Cars on the front lawn outside the estate's front door
Cars on the front lawn outside the estate’s front door. Click image to enlarge

Articles and photos by Jil McIntosh

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McLaughlin-Buick Homecoming

Oshawa, Ontario – At the turn of the 20th century, big things were happening in the small town of Oshawa, Ontario, east of Toronto. Founded by Robert McLaughlin of nearby Enniskillen, the McLaughlin Carriage Company was already known as the country’s premier manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles. But Robert’s son Samuel had taken a shine to the newfangled horseless variety, and despite his father’s aversion to them, he simply wasn’t giving up.

Samuel set out to produce his own, but finally threw in his lot with William Durant, who was busy amalgamating the independent companies of Buick and Oldsmobile into the corporation he called General Motors. In November 1907, the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was formed, and the following month, turned out its first car, based on the American Buick Model F.

A row of McLaughlin-Buicks in Parkwood's rear lot
A row of McLaughlin-Buicks in Parkwood’s rear lot. Click image to enlarge

As in the U.S., the early Canadian auto industry was bursting with small upstart companies trying to get in on the new craze. Most failed, especially those who based their vehicles on American models that went under and left them with nothing to build. But Buick’s success ensured that of McLaughlin, and the company prospered. In 1918, McLaughlin sold it entirely to the American firm, and it became General Motors of Canada.

On August 4 – a civic holiday known as McLaughlin Day in Oshawa – the McLaughlin-Buick Club of Canada celebrated the 100th anniversary of the company with its “Homecoming”, which drew vehicles from across Canada and the United States, and members from as far away as New Zealand, to the place where it all began.

The four-day event was mostly for the benefit of club members, who met with fellow enthusiasts and took advantage of various tours to drive their cars, but on the holiday Monday, 95 vehicles attended a public show at Parkwood, McLaughlin’s estate, which is now a historic site and museum.

“It’s an annual event that’s usually held in a different location each year, but because of the anniversary, we had to host it here,” said Keith Corby, president of the McLaughlin-Buick Club of Canada. “Our club usually recognizes Buicks twenty years and older, but this year we opened it to everyone. Our oldest is a pair of 1910 Model 8s, and our newest is a 2008. It was a lot of hard work, but it was worth it.”

The Buick parade was ceremoniously piped to the event at Parkwood
The Buick parade was ceremoniously piped to the event at Parkwood. Click image to enlarge

The day’s events began with a parade of vintage Buicks through Oshawa to Parkwood, led by a pipe and drum band. Vehicles were spotted from North Carolina, Virginia, Alberta, Quebec, plus a 1937 model from Indiana that was driven to the show.

McLaughlin-Buicks weren’t sold in the U.S., which makes them a rare find at American events and sales. It was enough to pique Richard Fraser’s attention when he spotted an unrestored 1910 Model 8 Touring Car at the huge annual automotive flea market in Hershey, Pennsylvania last fall.

“I found it at Hershey and fell in love,” said Fraser, who lives in East Poland, Maine. The McLaughlin-Buick Club of Canada knows of only two still in existence, and the other one, a restored version belonging to Neil Butters of Cobourg, Ontario was parked nearby. “When I was 17, my friend had a McLaughlin. I knew it was rare and unusual, and I like rare vehicles.”

Richard Fraser's 1910 Model 8 from East Poland, Maine, one of two such models known to exist and both were at the show
An original plate on Richard Fraser's 1910 Model 8 suggests it was originally sold in Quebec
Richard Fraser’s 1910 Model 8 from East Poland, Maine, one of two such models known to exist and both were at the show (top); An original plate on Fraser’s 1910 Model 8 suggests it was originally sold in Quebec. Click image to enlarge

The car is in “barn-fresh” condition, a hobbyist term for a vehicle that is essentially in its original state but very well worn. Fraser’s car was missing its lamps, which he has replaced with similar ones until he finds the correct units. He plans to restore it to roadworthy condition – it’s currently restricted to parking-lot jaunts – but intends to keep the body as it is. It’s a plan that’s rapidly gaining favour with many enthusiasts, who now value these vehicles for their authenticity.

The 1910’s journey back home was certainly a wide circle. Fraser lifted the seat to reveal a small metal license tag, marked from Quebec, under the passenger side. License plate expert Guy Thibault, who has written a book on historic Quebec plates, was on hand and verified the plate as being from 1910, indicating that the Oshawa-built car was initially shipped to and sold new in Quebec. He thinks the owner took it to the U.S. when many Quebecers travelled south to find work in American mills. One of 847 vehicles spread over 13 models that McLaughlin built in 1910, the Model 8 looked right at home on the front lawn of the Parkwood estate. “It was a long trip to bring it here,” Fraser said, “but when I heard there was a birthday, how could I resist a celebration of the man who built it?”

Neil Butters of Cobourg Ont with his 1910 Model 8, one of two known to exist and both were at the show
Harold McKendry's 1908 Model 10 is an American Buick, which is evident by its more plain body
Larry Norton's 1931 7-passenger spent the first 29 years of its life as a taxicab in Kingston, Jamaica
Neil Butters of Cobourg Ont with his 1910 Model 8, one of two known to exist and both were at the show (top); Harold McKendry’s 1908 Model 10 is an American Buick, which is evident by its more plain body (middle); Larry Norton’s 1931 7-passenger spent the first 29 years of its life as a taxicab in Kingston, Jamaica. Click image to enlarge

Neil Butters’ version sat nearby, looking very much as it did when it left the McLaughlin factory. His father bought it in 1956 from the man who restored it, and in 1961, McLaughlin rode in it on the occasion of his 90th birthday. It’s also believed that McLaughlin used it as his personal vehicle. “I know it was Sam’s, I just now have to find the proof,” Butters said. “And it’s a McLaughlin, even though it says Buick.”

That matter of badging can make it difficult to quickly identify a Canadian-built McLaughlin-Buick from its American siblings. While the cars were officially just McLaughlins until 1922, the company often used the McLaughlin, McLaughlin-Buick or just plain Buick names interchangeably over the years, or mixed and matched, putting one name on the radiator and another on the hubcaps. Sometimes, though, the workmanship does the talking, as evidenced by an American 1908 Buick Model 10 shown by Harold McKendry of Kingston, Ontario. Its austere body contrasted sharply with McLaughlin’s work: thanks to its carriage-maker roots, the Canadian company’s bodies were usually more elaborate.

Export models received the same attention, as shown by Larry Norton’s bright red 1931 8-95 7-passenger touring car, which sat outside Parkwood’s front door. It was one of 30 such models made that year, 27 of which went abroad. Norton’s was one of those; the car went to Kingston, Jamaica, where it was used as a taxicab for 29 years. Norton, a retired GM employee who lives in Oshawa, bought it 48 years ago. “Someone in the U.S. went and saw it, and advertised in a magazine that it was there and for sale. The owner wanted a new Chev, Ford or Plymouth in return, but I negotiated cash. I don’t even remember what I paid.”

Canadian-built vehicles were exempt from duty, but Norton didn’t know how to provide proof of the car’s origins. “The customs guy looked at the instrument panel and there was a plaque painted over, and it said ‘Product of General Motors of Canada’. So it came in as ‘Canadian Goods Returned’.” The plaque is still in place, as is a new canvas top that Norton had fitted to replace the original damaged one. “My father knew two retired guys who did tops at the Motors, and he asked me if I wanted them to do that. The top was similar to a Packard, and I asked them if they wanted a photo of that, and they said it wouldn’t be necessary, that they’d put the top on this car the first time. They remembered it. They did roadsters in the morning, and when it was time to do a 7-passenger, they went to a different place in the plant to do it.”

John Kellam's 1933 McLaughlin ambulance, in those days the same body was used for both hearses and ambulances
Lee Smith of Wilsonville Ontario bought his 1927 McLaughlin hearse from someone who traded a load of scrap metal for it after it was pulled from a gravel pit
John Kellam’s 1933 McLaughlin ambulance, in those days the same body was used for both hearses and ambulances (top); Lee Smith of Wilsonville Ontario bought his 1927 McLaughlin hearse from someone who traded a load of scrap metal for it after it was pulled from a gravel pit. Click image to enlarge

Not all bodies were built in-house, though, and two examples were on the grounds: John Kellam’s 1933 ambulance, and Lee Smith’s 1927 funeral coach. While both were outfitted for those specific duties, early professional cars generally received just one type of coach body, and the interiors were easily switched to turn the car from ambulance into hearse. Some changed back and forth between duties during their lifetimes. That helps explain the sliding partition window in Smith’s car, which in this case would open to a rather non-conversational passenger. Smith, an auto mechanic, bought the car four years ago in Waterford, Ontario. “When I first saw it, I had to have it, since it’s one of a kind,” he said of the car, which is rough but complete, and very restorable. “In 1969 it was pulled out of a gravel pit to be scrapped, and the people I got it from traded a load of scrap metal for it. It was supposed to be the fellow’s retirement project, but he kept working, and then he passed away.”

The car still wears a 1949 license plate, and contains an odd double floor, which opens in the middle with hinges on the side. Smith suspects that it was a later addition to update the car, since it contains casket rollers, and pins to hold the box in place once it’s loaded. The car also has an original wooden flower rack that sits on metal braces halfway up the inside, and Smith found the car’s tool kit and taillight under the seat.

While curious crowds examined Smith’s hearse throughout the afternoon, most missed the enormous significance of a more understated model parked on the grounds. Lois and Wes Ebbs’ 1942 Buick Special marked not only the last model built before the war production shutdown that affected all automakers, but was also the last time the McLaughlin name would be used. It’s on the car’s literature and owner’s manuals, but nowhere on the body.

Wes and Lois Ebbs with their 1942 McLaughlin-Buick, called a blackout because the painted trim wouldn't reflect lights during a war air raid
Wes and Lois Ebbs with their 1942 McLaughlin-Buick, called a blackout because the painted trim wouldn’t reflect lights during a war air raid. Click image to enlarge

Nor is there much in the way of flashy design. The Ebbs’ car is an extremely rare “blackout Buick”, one of 211 made in Canada, with all brightwork but its bumpers painted grey instead of chromed, as chrome was now reserved for the war effort. Wes Ebbs, who helped found the McLaughlin-Buick Club of Canada in 1971 and is currently its treasurer, bought the car in 1974, and a year later drove it from his home in Toronto to Calgary and back, where he snapped a picture of it in front of the dealership that originally sold it. “I’m the third owner of the car,” he said. “It’s from Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Few people could buy new cars because of the war, but the owner ran a cartage company, so he might have had government contracts and got it that way.”

Ebbs said that the car has some puzzling details, such as taillights that were exclusive to the “blackouts”, which is unusual for such a low-volume model. It also differs in several areas from similar American Buicks, with unique hubcaps, six-bolt wheels to the U.S. five-bolt pattern, and a dash that’s entirely woodgrain and missing the U.S. engine-turned accent.

The company ceased civilian automobile production after the “blackouts” were done, and when it resumed for model-year 1946, the Oshawa plant concentrated on Chevrolet and Pontiac. Due to post-war government controls that limited the number of American-built cars imported, very few Buicks were sold in Canada until 1951, when GM of Canada began building them again. By then, Sam McLaughlin was enjoying his retirement, having left his position as GM of Canada president in 1945; he died in his 101st year in 1972.

Jocelyn Shaw is the granddaughter of GM of Canada founder Samuel McLaughlin
Jocelyn Shaw is the granddaughter of GM of Canada founder Samuel McLaughlin. Click image to enlarge

Although Parkwood tour guides state that a painting of him as an auto magnate in his prime was his favourite portrait, most people are more familiar with the grandfatherly photos taken of him in his older years. That kind demeanor was verified by Jocelyn Shaw, McLaughlin’s granddaughter, who attended the event from her home in Toronto. Now 81, Shaw’s mother was McLaughlin’s daughter Hilda.

“I never lived in the house, I grew up in Montreal,” Shaw said. “But I came to visit frequently, and one summer I stayed here for three months, so I know every inch of this place. We’d come up by train and arrive at night, and the maid would be waiting at the door to put us to bed.

“Grandpa was short and very strong, and we’d squirm when he gave us bear hugs. He might have been tough with his GM people, but he was always kind with his house staff. He loved his American business friends and he acquired an American business accent that my mother always laughed at. He loved entertaining his business friends, and I’m sure a lot of business deals were made over the cigar smoke in the billiard room.”

No doubt there were. And as the cars started up their engines and drove back out again through the massive front gate, it was tempting to suspect that he might be in an upstairs window, watching, and approving of the century celebration of the company he founded.

For more information, visit The McLaughlin-Buick Club of Canada and Parkwood.com.

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