In Search of the Canadian Car
In Search of the Canadian Car. Click image to enlarge
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By Chris Chase

Ottawa, Ontario – Can you name any Canadian automobile manufacturers? Don’t worry if you can’t – while there have been a number of them, including Henry Seth Taylor, Le Roy, McLaughlin, Russell, Manic and Bricklin, few achieved anything like mass-market success.

With Canada’s home-grown auto industry (at least in a mainstream sense) in the past, is there such a thing as a car that can be truly thought of as Canadian? The latest attempt to answer that question can be found at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

A new exhibit called “In Search of the Canadian Car”, which opened June 23, attempts to define what puts the Canuck in a car or truck. The exhibit looks at whether a vehicle built by an American-, European- or Asian-owned company can be considered Canadian, based on who designed it, how it’s marketed, where it was assembled or even if it is simply popular among Canadian drivers.

Curator Garth Wilson said the point of the exhibit is to “engage visitors, and allow them to form their own opinions on what makes a car Canadian. This exhibit deals with automobile culture, rather than the technology that makes the cars work.”

In Search of the Canadian Car
In Search of the Canadian Car. Click image to enlarge

He says that approach is part of a larger goal of the museum’s – to present technology in such a way that visitors can see how a device or invention has affected our culture and the way we live.

The exhibit features four sections, each of which looks at one of the four criteria by which a car might be defined as Canadian. One is design: Montreal’s Ralph Gilles led the design of the current versions of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Grand Caravan and Dodge Ram. Paul Deutschman, also of Montreal, is well-known for designing the Porsche Speedster concept, a number of Callaway vehicles and the Canadian-built T-Rex three-wheeled motorbike. This part of the exhibit includes an 1867 Henry Seth Taylor Steam Buggy, a 1903 Le Roy, a 1914 Russell Model 14-28, a 1927 McLaughlin Buick Model 28-496, 1971 Manic PAI and a 1975 Bricklin SV-1.

The display also looks at how vehicles are marketed in Canada, including vehicles that were developed specifically for our market. Ford’s Mercury Meteor line, sold from 1949 through 1976, was one such venture: while the cars were essentially re-badged Ford/Mercury models, they were unique to Canada and were offered in Canadian-themed trim packages, like Rideau and Montcalm. A modern example of this kind of Canada-specific marketing is the Acura CSX (nee 1.6/1.7 EL), a premium compact car based on the Honda Civic that’s only sold here. Two Meteor models – a 1961 and a 1973 – are on display.

In Search of the Canadian Car
In Search of the Canadian Car. Click image to enlarge

Next up are vehicles that are or were assembled in Canada. Two well-known examples on display are a 1984 Plymouth Voyager and a 1989 Toyota Corolla; Chrysler has built its minivans in Windsor, Ontario since their 1983 introduction, and Toyota has assembled Corollas (as well as a number of more recently introduced models) here since 1988. Also included is a 1989 Volvo 740; it and a number of other Volvo models were built in Halifax, Nova Scotia between 1963 and 1997.

Finally, the exhibit looks at cars that have no connection to Canada other than that they proved popular with Canadian consumers. Consider the Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle, two cars that helped put Canadians behind the wheel, and the Honda Civic, a small car that has topped Canadian vehicle sales since 1997.

The exhibit isn’t designed to provide definitive answers or teach visitors but, as curator Wilson explains, “to invite museum patrons to reflect on the subject. This is a display that we think will appeal both to automobile aficionados and people who simply have strong memories associated with cars that they or their families have owned.”

In Search of the Canadian Car
In Search of the Canadian Car. Click image to enlarge

“In Search of the Canadian Car” is a temporary installation, but will remain at the museum for five years. It also includes a rotating feature called “Just Around the Corner,” which showcases a vehicle that represents the social and technological future of the automobile. A new vehicle will be displayed here about every six months.

The exhibit features 14 cars from the Museum’s motor vehicle collection including those mentioned above. All are significant, but most are rare, and a treat to see up close. Even the newer models on display – Volvo 740, Toyota Corolla, Dodge Caravan and a first-generation Toyota Prius – are rare enough to find in such good condition.

Beyond the cars themselves, you can peruse a wide variety of advertisements, photos and drawings from the past. There are also interactive stations where you can listen to Canadian pop songs about cars, watch video interviews and look at detailed images of the cars on display on touch-screen consoles. Visitors are also invited to share their feelings on the definition of the Canadian car via computer terminals housed in giant “fins” at either end of the exhibit. There’s something for kids too, in the form of an “assembly plant” with a kid-sized car that can be customized with a variety of parts.

The Museum has set up a special web site where Canadians can download photos of what they think is the most Canadian car.

The Canada Science and Technology Museum is located at 1867 St. Laurent Blvd, in Ottawa. Admission (as of summer 2010) is $9 for adults, $6 for students and seniors and $4 for children aged four to 14. Children under four get in for free, and a family admission for two adults and three children is $20. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, including statutory holidays.

The exhibit was made possible in partnership with Toyota Canada which builds the Corolla, Matrix, RAV4 and Lexus RX in Canada.

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