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Canada’s auto pioneers

Published November 15, 2012

Back in 1867, a Quebec watchmaker named Henry Seth Taylor unveiled a creation he’d been working on for two years: a steam-powered buggy.

It broke down on its first outing, and Taylor could never interest anyone in buying it, but that vehicle could be considered the first step in the history of Canada’s automotive industry.

Most historians agree that the first gasoline-powered car was a three-wheeled wagon built in Germany by Karl Benz in 1886. Early in the 20th century, hundreds of small companies popped up to build their versions of a horseless carriage. Most were underfunded and built only a handful before closing, but a few went on to success, both in the U.S. and Canada.

Some Canadian companies made cars of their own design, including Toronto’s Canadian Motor Syndicate, the first to build cars commercially in this country when it produced an electric delivery vehicle in 1898.

Some cribbed off others: The LeRoy, built in Kitchener, Ont., came about when its founders bought a used Oldsmobile, took it apart, and copied it. LeRoy built about 25 cars before it closed in 1904, effectively making it Canada’s first mass-production automaker.

But since the U.S. auto industry was more firmly established, the most cost-effective method for Canadians was to build cars using American components, or produce versions of U.S. models under license, taking advantage of the development and tooling already in place.

Carriage company Tudhope, of Orillia, Ont., did this, building the Indiana-based McIntyre and then the Detroit-based Everitt. McKay did the same, turning out a version of Pittsburgh’s Penn automobile in Kentville, N.S. But building cars this way was a gamble, because if the American company closed (and the failure rate was high), the Canadian version usually did, too.

Sam McLaughlin of Oshawa, Ont., planned to build an original model, but ended up partnering with Buick. (The official story is that the chief engineer fell ill just before production and nothing could proceed without him, but it’s far more likely McLaughlin knew the failure rate for all-new cars and decided to go with an established design.) The most successful of Canada’s independent companies, McLaughlin eventually became General Motors of Canada.

Ford came to Canada in 1904, a year after it was founded in the U.S., when wagon-builder Gordon McGregor acquired the rights to build Fords here and sell them throughout the British Empire, in exchange for 51 per cent of his company.

Chrysler started building cars in Canada in 1925, a year after the first Chrysler-badged car was introduced in Michigan.

The Depression knocked out many small carmakers south of the border and, by the end of World War II, only a few independent companies stood alongside the Big Three of Chrysler, Ford and GM. One of the last, Studebaker, built cars at its plant in Hamilton, Ont., for two years following the collapse of its Indiana-based parent in 1964.

There was an unusual side to Canadian production. Stiff import duties established in 1936 prevented U.S. automakers from dumping here, so they built “Canadian” cars that were uniquely trimmed versions of American models, or hybrids of various chassis and engines.

These included Pontiac’s Acadian and Beaumont, based on Chevrolet’s compact Chevy II and Chevelle, and its full-size Parisienne and Laurentian lines; the Monarch and Meteor, based on Mercury; and, perhaps strangest of all, Plymouths with as many Dodge body parts as could be reasonably bolted on to match, nicknamed “Plodges” by drivers.

There were also trucks created for Canada’s dealer network, where the division of brands left some without commercial vehicles: the Dodge-based Fargo, a Ford-based Mercury pickup, and a Chevrolet line called the Maple Leaf.

Most “Canadian” models ended with the signing of the duty-free Auto Pact in 1965. But one car went the other way: In 1974, New Brunswick began building the Bricklin, which its U.S. founder sold only in the States. Everything that could go wrong did, and it cost provincial taxpayers $23 million.

The Japanese arrived in the 1980s: Honda opened its plant in Alliston, Ont., in 1986. Toyota began making wheels in British Columbia in 1983, and opened its Cambridge, Ont., factory in 1988.

Could we ever have a homegrown auto industry again?

Given that the first wave of independent automakers failed, and the massive economy of scale needed for success today, it’s highly unlikely. But from Henry Taylor’s first steam-powered buggy, it’s been quite a ride.

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