The man who built the first Canadian car never got the appreciation he deserved.
In fact, the ‘Steam Buggy’ that watchmaker Henry Seth Taylor built in 1867 – two decades before Karl Benz invented his Patent Motor Car – seems to have been a bit of a local laughing stock in his home of Stanstead, Quebec.
“Despite being dismissed and ridiculed for riding around in what many considered ‘a large and useless toy,’ he toured country fairs in the Eastern Townships and New England, showing the carriage to a skeptical public,” according to research done by Sharon Babaian, the curator of marine and land transport at the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
The Seth Taylor Steam Buggy is on display now as part of an exhibit called In Search of the Canadian Car.
Just like we do it today — almost
Looking closely at the Buggy, it’s obviously a primitive machine, but the simplicity of the thing is brilliant.
It’s surprisingly car-like, really. It has four wheels – unlike Benz’s car, which had only three – made of wood, with what looks like a thin strip of metal bent around the edge in place of rubber tires. For power it has a two-cylinder boiler mounted behind the driver.
“Steam was generated in a vertical coal-fired boiler… The boiler was connected by rubber hoses to a six-gallon water tank located between the front wheels,” Mark Kearney and Randy Ray wrote in the book Whatever Happened To…?
There’s no steering wheel or pedals, just a series of levers. The one in front of the driver looks almost steering wheel-like, though — almost like a tiller.
“Forward and reverse movements were controlled by a lever, and a vertical crank connected to the wheels was used for steering,” Kearney and Ray write. It had a top speed of roughly 24 km/h.
I wonder if Seth Taylor would recognize a modern car as descended from his Steam Buggy? I imagine he probably would: four wheels with seats in the middle, steered via hand controls. The template is there, for sure.
Built with the help of a blacksmith
“Influenced, no doubt, by the rise of industry and railways in 19th century Canada, he seemed to be fascinated with things mechanical and constructed all kinds of devices for the sheer pleasure of building something new and innovative. His steam carriage was one of many machines he made in his spare time,” according to Babaian’s research.
“He designed and built the steam carriage between 1865 and 1867 with the help of a skilled blacksmith, Joseph Mosher, who forged some of the metal parts.”
A Montreal Gazette article from Jan 18, 1986 notes that, “Taylor demonstrated his steamer at the Stanstead Fair that year  and although it broke down in the middle of the demo run, it puffed around flawlessly at the fair the following year.”
How’d it get to the museum?
What remained of the Buggy was found in a barn in the early ’60s by a woman named Gertrude Sowden of Stanstead. She recognized the machine as something of value, but no museum would take it, Kearney and Ray write.
She sold it to an American collector, Richard Stewart, who restored it to running condition — with one minor change, which we’ll get to in a moment. In 1983 the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa purchased it, returning it to Canadian soil.
But why did Taylor ditch this incredible invention in a barn and leave it to rot? Did the ridicule of the townspeople finally get to him? It more likely had to do with the Buggy’s one rather serious design flaw.
The story goes that one day, Taylor was out for a drive, heading down a hill when he lost control. Seeing as the Buggy had no brakes, Taylor was lucky to escape the incident. The Buggy ended up on its side with its wheels smashed. When Stewart restored the Buggy, brakes were the one thing he added.
In their book, Kearney and Ray quote Garth Wilson, then curator of transportation at the Sci-Tech Museum, as saying, “Looking at the vehicle, one sees the origins of the automobile, even though it predates the blossoming of the auto industry by forty years. It is absolutely significant in that it is the first Canadian-made auto and, as such, represents Canada’s entry into the world of autmobiles.”
Many thanks to Sharon Babaian and Olivier Bouffard at the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
Canadians were quick to hop on the self-propelled wagon by Len Coates in the Montreal Gazette, Jan. 18, 1986.
Whatever Happened To…? Catching up with Canadian icons by Mark Kearney and Randy Ray, Dundurn, 2006.