Up the Gatineau! Article

This article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 12.

The Cars Of Yesteryear

Lillian Walton

This is a story of the early cars and the people who made, drove and loved them... how the automobile began and grew in popularity in Canada. Too often though the whole story of the beginning years was wrought with grief and frustration, caused either by the unpredictability of the machines or the attitudes of the citizenry which ranged from indifference to murderous hate.

Canada's first automobile was purchased by John Moodie Jr. of Hamilton and brought into Canada on April 6, 1898. He got it past the Customs, and knocked 10% off the duty, by calling it a locomotive. His car was a Winton Runabout costing $1,000. He wasn't popular when he barged in on a picnic party one day in LaSalle Park in Burlington, and got a cool reception. He was promptly told to "get that thing out of here!" It was a horrible looking buggy-like machine with 36" wire spoke wheels and a curved leather dash, really like a buggy gone wrong. It was obvious that acceptance of the automobile was going to be slow.

More than 125 different makes of cars were produced in this country between 1900 and 1933. During this time there were several firms throughout the world making automobiles, the most of which were indifferent and unoriginal in design. For many years they were equipped with the barest of necessities, no speedometer or starter, no temperature gauge or bumpers. The oldest company in Canada making cars today is Ford, established in Walkerville (now part of Windsor) in 1904. The chassis and other parts were shipped in by ferry from Detroit while the bodies were made in Chatham, Ontario, by Wm. Gray and Sons. The first Ford plant didn't even have electricity. The only power equipment was a drill, driven by a belt attached to the rear wheel of one of the first cars made at the plant.

The most famous of the Fords, and indeed of all cars in history, was the Model T offered to the public in 1908. Henry Ford began building automobiles in 1903 in his woodshed in Detroit. The production of automobiles in tremendous quantities at a low price so that millions of people the world over could enjoy them became Ford‘s essential contribution.

Dr. Harold Geggie and his "snowmobile". (GVHS 364/4)

In 1907 the price tag of the Model T was $850.00 but by 1914 the price was down to $490.00, thanks to mass production. Henry Ford began the moving assembly line in 1919. One anecdote from that time was about the man who dropped his hammer and by the time he stooped to pick it up, 3 Fords had gone by! At the start 100 Fords were turned out a day in 1909 to more then 1,000 a day four years later. Henry called it the “Universal Car". He could modify his car to plow the fields on weekdays and still go country driving in it on Sundays. Legions of owners used their Ford to saw wood, pump water, store grain, run stock shears, generate electricity and many other jobs that most people would never dream of. Fitted with a flat platform behind the driver, many a load of hay came in from the fields. The farmer, who first despised the car, would eventually come to praise it.

Between 1908 and 1927, 75,000 Canadians bought these "Tin Lizzies“ and thousands more were bought second hand. In 1914, for instance, 38% of the cars sold in this country were Fords.

Everything about the car, however, seemed repugnant to the rural people. It was noisy and stinking. They scared the wits out of weaker-hearted citizens and the daylights out of placid horses. The farmers alleged that they scared their pigs, killed chickens, caused cows to dry up and drove their women into hysterics.

Another cause for alarm was the fact that most drivers knew little about driving. One Saskatchewan man was still vainly pulling on his new Ford's steering wheel, like reins, as he plunged through his neighbour's greenhouse. Another was seen careening down a hill, over a boardwalk, through a fence and into a vacant lot, bellowing “Whoa, Whoa!“

About two-thirds of Canada's population was rural, and when farmers spoke politicians listened. They tried to hamper motorists, mostly with the law. Ontario led off in 1903 with a 15 mph country and 10 mph town speed limit. Even at that the Toronto and Hamilton motor clubs had to take each MLA for a ride to persuade him that 10 mph wasn't unduly reckless.

Motor leagues were formed in every province to help each other for sheer survival. They erected road signs which the farmers stubbornly pulled down or pointed the wrong way. In 1908 the farmers proposed an amendment to the Criminal Code which would make it an indictable offence, punishable by 2 years in prison, for a motorist to cause a horse to run away. Down east farmers and motorists were often close to civil war.

Advertisements like this sprung up in publications:

Make your WILL and appoint an EXECUTOR.
Send for Pamphlet ............................

Not only did early car enthusiasts have to overcome the hostility of their neighbours but also the hostility of the landscape. Bad roads were the bugbear of the early motorist. Dr. Perry Doolittle of Toronto became Canada's leading advocate of good roads.


In 1926, Dr. Doolittle had a sixteen-day trip to Vancouver from Calgary. The nation's roads were atrocious, and any traveller's horror story had to be exceptional to rate an audience. Doolittle went through snow a foot deep on the last leg of the trip. He had to dodge failing rock and get out and roll bigger rocks off the trail. Once his car was actually hung up on a boulder! Heavy rains had washed out the trail in areas and "chains were absolutely necessary." At certain spots the road was bridged with planks where there was a sharp cleft in the rocks. But through all this Doolittle insisted it was "thrilling." The real news was that he had come through the Rockies on "rubber", except tor a sixty-five mile span where he had to resort to ferryboat. Soon after this everyone wanted to get-on the good roads bandwagon.

In Manitoba, the Province's pioneer motorist, "Ace" Emmett led a Winnipeg delegation to nearby Headingly, offering to build a free road. The local councillors turned him down saying, “We don't want those new-fangled motor machines scaring our horses off the highway!”

In Prince Edward Island, after forbidding cars on its highways, the Province later permitted driving a car on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. A driver had to slow down when approaching a horse-drawn vehicle. If the horse seemed frightened a driver had to get down and "render assistance." There was a fine of $500.00 or 6 months in jail if the above rules were not obeyed.

One enterprising farmer had a whiffletree installed at the front of his car to accommodate a team of horses if he got stuck on the bad roads and had to be pulled out. He also had a large ring at the back of his car to tie his horses to and lead them home once the car got going.

Many motorists devised their own ways of coping with the hazards which bad roads created. Flat tires were common and one method to fix a flat was to fill the inner tube with oatmeal or cornmeal and water. This would swell and plug the leak. Dr. Doolittle used e mixture of molasses and milk. This worked for several weeks until one day the tire burst and the rancid mixture nearly asphyxiated him!

Besides the worry of the condition of the roads an automobile, starting on a long trip, had to be packed with proper equipment. The car had to be thoroughly checked beforehand as service stations were still scarce. Canada's first, a Vancouver Imperial Oil tank hooked to a kitchen hose, didn't appear until 1908. But a wise traveller carried extra tins of fuel and water. He also strapped on two spare tires, as many as seven inner tubes, pump, jack, raw-hide tire-bandage (to wrap a bruised casing), chains, tire repair kit and a set of nail pullers which sometimes helped to peel off horseshoe nails before they pierced the inner tube.

Once on the road, wayside food and lodging was cheap, a room in the Chateau Laurier Hotel went for $2.00, and a dollar bought a delectable steak dinner at any Quebec Inn. For a gourmet picnic, eggs were 10 cents a dozen, butter 16 cents a pound and roasting chickens 75 cents for two.


Ford Touring Car
Stephan H. Cross of Farm Paint, Que. at the wheel of his new touring car in 1913. Besides him is Samuel E. Wilson. Behind them, in the back seat, are their wives and two children. The Wilsons are the parents of the author of this article. She was one of ten children in the family. Photo courtesy of Lilian Walton. Reproduced by Wilfred Kearns.(GVHS 123.1/1)

One early local trip was undertaken by Stephen Cross of Farm Point, Quebec, who bought his first automobile on August 9, 1913, from THE OTTAWA TAXI AND AUTO CO. LTD. It was a four cylinder Ford Touring, and he bought it for $675.00. Gasoline varied in price and, as his records show, ranged from 20 to 30 cents a gallon. Ten years previously, in 1903, gasoline was just 7 to 9 cents a gallon. It appears that Mr. Cross had his problems too with the car. An invoice dated November 1913 shows he ordered a drive-shaft pinion for $2.00, a cylinder head wrench for 50 cents and a drive-shaft pinion wrench for 25 cents. Men tinkered with their cars and were able to fix the trouble themselves as long as parts were available.

0n this particular trip the Cross family had to endure a frightening experience crossing the Ottawa River on a scow to Cumberland to visit relatives. The ladies were made to get out of the car while it was driven on - in case it tipped... there would be two less to fish out of the water! The car had to be in the exact centre. When the man motioned to STOP, he meant STOP alright. Then there would be the jockeying back and forth, an inch or so at a time, until the scow was exactly level They weren't too used to ferrying cars in those days.

Along with the advent of the car came the inevitable number of fashions and accessories. One advertisement read;

Established 1886

No price was mentioned, but in Eaton's 1901-1902 Catalogue, Men's gauntlets were priced at 75¢, $1.00 if padded.

There were other clothes designed to resist the elements. The fashion writers had a field day, offering vast felt hats for women fronted by a mask punctured by two glass holes and looking something like primitive frogman gear. However, later on the motoring veil which covered the hat and tied under the chin was much more elegant. Men wore ankle-length coats to protect their trousers, and peaked caps surmounted by goggles, with a scarf wound around the face. On the car itself, coachwork designers were at work with improvements. The windscreen was invented, and by 1912 the whole car was enclosed to protect passengers from the elements.

Henry Ford was one of the first to place the driver's seat on the left hand side in order to accommodate the lady passengers so that they could step out onto the boardwalk and not into the muddy road and oncoming traffic.

The imperfections which the Ford had were part of its fascination. For example, there was no dip-stick in those days to check for oil. A person had to climb under the car and remove the top petcock. If no oil ran out you replaced it. If no oil came out of the lower petcock you were headed for bearing trouble if oil was not added at once! While the blamed thing was always a subject of complaints, it was also a source of fascination and produced a growing market for accessory manufacturers. They turned out some 5,000 gadgets to dress the car up and that rattling Model T that stood in the woodshed was promised to run "with the surest ease and invincible power."

One local attempt at early accessories had Reby (Johnston) Dodds, formerly of Rupert, Quebec, devising a way to take the baby in the car by using old flour bags. She cut two holes in the bottom of the flour bag for the baby's legs to come through and she tied the bag to the back of the front seat. This has to be the forerunner to the car-seat for baby today dating right back to 1920!

There are many stories to be told about the car salesmen. One salesman in particular, Floyd Clymer, had this experience as he was demonstrating the Model T to a farmer whose home was at the top of a hill. The gas tank was situated under the front seat which made the gravity flow to the carburetor practically impossible on very steep hills. Halfway up the hill the Ford began to sputter and cough. Clymer just pulled over to the side of the road, turned the car around and drove up backwards. He said to his customer, "See, this car drives just as well backwards!" He made his sale. The farmer had to do the same thing, at first lambasting the salesman but he realized it had to be done on very steep hills. "I just set my sights on the row of fence posts and the scrub oak for accurate backward aim!”, he told others, "and we always got home.“

There was another time when his father, who was a doctor, had to be driven out ten miles to deliver a baby. Instead, he decided to try and get the patient to the hospital. Halfway there he ordered his son to pull over quickly and "block your ears!" The baby was delivered right there in the back seat. They named him Henry, and if it had been a girl the name would have been Lizzie. Thirty years later, Dr. Clymer received a cheque for $20.00 payment for that birth in 1912. The father of the then 30-year old had joined Father Divine's church. One of Father Divine's strictest requirements was that "all honest debts be paid." Hard times and poor crops had prevented the new father from paying his fee in 1912. He thanked the doctor for his patience and for that memorable day in the Model T. Yes, some were conceived in it, a few were born in it and many would die in it.

After 19 years’ production of the Model T, car No. 15,456,868 came off the line to make way for a more modern car. As brilliant a man as Henry was, it took months to get the Model A under way, but in 1928 it soon went over in a big way. The public had great confidence in Henry Ford and millions regretted his death in 1947 at the age of 84.

The Fords were many in the Gatineau, as they were the world over. Those antique car buffs, lucky enough to own a Model T Ford, indeed, have a treasure!

Yes, those persistent early motorists had discovered a basic fact of the twentieth century; the automobile for all its sins and frustrations was totally irresistible. Although they wouldn't admit it for years, the farmers and other die-herds had lost. The horse was dead... long live the horseless!


‘Henry's Wonderful Model T - 1908-1927’ by Floyd Cramer.
‘A Great Way to Go - The Automobile in Canada‘ by Robert Collins.

This article by Lillian Walton was a prize-winner in the 1981 Annual Essay Contest sponsored by The Historical Society of the Gatineau.

The Ford car is largely featured herein, primarily because it was an early development. The Society, of course, holds no brief for any particular make of car.

Ford Motor Company
Nostalgia in car models and in car prices. Illustration courtesy of Lillian Walton.

Volume 12 table of content.

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