For The Love Of Cars: Guelph’s Automotive Industry
In the 19th century, Canada began to produce automobiles. The first Canadian-made vehicle was steam-propelled. This was the famous Taylor Steam Buggy built by Henry Seth Taylor in Stanstead Quebec. It was seen crashing around the Eastern Townships in 1867, clearly marking Canadian confederation. And crashing is the right word. The car suffered from a problem. Taylor had failed to include brakes in his design.
Toronto, Ontario became the first major producer of Canadian automobiles in the 20th century – the Russell Motor Company. This was an attempt by the Canada Cycle and Motor Company to diversify. Under Tommy Russell, the Russell Motor Company began to manufacture cars in 1905. Its product was the now famed “Russell.” This reliable, mid-sized and even affordable car was touted in advertisements as the “Thoroughly Canadian Car.” It soon found markets nationally and established agents globally. In 1911, they were flying high. They even ventured into the luxury car market. However, engineering problems, coupled with the advent of World War I, kiboshed the industry. The company sold off its automobile division to an American company then shifted its entire production into war materials and never returned to automotive production.
Although founded by an American, Oland Joseph Brooks, the Brooks Steam Company operated out of Stratford, Ontario from 1920 to 1927. Its car, the Brook Steamer was an expensive car. Only about 125 cars were made before Brooks removed the plant to Buffalo, NY.
These were not the only manufacturers of Canadian automobiles. Many small companies tried their hand in feeding what became a growing and even lucrative market in the 20th century. Some, such as the Clinton of Huron County (1912) and the Kennedy (1909-10) in Preston, disappeared quickly. The Tudhope (1908-13), the Autocar, the EMF and the Kennedy – all from Orillia, and the McLaughlin from Oshawa sold to the Carriage Factories Limited of Orillia, Ontario, also followed this same route into oblivion – although the Mclaughlin Automotive Company was absorbed by General motors ca 1918.
Guelph, too had its own venture into automobile production. Gilson Manufacturing Company and the Jules Motor Company offered Guelphites the chance to purchase a Canadian-made machine. In fact, while neither company ever emerged as even a minor competitor to Ford, they are evidence of an interest in what was then still a novel form of transportation in Guelph.
Gilson Manufacturing Company
The company produced around 3 automobiles in the 1920s. The venture was more a publicity stunt than anything else. Horace Mack drove one of the vehicles around Guelph, advertising the inventiveness of his company.
Jules Motor Company: Located on Suffolk Street, in a portion of the Morlock Factory, this company started to produce automobiles on Monday, October 9, 1911. As “one of the city’s latest industries” the company garnered attention locally. According to the Mercury, they already had orders for 300 automobiles. 15 were for local customers while Winnipeg was to receive 100.
Whether they ever materialized is another question. However, the company did provide a model to show Guelph citizens the capabilities of their product. A report in the Guelph Mercury recorded a test run made by J.A. McRae & Sons. The newspaper noted: “The auto delivery car did splendid work... and delivered parcels to 387 residences from 9.30 in the morning to 6 o’clock, or about 700 parcels in all, thus doing the work of two horse deliveries. The vehicle managed to climb the Grange Street hill with ease and did not get stuck in the mud on the Gordon Street subway beneath the Grand Trunk Railway tracks.”
According to G. Bloomfield in an article in in Volume 22 Wellington County History (2009), the company produced two vehicles in Guelph. They boasted 26 and 30hp. Of the two, the Jules 30 was the better known. It was a four-passenger car. They returned to their factory in Toronto in 1911 and continued to produce this small touring car into 1912.
Supplying Parts and Repair Work
In addition to car manufacturers, other Guelph firms produced components for automobiles including tops and tires. James A. Swindelhurst was producing car tops in 1915 and 1916, his small shop at 111 Gordon. It was not that much different from making carriage and buggy tops.
Where Guelph was increasing both factory size and the number of employees was in the production of tires. The Independent Tire Company came to Guelph in 1912/1913. Plans were first laid in 1911. City Council was considering loaning the company $20,000 to open a plant on or before July 1912. This did not happen. The company did not begin to manufacture tires until 1913 in its purpose-built factory on Metcalfe Street. However, circumstances changed. The plant was liquidated, then reorganized becoming the Partridge Rubber Company in 1919. In turn, the Partridge Rubber Company was acquired in April, 1928.
Another tire company arriving during the same time was Standard Tires. During the war, they managed to get a big contract. This forestalled their removal in May 1916. The company, however, was taken over by Partridge Rubber in August of that same year.
However, automobiles required more than tires. They needed repairs and replacement parts. Among support systems for these temperamental, expensive and often unreliable vehicles were garages. The first one in Guelph was opened in 1908 by Samuel Laughlin a former employee with the Guelph Electrical Works, he set up shop on Norfolk Street. Although he was a Ford agent, his business did not last more than a year. The same applied to the Royal City Garage in the same location.
This was not the case for other Guelph entrepreneurs. Charles Moxley and his son William branched out from cycle sales and repairs into the automotive business in 1909. Their Perth Street shop, conveniently located behind their home, became a name in Guelph and beyond. In fact, it was noted by the Ontario Motor League in the travel guides of the decade.
Other success stories included the Guelph Motor Car Company. It was opened for business in 1912 by Stan Tolton in a section of the Old Crowe Foundry on Norfolk. Although the company focused on providing and repairing cars, some auto component production was involved. Advertising themselves in the local newspaper as “The Garage of Quality,” it became the local agents for two automotive companies, selling the following two automobiles:
In February 1917, the Guelph Motor Car company changed hands. The new owners were Collins and Reinhardt. They focused on Chevrolets. They sold it in 1919 to Samuel John Adams (1885-1935), listed in 1927 as one of the prominent men in Guelph. Upon securing this company, he began to expand from a dealership into mechanical repairs. His agency then expanded to include Oakland Automobiles and the G.M.C. Trucks (1923).
Around the same time, J.H. Johnson offered his services from a garage located on St. George’s Square. Not only did he provide repairs, he also offered a taxicab for hire. As was to be expected, Johnson’s also sold gas. However, this garage claimed its product to be better than the average fuel. It was filtered. It was pumped from hand-operated Bowser pumps. These devices had also been “Government Inspected.”
Another garage/auto sales company that began catering to the growing demand for automobiles at the time was the Robson Motor Corporation. Its owner was Beverley Robson (1891-1952). Robson was a motor car enthusiast. During the early 1900s, he could be found driving a modified McLaughlin at racetracks, including Guelph’s Exhibition Park. His co-driver, Wallace Drew (1897-1935), an ingenious mechanic, also worked for Robson in his shop on Macdonell St.
In 1917, the Guelph Mercury noted the company had installed a “very large and up-to-date power generator storage battery charging plant. This was, purportedly, one of the best in Ontario. This early garage continued to survive into the 1930s. A this point, Robson had become Mayor of Guelph. He held this position for the years 1926-1931; 1933-1934 and 1943-1944.
At first, none of the above auto shops had to have a license to provide their services. This was to change in 1921 with the introduction of Section 7 of the Motor Vehicle Amendment Act 1921. Its intent was to make sure vehicle owners felt more secure about who worked on their automobiles. It also provided the government with further revenue.
The Automotive Businesses in Guelph in the 1920s
The second decade of the nineteenth century is notable for many things, including an increased interest in the automobile. Guelph held its first car show in March 1921. People eagerly flocked to attend it. The Guelph Mercury noted on Wednesday, March 9 that, "despite inclement weather, last night there was another large crowd on hand, and several sales are reported to have been made."
The year before, the Commercial Motor Bodies & Carriages Ltd, (aka the Guelph Motor Car Company) opened its automotive business. It is listed in the manufacturing sector for that and subsequent years at 123-129 Woolwich Street. In 1923, William Dawson was the manager. Its exact products or purpose is unknown. However, it was not related to a similarly named American firm slated to arrive that same year – 1920.
The American truck and car manufacturer, the Commerce Motor Car Company, founded in Detroit in 1911, was said to be setting up their Canadian Factory in Guelph. It was to be on York Road in the former home of the Moncrieff Furnace Company. The product was to be trucks. The papers had been signed and Guelph officials were excited. Employment figures were cited as around 2,000. What created even more enthusiasm for the company’s potential arrival, upon government approval, was the company’s intent to build houses for their workers. Unfortunately, the Commerce Motor Company does not seem to have gained a foothold in Guelph. No mention of it is made. The American Company was purchased in 1927 by Relay Motors and closed for good in Detroit in 1932.
The Automotive Businesses in Guelph in the 1930s
In the 1930s, the number of companies and businesses catering to the automotive industry had expanded. In 1921, the Classified Business Directory for Guelph listed 9 companies that sold automobiles, including the Guelph Motor Car, Robson’s, Wilson’s and Tolton's. It listed one auto livery, 1 car repair shop, 10 businesses that supplied automobile tires and accessories, 1 auto painter (Charles Metcalf at 98 Macdonnell) and 1 auto top manufacturer – JH Parker & Sons. Ten years later the number of auto-related services had increased significantly. Among the new comers were:
· Guelph Auto Body & Fender Co - 112 Madonnell
· National Auto Body & Fender Co. - 19 Gordon
· Clark’s Garage - 131 Metcalfe
· Muller Brothers- 135 Woolwich
· Daley’s Tire Shop – 100 Macdonnell
· Expert Tire Repair - 17 Woolwich
· Guelph Tire Hospital & Battery Service - 20-22 Macdonnell
· McCloskey’s Service Station - Elora Road.
Other companies were working on automobiles and trucks that chose not to – or could not afford to list with the Directory. These were small shops scattered throughout the city.
A few existing companies, such as Robson’s expanded during the 1930s. In March, 1939, Robson's announced it had purchased the former Dalyte Plant, the same year a fire destroyed these premises. However, some companies that manufactured automotive parts made their appearance for the first time in Guelph during the 1930s. The Guelph Coach and Body Company, located on Suffolk near Woolwich Streets, opened in the 1930s. Owned by T. Ross Barber, it boasted in 1937 of having several new contracts to produce motor bodies for “all the leading motor manufacturing companies of Canada.” However, the only one noted in this February article was for the Ontario Hydro Commission. To keep up with the work, the Guelph Coach and Body Company was building an extension. They were planning to hire another 10 to 2 people.
As the ownership of motor vehicles increased, so, too, did the type of services that addressed their needs and those of their owners. Garages and service stations, auto-repair and auto-body shops, auto painters, and a variety of businesses offering everything from batteries to tire services, became part of the urban and even rural landscape. The car was in Guelph to stay and, although we no longer make automobiles or tires, businesses, like Linamar and Magna International attest to Guelph manufacturers working with the auto industry to keep vehicles on the road.