1867 Taylor Steam Buggy; photo courtesy Cars of Canada. Click image to enlarge
By Bill Vance
What is recognized as Canada’s first engine-powered road vehicle was built by Henry Seth Taylor in 1867, the year Canada became a nation. Although it appeared 19 years before Germany’s Karl Benz patented his gasoline-powered car in 1886, it was a steamer, and is thus not considered a genuine pioneer of the modern gasoline automobile.
Henry Taylor was born on April 9, 1831 near Stanstead Plain on the Vermont border in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. After serving his watchmaking apprenticeship in Boston, Taylor opened for business in Stanstead.
Possibly because of its proximity to New England where the earliest American cars were developed, the Eastern Townships became a Canadian pioneering area in self powered vehicles. In addition to Taylor, it yielded George Foote Foss, builder of Canada’s first gasoline-powered car in 1897, and Joseph Armand Bombardier of snowmobile fame.
Taylor was a meticulous craftsman and an inveterate tinkerer. Possibly through his exposure to American steam buggies or steam locomotives he became interested in building a steam powered vehicle. The basis for his “car,” which he started building in 1865 assisted by blacksmith Joseph Mosher, was a reinforced high-wheeled carriage.
They installed a horizontal, two-cylinder steam engine with a bore and stroke of 89 by 254 mm (3.5 X 10 in.) mounted amidships under the floor. The long connecting rods extended back and attached directly to the rear axle which therefore acted as the engine’s crankshaft.
Steam was generated in a coal-fired vertical boiler mounted at the rear of the vehicle behind the seat. It was connected by rubber hoses to a 27-litre water tank between the front wheels.
Forward and reverse movements were controlled by a lever, and the car was steered by a tiller operating on a form of rack-and-pinion steering gear. A ratchet mechanism on the rear axle provided differential action. It was quite a complete little vehicle, except that it had no brakes; Henry apparently thought he wouldn’t be travelling fast enough to require them.
The Taylor’s public debut unfortunately turned out to be somewhat of a debacle. He drove it onto the exhibition field at the 1867 Stanstead Fall Fair, only to have a steam hose rupture and envelope Henry and his car in steam. Taylor had to unceremoniously push his little 227-kg 9,500 lb) buggy off the field while suffering the hoots and catcalls of the audience. The Stanstead News wrote that “This… breaking down of the car, were contretemps detracting somewhat from the interest of the occasion.”
Henry was disappointed but not deterred. He continued to work on and drive his little steam buggy and exhibited it at several Eastern Townships and New England fairs. He even ventured as far as the St. Johnsbury, Vermont fair, a distance of 80 kilometres, where, according to his grandson, “it scared all the horses and the ladies.”
Alas, Henry was too far ahead of his time and there was little enthusiasm for his invention among fellow citizens. Despite apathy and occasional ridicule, he drove it well into the 1870s. It was widely reported that once when he had misjudged his speed on a hill the buggy went out of control and Henry had to jump clear and let it crash. Whether true or not, Taylor eventually stored it in a loft and seemed to lose interest.
Taylor later removed the steam engine and installed it in a launch called the Gracie, said to be the first steam powered boat to ply the waters of Lake Memphremagog.
Mr. Taylor died on January 7, 1887. He had never bothered to patent his steam buggy, and its remains lay dormant in a loft for over 70 years, fortunately escaping war-time scrap iron collections. It came into the hands of Taylor’s grandson, H.A. Taylor, in 1948.
The property, including the buggy, was sold to a Mrs. Gertrude Snowden of Stanstead in 1960, who recognized that she had something of value. She offered it to several museums who showed little interest. It was eventually sold to an American named Richard M. Stewart, president of Anaconda American Brass in Connecticut. His interest was piqued by the brass content in the engine. He restored the buggy, based on photos and the original metal parts, bringing it back to original condition with the exception of a different boiler and the addition of brakes.
The brass cylinders and many of the engine parts were still usable. Restoration consisted of fitting new wheels, a boiler and the leather and wood body parts. Mr. Stewart drove it on several occasions, usually using compressed air for short trips and steaming up for longer ones.
In 1969, Mr. Stewart allowed it to be displayed in Toronto’s Ontario Science Centre for several years. The Taylor steam buggy eventually came back to Canadian ownership when it was purchased by the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa in 1983.