Auto show history, from horses to Hitler

  • Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background

When the first auto shows were held in Toronto, most people arrived in horse-drawn carriages. For many, their first encounter with a car was at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1897.

Five years later, the CNE introduced a Transportation Building, where cars were displayed alongside streetcars, railway exhibits and carriages. Brands on display included Thomas, Autocar, Stevens-Duryea, Packard and Peerless.

A new building went up in 1909 to replace the old one, destroyed by fire, but by 1911, everything on display was self-propelled: the horseless carriage had replaced the horse. The display was named the National Motor Show in 1916 and, before long, was bursting at the seams. The answer was a new Automotive Building, constructed in 1929.

Since the CNE was in late summer, before most of next year’s new models were available, auto shows were also held at the Toronto Armouries. Similar in concept to today’s Canadian International Auto Show (CIAS), these gave people a chance to see what was coming for the next model year.

Before television and the Internet, many Ex visitors were seeing things for the first time, and the contents of the Automotive Building were no exception. Over the years, the show presented a “first look” at Volkswagen and Porsche, at Sir Malcolm Campbell’s record-setting Bluebird, the half-car/half-boat Amphicar, and a gold-trimmed 1950 Chevrolet valued at more than $30,000.

The Grandstand was also the place to be for automotive fans, with such features as racing, “auto polo,” and daredevil drivers who flew off ramps, drove on two wheels and even smashed into each other. Perhaps the best-known were the Hell Drivers, who performed from 1948 until 1972.

An antique car rally was first held in 1953, winding its way through the fair. Classic cars would continue to draw crowds over the years, including cars used for Royal Family visits in 1939 and 1959, and, in 1947, Hitler’s armoured limousine.

The National Motor Show ended in 1967 and, for a while, Toronto had no auto show at all. It was up to TADA, the Toronto Automobile Dealers Association, to set the stage for a comeback in 1974. The new venue was the International Centre in Mississauga, which hosted the show until 1985.

“In 1986, the show moved downtown to the brand new Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s north building,” recalls Tom Tonks, general manager of the CIAS. “That’s all that was on the site at the time. It moved because it was a better location in the downtown core and, even though the International Centre advertised free parking, there was more parking downtown than there was out there. There was a huge lot that is now the CBC building across the road, and that was all parking.

“To the south there was nothing, because Bremner didn’t exist, and the Rogers Centre didn’t exist. But the most important thing was that there was Union Station, the GO train and the TTC subways, as well as all that parking. Public transit to the International Centre is difficult.”

The opening of the SkyDome and the Convention Centre’s south building allowed for expansion. From 1991 to 1998, the show used all three buildings, but scaled back in 1998 to the Convention Centre alone. When the show gained international status in 2001 and manufacturers wanted more space, the SkyDome/Rogers Centre returned until 2008.

In 1991, classic cars finally returned to the show. “There were 30 cars, locally sourced and done as a chronology of the automobile,” says Richard Pickering, who curated the show. “It started with a Model T, and included a Ferrari GTB/4 that had been built for Omar Sharif.”

The classics proved so popular that the display grew to 3,250 square metres the following year and featured six cars from the Indy 500 Museum, including A.J. Foyt’s winner from 1961. In 1993, the cars on display were worth $12 million, including two LeMans winners and a bevy of 1930s French cars.

“We were unloading a Talbot Lago worth about $1.5 million late at night, and a tie-down buckle caught it and scratched the fender,” Pickering recalls. “I called RM Restorations, and they came and got it, laser-matched the colour, fixed it, and brought it back two hours before VIP night opened.”

Classic cars are still on display at the CIAS, including the Cruise Nationals, which began in 2004 to showcase cars that owners regularly drive and, in some cases, build in their garages.

It’s all part of the celebration of the automobile, and one that, in one form or another, Torontonians have enjoyed for more than a century.

  • Auto show history, from horses to Hitler
  • Auto show history, from horses to Hitler
  • Auto show history, from horses to Hitler

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