Many local history buffs look forward to the publication every spring of Wellington County History, by the Wellington County Historical Society.
This year’s volume is the 22nd, and is a theme issue on the impact of the motor car on the county.
Automobiles and trucks have plied the roads of Wellington for over a century. Cars were slower to appear locally than in some other parts of Canada, and Canada, in turn, lagged behind the United States.
The first car in Canada seems to have been an electric model, hand-built in Toronto in 1893. The first gasoline-powered model was a one-cylinder Winton, imported in 1898. No one is quite sure who owned the first car in Wellington. Banker James A. Halsted, of Mount Forest, turned heads with his imported model in 1904, and in Guelph publisher J.W. Lyon became an early automotive enthusiast, despite his advancing years.
He was Wellington’s first lead-footed motorist. One of his passengers claimed that his hair turned white after a high-speed spin with Lyon at the wheel of his big Overland sedan.
In 1904, there were only 600 cars registered in Canada. By 1907, that number had more than tripled. After that point, the growth was phenomenal: 50,000 in 1912 and 200,000 in 1917. Those numbers were swelled by the introduction of the Ford Model T here in 1908. It quickly became the dominant brand, and remained in production for 20 years.
Ford is often credited with introducing the assembly line to automotive industry, but that honour really belongs to Ransom E. Olds, who began turning out Oldsmobiles in 1901 at $650. Most of the early brands were much more expensive than that, and were therefore playthings for the rich. Expensive to begin with, an import duty of 25% placed motor cars further out of reach of most people.
Ford’s Model T, assembled in Canada, cut the price per vehicle to less than $300, making cars affordable for many millions of people.
In Canada, a Ford plant began assembling early Ford models in Windsor in 1904 using imported parts. The real start to Canadian production was in 1907 by R.S. McLaughlin in Oshawa. The McLaughlin firm had been a major carriage maker, and used imported Buick engines in its cars.
Soon there were dozens of manufacturers in Canada. Virtually all were of little significance. The list includes the Gilson Manufacturing Company of Guelph, which turned out a couple of prototypes before abandoning the idea.
By 1912, most of the towns in Wellington had at least one car dealer. In that year, there were about 20 vehicles in Elora, or about one per 60 population. The figures were similar for other towns in the county. For all, the automotive business was a sideline to a blacksmith business, a hardware, or a general store. The most successful ones soon dealt exclusively in cars, repairs, and gasoline.
The explosion in vehicle registrations caused a huge clamour for improved roads. That movement, in fact, predates the motor car in Ontario, with the formation of the Good Roads Association in 1896.
Good Roads advocates exerted pressure on governments to provide better access by farmers to markets. With a motor car parked beside the house, town and city residents wanted better roads as well.
The impact on government expenditures was immense, particularly at the county level. Road building and maintenance quickly became the largest item by far in county budgets. The Ontario government dragged its feet somewhat when faced by the demand for more and better roads. The Department of Highways was originally a branch of the Department of Agriculture, but it became a full-fledged department in 1914.
Huge employment opportunities emerged with the introduction of the motor car. Making the vehicles was only the tip of the iceberg. Cars needed maintenance and repairs, and local men took advantage of the opportunities. Many of them were self-trained. The first decades of the 20th century were a golden age for such men, especially as a second-hand market emerged for motor cars. Every town in Wellington had at least a couple of men who seemed to pick up automotive mechanics by instinct, often learning their skills by repairing and tinkering with an older model while they were very young.
The local mechanics became very skilled at repairs, often fabricating or adapting parts when they were hard to get from the manufacturer, or simply too expensive. Others devised improvements and homemade “options” for individual owners.
There were also some car owners who made a hobby of repairing and modifying their cars. Among the latter group was Clifford Drew, of Mount Forest. He was a barber by profession, born in 1888, and he developed a fascination with cars in the years after 1912.
About 1914, Drew observed that his car’s engine seemed to run more smoothly and use less fuel on damp days. During the summer of 1916 he devoted much thought to that observation, devising a way to make every day a damp one from the perspective of his car’s engine.
After considerable tinkering, he devised a way to conduct steam from the radiator to the carburetor. He claimed the results were amazing. His car had formerly run for 22 or 23 miles on a gallon of gasoline. With the modification it would run for 40 miles on a gallon of fuel.
It would appear that the introduction of hot water vapour into the gasoline in the carburetor vapourized it more completely and evenly. It is also likely that the pressure in the cooling system raised the compression in the engine slightly.
Cliff Drew’s innovation attracted the attention of other motorists. He conducted several trials, one on the race track at Mount Forest, and another on a trip to Toronto via Hamilton, on Sept. 1, 1916, during which a friend carefully monitored the fuel consumption. In both cases, the car achieved 39 or 40 miles to the gallon of gas.
Drew’s friends seemed to agree that the technique produced a huge saving in fuel. On the other hand, his carburetor may not have been set up properly to begin with, and his invention simply made it operate closer to specifications. Another possibility is that the carburetor itself may not have been well designed. All the tests were done with his own car. Drew did not try the method on other brands.
At the urging of his friends, Cliff Drew applied for patents in Canada and the United States. He filed documents with the Canadian office on Sept. 19, 1916, and his patent, Number 174266, was issued on Jan. 2, 1917, for “An Apparatus for Economizing Hydrocarbon Fuel.” The American patent followed a short time later.
That seems to be the end of the story. It appears that Cliff Drew did not manufacture the device himself, and none of the automotive manufacturers picked it up. Drew was not the only man to experiment with methods to improve gas mileage. There were hundreds of others. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics regularly carried advertising for miracle carburetors in the 1940s and 1950s.
Cliff Drew’s experiment is just one of the stories of automotive age in Wellington. Others are in the new volume of Wellington County History, which will be first available at the annual meeting of the historical on the evening of June 1 at the Wellington County Museum’ beginning at 7pm.