What is the most Canadian car ever?

The Model T? The Frontenac? Auto columnist Brendan McAleer breaks down the contenders

I spent July 1 on an airplane, headed out of the U.K. on the long trip home from the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

From afar, the celebrations of home looked quite fun – I couldn’t hear the fireworks, but hope you all had a nice time, eh?

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Wandering around Goodwood revealed a little smattering of Canadiana, from one of Gilles Villeneuve’s racing Ferraris, to the new Ford GT, which is built by Multimatic, a Canadian company. It got me thinking: sure, there are a few oddities here and there, but what’s the most Canadian car ever made? Here are some contenders I’ve brushed up against.

First, there’s the Model T, as assembled by Ford Canada. The Ford Motor Company of Canada, established by one Gordon McGregor, was originally called the Walkerville Wagon Works, and dates back to Aug. 17, 1904. Not a subsidiary of Ford south of the border, but its own company. Ford Canada was created to build and sell Henry Ford’s little car into most of the British Commonwealth (except the U.K. herself – Ford had a plant in Cork for that).

Thus Ford Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa were all under the umbrella of Ford Canada. And, because we have a mix here of countries that drive on the left or right, Canadian-made Model Ts are unique in that they have two doors, the better to switch the wheel to the right or left on the assembly line.

Back in those heady days of yore, however, there were also dozens of smaller Canadian car companies that were producing machines entirely of their own design (honorable mention here to the early Russell, of entirely Canadian design and construction). Among the best, and persistently well-known, were the McLaughlin-Buicks. Samuel McLaughlin used Buick engines out of Michigan, but the rest of his machines were designed and built in Oshawa.

When the Prince of Wales and Prince George visited Canada in 1927, a special tour car was built for them. When the Prince became King George VIII, he ordered himself a McLaughlin-Buick, as he had been so impressed with the car.

There are other royal Buicks as well. One, built for the pre-war royal tour of King George VI and the Queen mother, is currently parked over in Kerrisdale. It also carried Charles and Diana, and Queen Elizabeth II herself.

However, just because we have the Queen on our money doesn’t mean we have to have her in our car. Canadian tastes overall were more thrifty than our southern neighbours – either because the cars rusted out faster, or owning to some persistent Scottish heritage – so we tended to buy smaller cars. This state of affairs continues today.

Before 1965, Canada leveraged heavy tariffs on cars and trucks, meaning that manufacturers looking to sell across the border often built factories up here, and shared parts around. We’d get slightly unique vehicles, like the Pontiac Pathfinder and Laurentian, the Ford Frontenac, the Mercury Montcalm, and a host of Fargo trucks. Studebaker also built their Commander here, in Hamilton.

At the same time, foreign cars started showing up. The VW Beetle arrived here in 1962, some years before it arrived in the United States, and Honda showed up in the early 1960s with the S600 (Honda didn’t come to the U.S. until 1970). Overseas makes were popular, and even got a toehold in the country with a Halifax-based plant building Volvos. The Volvo 123, usually known as the Amazon, was called the Volvo Canadian.

By 1965, the tariffs had stopped and our cars mostly looked the same. One notable local exception you may not be aware of is the Pontiac Beaumont Cheetah. The Pontiac Beaumont was the Canadian version of the Chevrolet Chevelle, and could be ordered as a Sport Deluxe version, which was somewhere between a Chevelle SS and a Pontiac GTO. If you had the cash, you could also wander down to Conroy Pontiac-Buick in West Vancouver, and order something they called the Cheetah. It came with a 450 horsepower dealer-installed L72 427ci V-8, and may be considered the Canadian version of a Yenko.

During the 1970s, a couple of quirky machines emerged. One was the Bricklin SV-1, a sort of Canadian DeLorean before the DeLorean existed. Packed with safety features, it was never officially sold north of the border, and wasn’t much of a sales success.

Like the DeLorean, the Bricklin didn’t quite deliver the performance its wedge-shaped body promised. A 175 h.p. Ford 351 provided only modest acceleration, and most of the cars came with a three-speed auto. There are a few out there with a zestier AMC 360ci V-8 and a four-speed manual, but these are only the ‘74 models. There are also a number of reliability issues, especially with the pop-up headlights. An enthusiast owner now, however, could easily tune the engine and sort the chassis without losing the spirit of the car.

Even harder to find these days is the Manic GT, a Quebec-built sports car based on the Renault 8. A pretty good design with a few critical flaws where corrosion was concerned, the Manic was felled more by Renault’s indifference in supplying parts promptly. It might well have been a modest success, and the rarest Gordini-tuned versions were apparently very quick thanks to a featherweight construction.

The 1980s belonged to the Japanese manufacturers in Canada, but not necessarily in the way you think. In 1986 the first Civic was built in Honda’s Alliston plant, and 1989 saw the Canadian-made Corolla leave the line. Both cars would become favourites with Canadian buyers, but they also proved that our manufacturing industry could make excellent products.

To that end, we now build a huge number of vehicles for export in Canada. Some are fairly middle of the road, like the Ford Edge. But did you know every Dodge Hellcat model actually comes out of the factory with a whiff of maple syrup about it? Shhh – don’t tell the Yanks.

And finally, the Ford GT, a supercar made in Canada that’s a world beater. Yes, it’s designed in Detroit, but Ford came north when they needed expertise in carbon-fibre construction, and the performance-focused brains at Multimatic. The only real question for this new, most-Canadian of cars is: can we get it with snow tires there, bud?

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. Email: mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com. 

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