, in turn, were seldom sold north of the border. While wealthy Americans might opt for a Duesenberg or Peerless, Canada’s elite couldn’t always get them, and so opted for the best Europe had to offer. “I correspond with European museums on these,” Gates says. “You seldom see these in American museums.”
In addition to the cars, Gates is also revitalizing the museum’s library, which contains more than 16,000 magazines, books, repair manuals and brochures, some as old as 1910. Working with librarians, he’s weeding out duplicates and cataloguing the collection. In future, it’s possible that enthusiasts may be able to borrow or view items from the museum through the public library system.
It’s going to be a slow process, but Gates has impressive plans for the museum, and it looks like he can carry them through. “There aren’t many auto museums in Canada, and we have an unprecedented collection here,” he says. “We have the collection to put the Canadian car in focus and tell that story.”
The Canadian Automotive Museum is at 99 Simcoe Street South, Oshawa, Ontario. Tours are included in the entry fee and are available daily in summer; call for winter hours and for information on special events.