1911 Russell Knight
1911 Russell Knight
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Canada has produced few home-grown vehicles. Most were foreign, usually American, designs. The Russell was an exception because it was designed and manufactured in Toronto, a truly native Canadian car. There was also an unrelated Cleveland-produced American Russell.

Russell history dates back to 1902 when Canadian Motors Ltd. (CML) of Toronto found itself in financial difficulties. It had made cars for a couple of years, even exporting some to England, but it hadn’t been enough; new money was needed.

Financial help came from the Canada Cycle and Motor Co., which had been formed in 1899 through the amalgamation of, among others, the bicycle wing of the Massey-Harris farm implement company, and the H.A. Lozier Co., bicycle and car manufacturers. But the bicycle market went into a slump shortly after, and CCM’s famous tubular ice skate was still a few years away.

Thomas Alexander Russell, CCM’s new young general manager, took the company through a drastic consolidation. A shrewd, capable manager, Russell knew that to prosper they needed a new product, and he recognized that cars had a good future.

CCM had built a few spindly motorized “tricycles,” called Mottettes, and “quadracycles,” powered by French De Dion gasoline engines acquired through Lozier. Also, CCM had controlled the National Cycle and Automobile Co., which built American-designed Locomobile steam cars in Hamilton.

By 1903 Russell had the Yonge Street plant building the electrically powered two-passenger Ivanhoe runabout. Production lasted until 1905, but Russell saw gasoline as the power of choice.

A new Russell car, the model A, with a flat, two-cylinder gasoline engine, appeared in 1905. It had such advanced features as shaft drive, a sliding-gear transmission, and a column-mounted shift lever.

Hugh Durnford and Glenn Baechler, in their book Cars Of Canada, estimate that about 25 model A Russells were built. It established a good reputation.

This was followed in 1906 by a larger model B, and a four-cylinder model C. Needing more space, CCM relocated to larger premises in West Toronto.

Tommy Russell exploited nationalism by advertising Russells as “The Thoroughly Canadian Car,” with Canadian material, Canadian labour, and Canadian capital.

The model B and C Russells were such well-built and soundly engineered cars that the Dominion Automobile Co., Russell’s marketer, opened sales offices in England, Australia and New Zealand. “Three continents attest to Russell’s excellence,” boasted the advertising

To gain publicity Russells engaged in such stunts as racing against an ice-yacht on frozen Lake Ontario (the car won), and driving for two hours in bitterly cold weather with only water in the radiator.

Success brought model proliferation. A big 40 horsepower touring car came in 1907, then a more prestigious 50 horsepower model in 1908. They built delivery trucks, buses, ambulances and fire trucks.

Russells moved upmarket, leaving the popular price range to others. When Tommy Russell heard about Charles Knight’s new sleeve-valve engine he thought it would suit the luxury image he was cultivating for his cars.

The Knight engine’s operation was almost silent, in contrast to the primitive conventional valve gear. But in spite of its quietness, American manufacturers were not interested.

The Knight engine was used by such European luxury carmakers as England’s Daimler, France’s Panhard, Belgium’s Minerva, and Germany’s Mercedes, all prestige cars. Tommy Russell obtained Canadian rights to the Knight engine, and introduced the first Knight-equipped Russell, the Silent-Knight, in 1910.

With new models and plant expansions Russell flourished until it was the Russell tail wagging the CCM dog. In 1911 it became the Russell Motor Car Co., with CCM as a branch.

In 1913 trouble began. The sleeve-valve engine that had tested well in the lab gave some trouble in service, problems like broken sleeves and excessive oil consumption. In spite of new models and strenuous engine testing at the University of Toronto, the company ceased building cars in 1916.

Although Russell had tried to return to the low-priced market, it was too late, and this, plus an economic downturn, and the First World War, combined to end their car-building.

Russell’s car-making wing was sold to John North Willys of Toledo, Ohio, who would produce more sleeve-valve engines than all others combined. Willys-Overland built cars in the old Russell plant into the 1930s. Russell continued with military work until the end of the war, and became a holding company for several prominent Canadian firms.

Tommy Russell went on to become president of Massey-Harris, a post he held for many years. He died in 1940, leaving as his legacy one of the few truly Canadian cars.

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