Short-lived Fergus company made automobile signals in 1930

This column has on several occasions featured pieces on the history of the Beatty Brothers firm of Fergus, which, for the first half of the 20th century, turned Fergus into a virtual company town.

Will and Milton Beatty were able to exercise their influence on virtually everything that happened in the town where their plants dominated the local economy.

Though the Beatty influence was immense, there were other industrial ventures in Fergus during those years. Several years ago this column described the life of one of the more successful ones, Superior Barn Equipment (meaning superior to the Beatty lines of similar equipment).

Other ventures are forgotten today. One of those was the Auto Signal Company, which set up shop in a building on St. Andrew Street West owned by William Golightly Jr.

The building, still standing, is at the southeast corner of St. Andrew Street West and Maiden Lane. President of Auto Signal was a man named John Cowan, who lived at the time in West Garafraxa.

Cowan’s operation started very modestly, and to his regret, never expanded beyond that stage. He rented a large room on the second floor of the building. Golightly, it appears, was not directly involved in the operation. Auto Signal’s property assessment on the property and on its equipment totalled $200.

The name of the firm suggests that it might have produced signal lights for the automotive industry. That, indeed, was correct. But Auto Signal did not supply any automotive manufacturers or dealers. Their product, an after-market item, was a cutout of a policeman that was to be placed in the rear window of a motor car. In each hand the policeman held a red light. When the driver activated a switch on the dashboard of the car, one of the policeman’s arms would rise to a horizontal position, indicating that the car was about to turn in that direction. When stopping, the driver would activate both switches, and the figure would raise both arms and lights.

There were obvious problems with the device. The red lights were on at all times, and the following driver would need to be sufficiently close to see whether the arms were raised or lowered. The “brake” light was not activated by the brake pedal, but by the switches on the dashboard. In an emergency stop a driver was likely to forget to activate the signal.   

A major deficiency was that the Auto Signal system had no indication visible from the front of the vehicle. And as an extra-cost add-on device, it was certain to be shunned by the vast majority of motorists.

As it turned out, John Cowan showed very poor judgment in his timing. His manufacturing operation began during the second half of March 1930, just as the Great Depression was making itself felt. Sales of new motor cars plummeted, and those driving older models were not likely to be tempted by an add-on signaling device. Another factor undermining the “policeman” was that even to the public of 1930, it seemed hokey, even kitsch.

To many people in Fergus, though, any manufacturing activity not associated with the Beatty firm was a welcome addition to the village. News Record editor Hugh Templin visited the plant, such as it was, soon after it opened, and was effusive in his praise of the operation and its prospects serving the vast North American automotive market.

When the editor visited Auto Signal in the third week of March 1930 he noted that the firm had about a dozen hands at work. The majority, he noted, were women, and he welcomed the employment opportunities the firm provided, since they had few prospects at the Beatty factories other than in the office. Templin claimed the work at Auto Signal was well-suited for women to perform, and he predicted that their numbers would increase as a result of the “great demand for the product.”

John Cowan made a great deal of the fact that his device could be placed in any make of car. He considered it a great benefit to motorists in winter and cold weather. Rather than roll down their window to make hand signals for turns and stops, the motorist could do it in comfort.

At the time few brands of motor cars came equipped with signal lights. By law automobiles were required to have a single brake light, but it was also activated with the headlight system, and that proved to be less than satisfactory.

Cowan stressed that there was no other product like his on the market. That was certainly a questionable statement in a period when every firm in the automotive industry, along with countless thousands of basement and garage tinkerers, was vying to invent something simple for the motor car that would make them rich.

Templin ended his story, undoubtedly influenced by John Cowan’s glowing statements, that the operation would enjoy a rapid expansion through 1930 and 1931. The firm was, claimed Cowan, already several months behind in filling orders on hand.

No further stories on the Auto Signal Company appeared in the News Record, a sure sign that all was not well and that manufacturing levels never came close to Cowan’s rosy predictions. The Auto Signal Company appears on the Fergus assessment roll for 1931, at the same valuation as the year before. It then vanishes quietly into history.

In his interview with Hugh Templin, John Cowan said nothing about promotion and distribution. Cowan seemed to believe that the signal would sell itself, and that orders would pour in. But to reach the motoring public in 1930 required an expensive advertising campaign in national media. Effective distribution was also a headache for a tiny firm such as Auto Signal.

From the perspective of 85 years it is obvious that the only hope that Auto Signal had would have been to sign a distribution agreement with a much larger firm in the automotive parts industry. Cowan may well have tried and been rejected. That points to the other big problem facing Auto Signal: the concept of the product was not a good one, and was unlikely to appeal to the vast majority of motorists.

The Auto Signal Company is a very minor chapter in the industrial history of Fergus. Other than Hugh Templin’s 1930 article and the entries in the Fergus assessment roll, nothing of the firm seems to exist in the historical record, and no one who worked there would still be living. Still, it is an intriguing story. It is an industry that, given changes in the marketing and design of the product, that might have altered the industrial history of Wellington County.

Perhaps a reader owns an example of the Auto Signal unit. I would be most anxious for the chance to photograph it, and no doubt many automotive history buffs would like to see it as well. During the past 25 years or so the making of automotive components has become a major industry in Wellington County. Before that there is little, but there were a few firms active in the industry from time to time. The Auto Signal Company was only one of them.


Stephen Thorning