A visit to the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, Ont., reveals a little-known chapter in Canada’s car history
The world’s most significant collection of Canadian built cars is housed in a 1920s former car dealership building in Oshawa, Ont. The Canadian Automotive Museum, which first opened in 1963, emphasizes cars built in various places in Canada.
The first car to be designed and constructed in Canada was the Henry Seth Taylor Steam Buggy. Taylor was a jeweler and clockmaker in Quebec and designed and built many of the working parts himself. The buggy was unveiled at the Stanstead Fall Fair in 1867.
Walter Redpath is credited with inventing Canada’s first motorized car. The 1903 Redpath Messenger is the oldest Canadian car at the Canadian Automotive Museum.
Redpath left the family farm in 1903 and founded the Redpath Motor Vehicle Company in Kitchener, Ont. It was a barebones vehicle with no windshield, roof, or doors. It had a wooden carriage body and a single row of seats. The folding steering wheel, also known as the “fat man’s wheel,” made it easier to get into the driver’s seat. It was powered by an air-cooled single cylinder engine with a two-speed transmission. It weighed about 650 pounds and sold for between $600 and $700. With a top speed of 16 km-h, it was quite the way to get around in those days.
In 1904, the Ford Motor Company of Canada was established in Windsor, Ont., along with Chrysler Corp., to be close to their American counterparts in Michigan.
The McLaughlin Motor Car Company, headed by R.S. McLaughlin, was established in Oshawa in 1907. It previously had been a carriage company and later merged with the Chevrolet Car Company of Canada to become General Motors of Canada.
Many Canadian rural towns had carriage and later car manufacturing companies in the early days. These companies produced “horseless carriages,” a carriage with an engine. Since they were part of the British Empire, they were allowed to export vehicles to all countries within the empire at a lower tariff rate.
The 1910 McKay roadster was produced by the Nova Scotia Carriage and Motor Car Company in Kentville, N.S.
Produced in Galt, Ont., the 1914 Galt gas and electric car was one of the earliest gas electric hybrids. Its 10-horsepower, two-cylinder gas engine was coupled to a 40-volt, 90-amp generator from Westinghouse. The Galt was built in the former town of Galt, now part of Cambridge.
In Stratford, Ont., the Brooks Steam Motors Company built the 1925 Brooks Steamer sedan with a German boiler. It required up to 26 steps to start and was hard to steam up in the harsh, cold Canadian winters. The high price tag of $3,885 was another deterrent. Only 180 were produced before the company went into receivership in 1929.
Elsewhere, in the mid 1920s, Regina was noted as “Western Canada’s motor city”. The car sales business was good in Saskatchewan and sales of GM products were high. Saskatchewan had the highest vehicle ownership rate in Canada.
It was decided to build a car manufacturing plant in Regina because it was centrally located to the western Canadian market and farmers were available to work in the plant during winter.
On June 1, 1928, General Motors president Sam McLaughlin travelled from Oshawa to announce the deal to build a car plant in Regina. The plant was expected to produce about 30,000 vehicles a year and was the largest industrial plant at the time in Regina with 850 employees.
At the grand opening of the plant, more than 1,000 Regina residents turned out to see McLaughlin drive the first car off the assembly line. It was a six-cylinder Chevrolet. This new six-cylinder engine was a successful competitor to the Ford Model A, which only offered four-cylinder engines. The Oshawa and Regina plants both built these particular cars but the ones from Regina had wire spoke wheels, while the Ontario cars had disc ones. This first car was presented as a gift to the Regina Red Cross.
Later in the day, there was a parade through downtown Regina to celebrate.
However, the plant was opened for less than a year when the stock market crashed in October 1929. Car sales dropped off dramatically and by August 1930 production ceased.
In March 1931, the plant re-opened only to be shut down again a few months later. That also led to layoffs in related industries.
By December 1937 economic conditions had improved and GM decided to re-open the Regina plant. Priority was given to those who had been previously working at the plant but less than half the number were rehired.
In 1941, the plant was taken over by the federal government and re-named Regina Industries Ltd. It became the largest munitions plant in Saskatchewan, and at peak production in 1943, 1,596 men and women worked there.
After the war, there was hope the facility would be converted back to building automobiles. However, production techniques and distribution methods had changed since 1928 and it no longer made sense to build vehicles in Regina.
Today, in the front window of the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa sits the 1929 Chevrolet Six that was built in Regina. A lasting memory of times gone by.