1893 Featherstonhaugh
1893 Featherstonhaugh. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance; photo courtesy the City of Toronto archives

In 1893, a scant seven years after the patenting of the world’s first practical gasoline driven car by Germany’s Karl Benz, Ontario’s capital city produced its first motor vehicle. Toronto’s original car came about through the collaboration of an innovative engineer, a visionary lawyer and the fine craftsmanship of a local carriage builder.

Frederick Featherstonhaugh was a successful patent attorney practising in Toronto. He lived west of Toronto in Mimico and was futuristic enough and prosperous enough to have one of the first electrified homes in the Toronto area. Electricity was gaining importance in rail transportation too; the first electric railway had started operation in Toronto in 1883 with the extension of the King Street line out to Strachan Avenue and then south into the Exhibition grounds.

One of Featherstonhaugh’s professional clients was an English-born practical engineer by the name of William Still. Still had developed a lighter, more efficient storage battery, and he came to Featherstonhaugh to see about obtaining a patent on his battery. During the course of their discussion it was discovered that both men had an interest in the emerging motor car. Still had been working on the idea for several years, and Featherstonhaugh was keen on owning a horseless carriage.

Featherstonhaugh was an exacting person and set down stringent requirements for the self propelled vehicle he wanted to drive. Although steam power was at its peak, he didn’t want anything to do with the nuisance or possible danger of a steam engine. Likewise, he was not prepared to put up with the noise and cantankerous nature of a gasoline powered car. He simply wanted to step aboard and whisk elegantly away without heat, smell, noise or vibration.

Electric power was the answer and this complemented Still’s thinking perfectly because he has a keen electricity enthusiast. It wasn’t long before an agreement was struck and Still was engaged to design an electric powertrain, including batteries and motor, for a vehicle to meet Featherstonhaugh’s standards.

Once the engineering was completed the search for a company to build their new machine brought them to John Dixon’s carriage works at the corner of Bay and Temperance Streets in Toronto. Dixon had a reputation for high quality products so the lawyer commissioned him to produce a vehicle that would accept Still’s electric drive system.

The confidence in Dixon was not misplaced and the vehicle he produced was a handsome little two-passenger runabout. It weighed some 318 kg (700 lb), rode on stylish wire-spoke wheels and pneumatic tires, and even had a folding top and electric lights, rarities for the time. The “throttle” was integrated into the steering tiller. As the carriage was not fitted with individual steering knuckles at each wheel, the tiller rotated the whole front axle buggy-like around its mid-point.

A chain took power to the rear differential, and braking was by a foot-operated drum brake on the differential. The four horsepower electric motor was able to push the car to 24 km/h (15 mph), and drive it for up to an hour before the batteries required recharging, which Featherstonhaugh did by plugging into the inter-urban railway power grid.

Featherstonhaugh was very pleased with his car, the first electric made in Canada. It was so successful that it inspired a group of Toronto businessmen to form the Canadian Motor Syndicate, Canada’s original commercial automobile enterprise. William Still was its engineer, and his inventions, to which CMS had the rights, were the foundation of the company.

By 1898 CMS was able to show three vehicles, including the Featherstonhaugh car, at the Canadian National Exhibition. This was not the first appearance of the Featherstonhaugh vehicle at the CNE; it had been on display there in 1893 when it had driven local officials around a track.

Featherstonhaugh drove his electric car for some 15 years. Over that time it got some modifications for more convenience and safety. A glass “windshield” was installed in the front dashboard for increased visibility, mudguards were added to reduce spray in bad weather, and steering was much improved with a proper steering knuckle at each end of the axle.

The Canadian Motor Syndicate lasted only until 1899. Still then collaborated in another venture, the Still Motor Company, which built electrically powered three and four-wheeled passenger and commercial vehicles. It too was short-lived and was followed by Canadian Motors Limited which enjoyed some success selling electric vehicles, particularly the Oxford, in Canada and England.

By 1902 Canadian Motors Limited was out of business and its Yonge Street premises were taken over in 1903 by Canada Cycle and Motor Company who would build motor vehicles, including the Canadian designed Russell, but would become better known for CCM bicycles and ice skates.

Unfortunately, the Featherstonhaugh car did not survive, and has been lost to history. It would have been a wonderful example of ingenuity and futuristic thinking, and it did spawn some varied and interesting early Canadian automotive history.

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