Rearview Mirror: GM Canada’s roots stretch back to Canada’s birth
On November 8, 2018, General Motors of Canada marked its 100th anniversary. But while its American parent company marked its centennial a decade ago, GM Canada’s roots stretch back to the year of Canada’s birth.
It started as the McLaughlin Carriage Company, Canada’s top manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles. At the height of production, it shipped to customers as far away as South America and Australia.
The carriage firm was founded by Robert McLaughlin, a son of Irish immigrants who was born in Tyrone, northeast of Toronto. As a young man, he carved axe handles for a hobby, which turned into a business when his father sold them at a nearby market. Robert then built a sleigh. A neighbour was so impressed that he commissioned one, and in 1867, McLaughlin made his first vehicle sale.
His carriages became popular for their high quality, and for a steering mechanism he invented that gave them a smoother ride. In 1900, after a fire destroyed his factory and he built a bigger one in nearby Oshawa, the McLaughlin Carriage Company made more than 25,000 horse-drawn vehicles.
South of the border, many small companies were springing up to build “horseless carriages.” In Detroit, a plumber named David Dunbar Buick was fascinated with all things mechanical, and started a company in 1901 to build two-cylinder marine engines. He also built a prototype car, and after a couple of failed initial ventures — he was much better with machines than with money — he formed the Buick Motor Company to make automobiles.
Even that business barely hobbled along, until it caught the eye of an entrepreneur named William “Billy” Durant, who bought into it. Most auto companies were started by men who invented their car and then tried to figure out how to sell it, but Durant’s skill was in the business side. Buick’s car company flourished under his hand, and in 1908, Durant made it the cornerstone of his new General Motors, adding independent automakers Oldsmobile and Cadillac soon after.
In Canada, Robert McLaughlin’s son, Samuel, joined his father’s firm. (Robert’s oldest son, Jack, became a chemist and founded the Canada Dry soft-drink company.) Automobiles were still rare, but when the carriage company’s accountant bought one and Sam got to drive it, he knew the direction he wanted to take. His father wasn’t about to switch from horse-drawn vehicles, so Sam McLaughlin explored the idea on his own.
He visited a few American auto factories in 1905 to see how it was done, and decided he’d build his own engines, while buying the rest of the driveline from a Michigan manufacturer. That plan ended when he test-drove two of that company’s cars, and both broke down. He then met with Durant, and after returning to Canada, he bought a Buick in Toronto and drove it 60 kilometres home. He decided this was what he wanted to build, but he and Durant couldn’t agree on the licensing terms.
At the time, virtually every successful Canadian car used American parts, or simply built American cars under license with different trim and names. It was prohibitively expensive to engineer and build a new vehicle from scratch, and then turn a profit in Canada’s smaller market. But when McLaughlin couldn’t find an American partner, he decided to go out on his own. He hired an engineer who came up with an original design, and ordered engine parts made to his specifications.
McLaughlin told the press that production was just about to start, when in 1907, the engineer became ill and without him, the cars couldn’t be built. He went back to Durant, apparently to ask for the loan of an engineer, but the two almost immediately hashed out a deal where McLaughlin would buy his car’s driveline from Buick, and then use his carriage experience to build the bodies. That’s always been the story, but recently, some historians have questioned whether the entire operation hinged on one employee. Instead, they suggest McLaughlin wasn’t sure about his untried vehicle, and since it shared the name and reputation of Canada’s top carriage-maker, he decided to go with a proven partner.
Regardless of which story is true, the McLaughlin automobile soon became a Canadian success. But back at General Motors, Durant had overextended the company, and the board of directors kicked him out. He teamed up with race driver Louis Chevrolet to build a brand-new car company, which he used to leverage his way back into the top seat at GM. But along the way, he called on his old friend McLaughlin, who added the new car to his assembly line – building Buicks and Chevrolets under one roof before GM did in the U.S.
GM owned half of his business, and with no sons to take it over and his original contract with Buick close to expiration, Sam McLaughlin sold the remainder in 1918, creating General Motors of Canada. He remained GM Canada’s president until 1945, and his name was used on Canadian Buicks until 1942. He then stayed on as a chairman almost until his death in 1972 at the age of 101.