The happy hybrid’s history
Back in the ’20s, few things put smiles on the faces of the children of Galt, Ontario like seeing Eddy Fleming and Moffat St. Clare’s gas-electric car.
The car, which the pair had built in 1914 and named after the town, wasn’t particularly eye-catching or anything—only its single ‘cyclops’ headlight set it apart looks-wise from contemporaries. And it wasn’t the Galt’s sound or speed (max 50 km/h [30 mph]) that excited the kids, either.
The Galt got them grinning because when the power went out at the silent movie theatre on Dixon Street, as it often did, the theatre owners would get Fleming or St. Clare to drive on over, swap a high-power bulb into the projector and then hook it up the hybrid car’s 40-volt Westinghouse generator. Voila! In minutes, the kids could watch their black-and-white cartoons flicker on that silver screen again.
Fleming and St. Clare based their Galt car company – the town, an hour west of Toronto, is now part of Cambridge – on the remains of Canadian Motors Limited, in 1909. Using that company’s old parts, they assembled and sold ten Galt cars so they could use the profits as seed money for their all-new gas-electric hybrid. That car used a gasoline-kerosene 800-rpm two-cycle two-cylinder to directly drive, _sans transmission, that aforementioned Westinghouse generator, which turned the wheels. Surplus power was stored in four batteries.
Galt turned out two demonstration vehicles, but couldn’t convince investors or buyers to give it a second look, leading the company into bankruptcy. One car was given to a company financier, who abused it so badly it was scrapped upon its return to the company. The other was retired in 1927, rebodied by a Galt engineer in ’41, after St. Clare had passed away, and eventually restored in 1946.
The 1914 Galt gas-electric hybrid at home in the Canadian Automotive Museum
“It’s very much like the hybrid cars of today, but without the sophistication. It’s really a very cool piece technically,” says Denis Bigioni, president of the Canadian Automotive Museum, where that sole surviving Galt gas-electric calls home. “It’s ironic that a hundred years later these are catching on.”
The fact hybrids are catching on gives the Galt an excuse to be paraded around a little. (The photo up top is of the Galt in the lobby of Toyota’s Cambridge assembly facility, where the automaker turns out its Galt-aping Lexus RX 450h hybrid.) But you’ll have to head to Oshawa, Ontario to see the rest of the cars in the museum’s collection and learn their stories.
Chronicling the Canadian car story
When you walk into the museum for the first time, you’re struck by the gorgeous pre-war European coaches on the ground floor—and how they seem out of place in the museum’s dark, wood-beam surroundings. I mean, it’s fitting, technically – the 25,000 square-foot building was originally the old Ontario Motor Sales dealership built in the 1920s – but you get the feeling cars like the ’35 Rolls-Royce or ’26 Isotta-Fraschini you’re looking at would never have been sold here new.
That disconnect fades gradually as you walk upstairs, duck underneath the propellers of an old Amphicar, and glimpse the slightly more familiar-looking Canadian-market ’50s and ’60s cars parked there. These are the cars that were on the streets when the museum was founded in 1963, classics from a period when automakers still used to market models with grilles, trim and fenders distinct from their U.S. cousins specifically to Canadians.
But the museum’s pre-war Canadian-built cars look even more at home in the building. The low-production vehicles from obscure makes like Tudhope-McIntyre and McKay and Rockville-Atlas—these are Bigioni’s favourites. “It was an era where the industry had no huge, dominant players, and guys could just have an idea [for a car] and try to capitalize on it,” he says.
They help the museum do what few others have even attempted: to tell the story of the Canadian car from the turn of the century to today.
From the 1909 Kennedy to the 1983 DeLorean – two of the most recent additions to the 65-car collection, both of them donations from museum patrons – the evolution of Canadian automotive technology is well-represented.
Bigioni, who became president this past spring after spending 15 years on the board of directors, is exactly the type of guy qualified to continue telling that story, too. His father was on the museum’s board of directors decades ago when he passed on his interest in classic cars – as well as his classic cars themselves – to his three sons. The family collection mirrors the museum’s in that it’s made up of cars from almost every decade – it’s bookended by a 1910 White and a 1972 Lancia Stratos – though the Bigionis tend to favour race cars a little more heavily. “Racecars tend to be the ultimate expression of the technology of the era, so in spite of the fact that they’re more difficult to use and aren’t exactly street-legal, we do see them as kind of the ultimate,” he explains.
Under Bigioni’s watch, the museum, which sees about 4,000 visitors annually, just hired a full-time manager-curator, the first of many changes he has planned. Another goal is to get the museum’s cars out there for people to see—no, literally out there.
A 1928 Isotta-Fraschini – not unlike the museum’s – took Best in Show at the Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance last year
Breaking out of the museum
Don’t go looking for the Galt gas-electric in Cambridge mid-September. It won’t be there, or in Oshawa. Instead, it’ll be at the second annual Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance on the shores of Georgian Bay. The concours – which made an absolutely incredible debut last year – will feature the car as part of its new museum class, a showcase of eight particularly rare and obscure vehicles from five museums from the U.S. and Canada.
“One of our special advisors, Michel Lamoureux from Montreal, he’s constantly going to different museums and taking note of the special cars in their collection. He approached me last year and said, ‘Hey, have you considered doing a museum class?’” explains Rob McLeese, chair and founder of the concours. “It’s kind of a neat thing, because the diversity of the vehicles coming out of these museums is quite broad. The beauty of this whole program is you get to show people things they won’t normally see.”
Among the other obscure cars in the museum class? A 1930 Cord L-29 from the AACA museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania; a 1906 Ford Model N from the Gilmore-CCCA museum in Michigan; and the first-ever Canadian car, the 1867 Henry Seth Taylor buggy from the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. They even roped the Detroit Historical Society into bringing the Mustang II concept of 1963, to help celebrate the pony car’s anniversary.
McLeese is particularly excited for the other car the Canadian Automotive Museum is bringing, a 1931 McLaughin-Buick Model 67 four-door sedan. McLeese and his father-in-law hand-picked that car during their visit to the Oshawa museum because his wife’s family are directly related to Sam McLaughlin, founder of General Motors of Canada (the company is now headquartered in Oshawa, by the way, near their assembly plant there). His father-in-law was actually a director of manufacturing with GM Canada. “He was five years old when that car first came out, and he grew up knowing that car,” says McLeese.
The Canadian Automotive Musuem’s 1931 McLaughin-Buick Model 67 four-door sedan
He’s also excited to have all of these museums come together for the show because of what it might inspire; the Gilmore museum in Michigan is already talking to the Canada Science and Technology Museum about future collaborations, and the Canadian Automotive Museum might get in on the action, too.
The 1914 Galt hybrid will, like most of the cars in the museum class, be treated as a static display, as opposed to the running-driving majority of show cars at the Cobble Beach concours. But we’re confident that, despite the fact it won’t be whirring around the field, or powering the projector at the movie theatre in town, it’ll still draw child-like grins from showgoers—just like it used to.
The Canadian Automotive Museum at 99 Simcoe Street South in Oshawa, Ontario is open 9:00am to 5:00pm Monday to Friday, and 10:00am to 6:00pm weekends; adult admission is $5.
The Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance takes place September 13 and 14 at 221 McLeese Drive in Kemble, Ontario; adult admission is $30 on tickets bought before September 2.