Canadian Automotive History
The McLaughlin Auto Car Company
A young Sam McLaughlin with
his penny farthing bicycle
Sam McLaughlin's Parkwood Estate
A much older Sam McLaughlin
William and Jane McLaughlin were just one of the thousands who emigrated to Upper Canada from Ireland in 1832. They purchased 160 acres of bush about twenty miles north of Bowmanville, Ontario, in an area settled primarily by Protestant Irish and Scotch families. There oldest son John married Eliza Rusk, another immigrant, three years later. The following year, their first child, Robert, was born. As Robert grew he became an accomplished wood carver. One of the first items he became proficient at was axe handles then gradually other small implements. These were taken to the local market and sold to provide much needed additional income for the family. Of course as time progressed it was natural for him to look for a bride and begin his own family.
In 1864 at the age of twenty-eight he married Mary Smith. Their wedding gift from John and Eliza was fifty acres of bush on the west side of the family farm. Robert began felling trees for a home, but unlike the previous generation, this was not a log cabin but a “modern” house made of sawn boards. A driving shed, with a work bench, was built behind the house to allow Robert a place to continue with his carving, once the daily farming chores were complete.
In 1866 Robert decided to build himself a horse-drawn sleigh, which he completed over the winter months—the iron work and upholstery being done by traveling journeymen. A neighbour saw the sleigh and asked Robert to make him one. This work was completed over the winter of 1867/1868. (Note: This sleigh is still in existence today, on display at Upper Canada Village near Morrisburg, Ontario). Robert had become known as an exceptional craftsman and found he was receiving more orders than he could handle in his spare time. A decision was make to sell the farm, move his wife and three children (John James, Mary and George) and set up a manufacturing operation in town. In 1869 he bought two pieces of property in Enniskillen. One was their home (still standing on the south side of the street). The other property was his manufacturing establishment. Robert, now hired his own journeyman, a carpenter, a blacksmith and an apprentice. He, himself, would oversee the work as well as design and paint. But instead of wagons, sleighs and implements, he would make carriages. The business thrived. He was receiving orders from far and wide.
In fact it did too well for the location. Surprisingly, for a buggy manufacturer, transportation was the problem. The raw materials had to be carted in and the finished carriages had to be moved to the rail terminal. It was now time to move to a larger centre. The house and shop in Enniskillen were sold and the family, now with five children (Robert Samuel and Elizabeth Ann had come along), along with their hired workmen, moved to the City of Oshawa where banking and railway facilities—two tools a rapidly growing business required—were readily available. A new house and a new shop a few blocks away, were found. This was the year 1877.
Business prospered—thanks in part to a new steering design patented by Robert. Instead of the front axle pivoting on one centre pin, as was common practice, the McLaughlin front axle pivoted on a cast iron arc, which helped maintain support throughout the turn, therefore increased safety. The oldest son, John James (known as Jack or “JJ”) enrolled in university to study chemistry before the carriage business had become large enough to require him. Upon graduation he continued in this chemist career, opening a soda manufacturing business in Toronto. Among his experiments he spent much time working with a “new” flavour—ginger. JJ worked to lighten the taste. Upon his death the formula was sold to interests in the United States who named it “Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale” later changed to “Canada Dry”.
As sons George and Robert (known as Samuel, to distinguish him from his father) came of age, they began to “learn the trade” the hard way. They were made apprentices, but because they were “The Bosses” sons, they were expected to set an example with harder work and longer hours. Young Sam was an adventurer. He was the right age to get caught up in the bicycle craze of the late 1800’s, spending his time off riding his “penny farthing” for pleasure and race.
The McLaughlin Carriage Company continued to grow; outgrowing the original Oshawa location, moving into a much too large building on Richmond Street. Two years later, that building had to be expanded to accommodate the growing sales. In 1892, George and Sam were brought in as partners. George gravitated toward sales while Sam was more hands on—becoming involved with design as well as the overall operation. In 1896, branch offices were opened in Saint John, Montreal, London, Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary, with more being added all the time.
But then in December of 1899 fire destroyed everything. All the tools, designs, material, unfinished and finished stock—gone. They still had their orders and dealer network and with a little ingenuity they managed to build 3000 carriages in six months in rent premises in Gananoque, near Kingston. At the same time a new “fire-proof” building went up at the corner of Richmond and Mary Streets in Oshawa. The following year saw 25,000 vehicles, worth over one million dollars, shipped. In 1902 it was necessary to add a second building across the street.
Old Robert McLaughlin had to be aware of the growing interest in automobiles. But like so many prosperous companies, choose to ignore it, thinking it that surely it would not affect them. George and Sam realized this would not be the case. With the help of Oliver Hazzelwood, the comptroller (who incidentally owned a Ford motor car) they gradually convinced Robert to allow them to at least investigate building an automobile.
Because they were so late getting into the field, it was decided to approach manufacturers in the US for connections and advice. Sam, visited several manufacturers, including Pierce Arrow in Buffalo, Jackson in Lansing and Buick in Flint. Billy Durant, who had taken over control of Buick, was well known to Sam due to their common background in the carriage business. Sam was impressed with the Buick, but having been disappointed with other cars, stopped in Toronto at the Buick agent to purchase two autos for testing. They passed the test, so it was back to Flint to make a deal. But, after much negotiation no agreement was reached.
Back in Oshawa, the McLaughlin brothers arrived at the conclusion THEY could build an automobile. Robert who was now in his seventies and slowing down granted his permission. A corner of one of the factories was cleared out. Frames, axles and transmissions were purchased. Bodies were designed and built—after all, bodies of the era were really buggies without shafts and a horse. The engine presented a bit of a dilemma, but that would be solved by hiring Arthur Milbrath, an engineer to design one. Shortly after starting though, Arthur became very ill, everything ground to a halt. Sam, once more talked to Durant. But this time, Billy Durant was in financial troubles in his efforts to form General Motors. A deal to supply McLaughlin with Buick chassis’ and engines for a period of fifteen years served both sides well.
On November 20, 1907 the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was incorporated with Sam McLaughlin named President. The first year saw 154 McLaughlin cars sold. For the next several years the carriage business and automobile business flourished side by side. In 1915, the production of the Chevrolet car in Canada was offered to the McLaughlins. To accommodate this new venture the carriage business was sold off. This proved to be a shrewd business decision, as the automobile was increasing in sales and the carriage industry was dying.
In 1918, with the expiration of the Buick deal just a few years away, a new deal had to be made. This time it was the McLaughlins doing the selling. They realized that the future of the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was best served by selling out to General Motors. General Motors of Canada retained Sam and George as President and Vice-President.
Canada was fond of its McLaughlin. After a Buick won the first race at the Indianapolis Speedway in the United States, the McLaughlin's advertising men wanted to cash in on the elaborate Buick advertising campaign. They persuaded management to change their car's name from McLaughlin to Buick. When sales declined, the car was rechristened again - this time as the McLaughlin-Buick. Gradually though, power shifted to Detroit. In 1924 George retired. General Motors of Canada expanded with manufacturing facilities in Walkerville, Ontario and Regina, Saskatewan.
In 1942 when automobile production was halted for the war, the last McLaughlin-Buick was built. When production resumed they were just, “Buick”.
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