Story and photo by Bill Vance

1910 McLaughlin-Buick
1910 McLaughlin-Buick. Click image to enlarge

When Robert McLaughlin started a one-man construction operation in his shed near Oshawa, Ontario in 1867, he couldn’t have dreamed that he was planting the seeds of General Motors Corporation of Canada.

The business expanded into wagons and carriages, built a reputation for quality, and eventually became the British Empire’s largest carriage maker. Robert was joined in the enterprise by his teenage sons George and Samuel.

Although Robert wasn’t enthusiastic about the automobile business when cars came on the scene, he didn’t stand in the way of his son Samuel, who was. After trying to have their own car designed, which failed when their engineer became ill, Sam reviewed several makes of cars. He struck a deal with William Durant of Flint, Michigan, America’s largest carriage maker, whom Sam knew through that business.

Durant held controlling interest in the Buick Motor Company of Flint, and McLaughlin signed a 15-year contract to purchase Buick running gear. With McLaughlin’s expertise in building bodies, Sam knew he was in the car business. Shortly after signing the contract with McLaughlin, Durant formed the General Motors Co. in 1908 with Buick as its first building block.

McLaughlin and Durant maintained a long, friendly relationship, resulting in not only the McLaughlin-Buick, but also in McLaughlin building Chevrolets beginning in 1916. The McLaughlin Motor Car Co. became General Motors of Canada in 1918.

Production started late in 1907, with McLaughlin fitting the bodies to Buick running gear. Those first cars were called McLaughlins. They were styled by Sam himself, who had a natural artistic flair, and had styled the McLaughlin carriages and cutters. The Canadian cars tended to be more elaborate and stylish than their American counterparts, and were sometimes totally different.

McLaughlin went through a kind of identity crisis during the next decade and a half over what to call its cars. Hugh Durnford and Glenn Baechler wrote in their book Cars of Canada: “For the next 15 years, there was some confusion about the name of the McLaughlin car. Called simply McLaughlin, it was readily distinguishable from the U.S. Buicks and kept before Canadians the name associated with quality and value.”

“However, it was also called and advertised as McLaughlin-Buick. Some models read McLaughlin on the radiator and McLaughlin-Buick on the hub caps.” Through all of this, McLaughlin’s slogan was “Canada’s Standard Car.”

The ambivalence probably stemmed from a desire to tap into the young Dominion’s growing cense of patriotism, which was strongly reinforced by its contribution to the First World War I. At the same time it wanted to capitalize on the excellent reputation of the Buick name.

The vacillation ended in 1923 when the company settled on McLaughlin-Buick. McLaughlin put a wry twist on the American Buick slogan, “When better cars are built, Buick will build them,” by advertising that “Better cars are being built, and McLaughlin is building them.”

Almost from the beginning, McLaughlin produced a wide variety of models in many body styles, including a four cylinder, a light six, and a standard six. When Buick adopted its famous overhead valve, straight-eight engine exclusively in 1931, it was also used in McLaughlin-Buicks.

With the steel car body gradually supplanting wood, the carriage making craft became less and less applicable, and the Canadian cars became less distinctive. As the McLaughlin-Buick design became more locked into the American Buick’s metal stampings, Sam had to confine himself to styling special one-off models.

Among the more interesting were the royal tour cars. The first, of which two were built in 1927, was based on the 1928 McLaughlin-Buick and was used for the visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada. The large lavishly appointed tourings could accommodate up to seven passengers.

A second pair of royal cars was built for the visit of the King and Queen in 1939. McLaughlin-Buick sedans were stretched 457 mm, reinforced, and made into convertibles. A speaker system allowed the chauffeur and passengers to communicate.

Another royal limousine was the 1936 model built for young King Edward VIII, said to be the car he drove to the dock following his abdication. He also bought a Buick Roadmaster for his friend Wallace Warfield Simpson, which she reportedly used for her “escape” to Cannes during the abdication crisis.

The use of Buicks by the royal family caused a boomlet in Buick sales in England during the 1930s.

The McLaughlin-Buick name came to an end when the Second World War stopped North American auto production in 1942. When it resumed in 1945, there were no more hyphenated Buicks.

Sam McLaughlin retired as chairman of the board of GM of Canada in 1967, but remained honourary chairman until his death in 1972 at the age of 100.

Among his legacies was the best-known Canadian car nameplate: McLaughlin-Buick.

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