The top and the windshield were optional equipment
The top and the windshield were optional equipment. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

Photo Gallery:
A Century of GM Cars in Canada

Oshawa, Ontario – One hundred years ago, the automotive scene in North America was considerably different than it is today. Chances were good that if you owned personal transportation, you also had to feed it and clean up after it, and if you wanted to take it out for a drive, you first had to harness it up.

The newfangled automobile was becoming increasingly popular, though, and in 1907 there were some 43,000 cars and 1,000 trucks made in the U.S., from such carmakers as Rambler, E-M-F, Franklin and Packard. Canada was also getting in on the action, and while General Motors of Canada will officially celebrate its centennial alongside its American parent in 2008, it was on this day, November 20, 1907, that the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was incorporated – the firm that would eventually become GM of Canada.

GM was kind enough to allow me to photograph one of the rarest cars in Canada, which it owns: a 1908 McLaughlin-Buick Model F, believed to be the only complete existing example of the first models built by the new company. It was transported for me to Parkwood, Sam McLaughlin’s home in Oshawa, Ontario, which still contains the family’s furnishings and is maintained as a historic site.

The Model F at Parkwood, McLaughlin's home in Oshawa Ont
The Model F at Parkwood, McLaughlin’s home in Oshawa Ont. Click image to enlarge

The various McLaughlin ventures date to the beginning of Canada’s history, starting with Robert McLaughlin, who was born in a log cabin in Tyrone, northeast of Toronto. He became adept at carving axe handles, which were sold at a nearby market, and from there he graduated to making a sleigh. The quality was such that he was asked to make two of them for sale, which he delivered in 1867. From such humble beginnings, he opened a shop in nearby Enniskillen; eventually, the McLaughlin Carriage Company would become Canada’s largest carriage maker. It later moved to Oshawa, east of Toronto, where GM is headquartered.

Robert McLaughlin’s family shared his entrepreneurial spirit, and his son Jack founded the Canada Dry soft-drink company, but it was his son Sam who would put Canada on the automotive map. An avid bicyclist, Sam McLaughlin was taken with his discovery of automobiles, especially when the company bookkeeper bought one and let him drive it. The young man was determined that this would be the future of his father’s horse-drawn business.

Canada was a small market, and rather than risk the cost and pitfalls of designing a car from scratch, most Canadian auto companies imported American cars, built theirs to American designs, or used U.S.-made mechanical components. Aligning with a U.S. company was McLaughlin’s plan, and he visited numerous companies to find the right one. One of them was the Flint, Michigan-based Buick, owned by William Durant, who would later create General Motors. McLaughlin bought a 1906 Buick Model F in Toronto, and decided this was the car he wanted to build.

The wooden body was made by McLaughlin
The wooden body was made by McLaughlin. Click image to enlarge

Unfortunately, he was unable to strike a deal with Durant, and he returned to Oshawa; having had enough of dealing with American firms, he hired an engineer to design a car from scratch. Dubbed the Model A, it was almost ready for production when the engineer fell ill and McLaughlin was unable to build it without him, and so he returned to Durant and the two came to terms. That’s the official story, although some historians believe McLaughlin feared an untested, all-new car would fail in the marketplace, and came up with the story to save face.

Whatever the reason, he bet on the right horse. Canadian companies tied to American firms were at their mercy, and when the U.S. companies failed, as early carmakers frequently did, the Canadian counterparts folded also. Instead, Buick’s success was reflected in McLaughlin’s stability.

McLaughlin built its first car in December 1907, and it’s believed that 154 McLaughlin-Buick Model Fs went out the door for 1908. They sold for $1,400, with an extra $100 if you wanted a cloth top, and another $50 if you desired a windshield.

Boyd Wood, who researched the car's restoration
Boyd Wood, who researched the car’s restoration. Click image to enlarge

GM’s Model F was restored over a period of five years, beginning in 1989, in a painstaking process overseen by Stew Low, Director of Public Relations. Ted Robertson, an engineer in GM, knew that Boyd Wood, an automotive technician in the company’s Experimental Engineering Department, was heavily involved in antique cars, and so the job of researching the vehicle went to him. The flawless restoration was done by Sherry Classic Cars in Warsaw, Ontario.

The 1908 Model F bears the serial number 108, but Wood, now retired from GM, says that it was common for automakers to start their numbering at 100, rather than one, to make it look like sales were better than they were. “We have no proof, so we’re only assuming, but there’s a possibility this may have been the eighth car in production,” he said.

The Canadian version looks almost identical to the U.S. Buick Model F, but with luxury touches that reflected McLaughlin’s background as a carriage builder. “The windshield frame is strictly Canadian, and it’s an elaborate wooden one,” Wood said. “American cars only had a metal bar around the windshield. McLaughlin also lined the top on the underside, where the American Buick wasn’t.”

Buick script is reproduced from the original die
Foot pedals operate the transmission
Special fasteners hold the tires on
Buick script is reproduced from the original die (top); foot pedals operate the transmission (middle) and special fasteners hold the tires on. Click image to enlarge

His meticulous research unearthed numerous details about the car; he travelled to Flint, Michigan, where he photographed a Buick Model F missing its upholstery – “The seats look the same, but when you take the upholstery off, you can see how they’re constructed differently,” he said – and to Utica, New York, to the company that originally produced the rad shell. There, he found the original die to shape the Buick name into the shell, which restorer Harry Sherry used when producing a new brass shell for the McLaughlin. Some of the work was done within General Motors, including new cylinders for the engine, which were made at the company’s foundry in St. Catharines, Ontario.

The five-seater touring car is finished in the dark wine shade that was exclusive to the Model F, and uses a two-cylinder engine, producing 22 horsepower, that’s mounted under the seat; the hood hides a fuel tank, its filler topped with a brass cap. A chain drives the rear wheels, while the planetary transmission has two forward speeds and one reverse, and is operated by foot pedals. The “clincher” tires use brass screws to hold them in place, and the Michelin tires were imported from France for the project, although Wood believes they may be the only item on the car that isn’t historically correct. “The sales sheet didn’t specify the brand,” he said. “The American Buick sheet said Michelin, but the Canadian one just gives the tire size. We used Michelin, but McLaughlin bought from Goodyear and Firestone, and I’d lean toward Goodyear, because Ford used Firestone.”

Buick script is reproduced from the original die
Ignition box
A generator combines calcium carbide and water to produce acetylene for the headlamps
The rear seat was upholstered in carriage fashion (top); ignition box (middle) and a generator combines calcium carbide and water to produce acetylene for the headlamps. Click image to enlarge

In 1908, William Durant brought together Buick and Oldsmobile, both of them independent companies, and amalgamated them into his new General Motors; the following year he added independents Cadillac and Oakland, which would later become Pontiac. In 1908, Durant also purchased 1,000 shares in McLaughlin.

But Durant envisioned an empire, and he quickly overextended himself by buying numerous small firms that didn’t perform as well as his top-line companies; in 1910, he was ousted by GM’s bankers. Undeterred, he started a new company with racing driver Louis Chevrolet, but he didn’t forget his Canadian friends. By 1916, McLaughlin was building these new cars, making room by selling its carriage business to Tudhope, a company in Orillia, Ontario that tried but couldn’t make it as a carmaker. Durant regained control of GM in 1917 and brought Chevrolet into its fold in 1918; history thus records that McLaughlin built Chevrolets and Buicks together under the same banner before General Motors did in the United States. Sam McLaughlin sold his company completely to GM in 1918, although the McLaughlin-Buick name signified high quality to a great number of Canadians, and was used on vehicles until 1942.

A century apart: 2008 Enclave and 1908 Model F
A century apart: 2008 Enclave and 1908 Model F. Click image to enlarge

Following the sale of his company, Sam McLaughlin was named president of GM of Canada, a position he held until 1945, as well as a director of the parent U.S. firm. He died January 6, 1972 in his 101st year.

The Model F was originally purchased in 1908 by the Seaman family of Sauble Falls, Ontario; in 1937, they approached Sam McLaughlin to see if he was interested in it. He was, trading them a brand-new Chevrolet for it. There’s no fear it will be traded again now. “I don’t think there’s a more authentic and researched car in Canada than that McLaughlin,” Boyd Wood said. “This is the car that started General Motors in Oshawa.”

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