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REMEMBER THIS: Canadians were quick to jump on horseless carriage trend

In this week’s column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the many ‘firsts’ in Canadian auto history

The first part of this series can be read here.

In the second instalment of the history of the car in Canada series, I will continue my examination of the birth of the automobile in Canada with a chronological examination of the industry’s growth domestically.

July 1, 2024, marked the 157th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, and I bet you didn’t know the history of cars in Canada goes back even earlier.

In 1866, we saw the first car to appear in Canada when a Catholic priest attended a picnic in Charlottetown, P.E.I., driving a steam-powered buggy he purchased in New Jersey. Ironically, P.E.I. banned cars in 1908 for more than a decade.

In 1867, Quebec watchmaker Henry Seth Taylor, built a steam buggy that might qualify as the first Canadian-built car. He subsequently crashed it as it was brakeless. He stashed it away in a barn, only for it to be rediscovered a century later.

In 1893, Toronto lawyer Frederick Fetherstonhaugh commissioned a local company to create an electric buggy, becoming the first Canadian to have a car built for himself.

George Foote Foss, of Sherbrooke, Que., built Canada’s first gasoline-powered automobile in 1897. The Fossmobile was capable of speeds up to 24 km/h courtesy of a four-horsepower engine. It featured a front-mounted engine and the rear wheels were powered by a chain. Foss turned down the opportunity to partner with Ford, and the Fossmobile was eventually sold in 1902 for $75.

In 1898, Toronto’s Canadian Motor Syndicate began building and selling electric cars.

The City of Edmonton demanded all cars be registered, and Joseph Morris got the city’s first licence for his 1903 Ford Model A. Drivers placed their own numbers on their cars. Nine years later, Morris obtained Alberta’s first provincially made plate.

In 1904, Ford of Canada built its first car, a year after Henry Ford had established Ford south of the border. Windsor-area wagon builder Gordon McGregor, seeing promise in Ford’s horseless carriage, exchanged half his company in return for the licence to build the cars in Canada, selling them throughout the British Empire. Canada built its one millionth Ford in 1931.

Montreal issued the first vehicle licences, charging motorists $10.

Vancouver became the first Canadian city to buy a fire truck in 1907, but citing the unreliability of early vehicles, they kept their horses for another 10 years.

Canada’s first gas station opened in 1907, perhaps the world’s first, Imperial Oil in Vancouver. Until then, motorists usually bought their fuel at pharmacies or hardware stores.

In 1908, McLaughlin-Buick and the Russell Car Company got into an advertising war over who made the better car. McLaughlin eventually became General Motors of Canada, and the Russell company closed.

Bell Canada purchased its first motorized vehicle, an Ontario-built Tudhope, on April 11, 1909. Part of the process of selling a car back then was to first teach them how to drive it.

In 1911, the T. Eaton department store started to sell cars through its catalogues, until it discovered the reliability of the early cars did not fit in with its ‘goods satisfactory or money refunded’ policy very well.

The first attempt to drive from Halifax to Vancouver took place in 1912, faced with the reality there were few roads. There was lobbying for a Trans-Canada Highway, but it was not until 1962 that the highway officially opened, and it was completed in 1970.

In 1913, the first auto show took place in Toronto’s Transportation Building. The show featured Canadian manufacturers such as McLaughlin-Buick, Galt, and Russell, along with such American ones including Overland, Locomobile, Cadillac, and electric car builder Rauch & Lang.

The Model T’s drive levers made it difficult to enter on the driver’s side, so Ford’s U.S. plants decided to save some money by not putting a door there. However, since some of Canada’s production was earmarked for Commonwealth countries that needed right-hand drive, Canadian-produced cars got two doors — a handy way to spot a Canadian-built Model T at car shows today.

By 1918, Canada’s auto industry was the world’s second largest, after the United States, and it remained as such until 1923. In 1922, Manitoba introduced the country’s first gasoline tax, adding two cents to each gallon.

Chrysler built its first car in Canada in 1925, having grown out of two U.S. automakers, the Maxwell and the Chalmers, already having factories in Ontario.

In 1928, Prince Edward Island placed a slogan on its licence plates: “Seed Potatoes and Foxes.”

By 1930, the average cost of a new car in Canada was $600. However, the average worker only made $1,000 a year.

Ontario opened the Queen Elizabeth Way, the first four-lane highway in Canada, in 1939. In 1941, the Northwest Territories mandated licence plates for vehicles. However, the famous polar bear-shaped plates didn’t come until 1970.

Canada’s first drive-in theatre opened in Stoney Creek in 1946. The car was becoming commonplace.

In 1948, the Canadian government decided to levy a hefty tax on all vehicle imports to protect its industry from dumping. U.S. automakers were taking their models, adding some special trim, and selling them as Canadian.

In 1949, Canada’s first self-serve gas station opened in Winnipeg. In 1952, Volkswagen of Canada arrived in Canada, three years ahead of its U.S. counterpart.

General Motors, Chrysler and Ford got their displays ready in the Automotive Building at the Canadian National Exhibition for the 1954 show.

Volvo opened an assembly facility in Dartmouth, N.S., in 1963, and a larger one in Halifax operated from 1967 to 1998.

The cash-strapped Studebaker closed its U.S. plant, transferring production to Hamilton. Canada became the only place Studebakers were made.

In 1964, Toyota announced it would come to Canada in 1965. Toyota made an agreement with Canadian Motor Industries to import its vehicles here with only 755 sold. This partnership led to Toyota Canada.

In 1965, Canada and the U.S. signed the auto pact, letting newly manufactured cars and parts cross the border without duty. The Canadian Beaumont, Meteor, and Fargo truck disappeared.

By 1966, Studebaker was considered a Canadian automaker and imported vehicles duty-free. Studebaker then signed a deal to buy VWs from Germany and sell them to Volkswagen Canada, cutting the duty levied. Studebaker closed in March.

By 1968, Canada’s auto exports had reached $2.6 billion, becoming Canada’s largest export industry. That same year, Mazda opened a distribution office in British Columbia.

Honda arrived in Canada in 1969, with motorcycles. The Civic arrived in 1973, and the Accord three years later.

In 1971, a Renault-powered fibreglass sports car called the Manic GT, with the ability to reach speeds of more than 200 km/h, and competitively priced, was built in Quebec. An unsteady supply of Renault components shut the plant in 1971 after only 160 were built.

Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe at Any Speed, prompted the U.S. and Canada to tighten vehicle standards, and the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Act was born.

Many of you will remember the Bricklin SV-1 gull-winged sports car, which New Brunswick funded in 1975. The experimental cars suffered production problems, and costs soared. Worse, Canadians could not buy them. Eventually, they were sold for less than they cost to build. New Brunswick shut them down after only 2,875 cars and a $23-million debt.

In 1976, the first Subaru vehicles went on sale through distributors. Subaru Canada was created in 1989, the same year after-market seatbelts appeared for cars not equipped.

That January, Ontario became the first province to require seatbelt use, followed by Quebec in August.

In 1977, Canada adopted the metric system, changing all its speed limit signs.

In 1981, the U.S. and Japan agreed to voluntarily limit their vehicle exports to Canada to protect the Canadian auto industry. This agreement led to both countries building factories here.

Hyundai entered the Canadian market in 1984 with the Pony, a noisy and underpowered entry, but it was cheap.

Unionized Canadian auto workers, worried about the direction their U.S. counterparts were headed, split away from the United Auto Workers and, the following year, they formed the Canadian Auto Workers.

Toyota began making wheels, its first Canadian operation in 1985. The wheels were then sent back to its plants in Japan.

In 1986, Honda rolled the Accord off its first Canadian assembly line in Alliston and built two more plants, in 1998 and 2008.

Chrysler bought American Motors in 1987, for its Jeep brand, and built a new AMC plant in Brampton. It was the only North American factory building the rear-wheel-drive Dodge Charger, Magnum and Challenger, and Chrysler 300.

The year 1988 brought the first Canadian-built Toyota, a four-door Corolla, built at the company’s new plant in Cambridge.

Hyundai opened a Sonata assembly plant in Bromont, Que., in 1989, but sales were bad and the plant closed in 1993.

NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, took effect Jan. 1, 1994, and the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact continued until 2001.

The evolution of Canada’s transportation system is closely linked to Canada’s love of the automobile. In 1997, the Confederation Bridge opened, joining Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick, and cars returned to P.E.I.

In 2002, GM closed its 36-year-old plant in Sainte-Thérèse, Que., which had built the Buick Skylark, Chevrolet Camaro, and Pontiac Firebird.

Toyota’s plant in Cambridge became the first factory outside of Japan to build Lexus vehicles when the first RX 300 rolled off the assembly line in September 2003.

After 30 years in Canada, including building vehicles in Ontario in conjunction with GM, Suzuki halted its car sales in 2014.

And there you have it, a chronological history of the auto industry in Canada. I leave the story in 2014 as I think most people remember the story from there.

I hope you have enjoyed these two columns on the history of cars in Canada and that we will see you back here next weekend.


The Awesome Automotive History of Canada |

Automobile – The Canadian Encyclopedia

Automotive industry in Canada – Wikipedia

Cars of National Pride

A Brief History of Auto Manufacturing in Canada

Canada and Formula One

Infographic by Valerie Mattocks. Images by Jil McIntosh; courtesy City of Toronto Archives

Articles by K.M. Ruppenthal, Laura Neilson Bonikowsky on the Canadian Encyclopedia

Made in Canada: A look at the long history of Canadian cars and the people who build them by Brendan McAller (Globe and Mail)

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town’s history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.

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