Until the past generation or so, the manufacture of automobiles and car parts did not form part of the industrial makeup of Wellington.
In the early years of the industry there were a few attempts to establish automotive plants in the county, but those did not succeed. Perhaps the best known was the Gilson Manufacturing Company in Guelph, which undertook the manufacture of three automobiles in 1920, two of which were completed.
The Gilson firm, later known for refrigeration equipment, was originally a maker of gasoline engines, so the extension into cars was a natural move. For whatever reason, the firm did not continue the line beyond the two prototypes.
Less well known today were the proposals of James Fowler of Toronto to manufacture cars in Mount Forest and Palmerston in 1911. The North American automotive industry at that time consisted of hundreds of firms. Most were American, but a handful were owned by Canadian proprietors. American makers desired to get a foothold in Canada, but the high import duties were a major deterrent. The obvious solution was to set up a plant in Canada. Most planned to use parts made in the United States, which were subject to much lower import duties than complete cars.
The typical automobile manufacturer began as a carriage maker. Indeed, early cars looked like carriages with a small gasoline motor substituting for a horse. For example, the McLaughlin Carriage Company began assembling Buick motor cars in 1907, and eventually became General Motors of Canada.
A tiny but ambitious firm, the Krit Motor Car Company of Detroit, sought to enter the Canadian market late in 1910. James Fowler of Toronto acted as the agent of the company, and in December of 1910 he showed up in Mount Forest, and signed an agreement with the Mount Forest Carriage Company to assemble Krit automobiles.
Plans called for 150 cars to be assembled at Mount Forest in 1911, with the majority of the parts shipped from Detroit. Fowler estimated that 25 to 30 men would be hired. Those ambitious plans fell apart within weeks. Krit never established a plant in Canada. Today the firm is perhaps best remembered for its symbol, the swastika.
Fowler followed up with another plan. He would take over the Mount Forest Carriage Company’s old plant in Palmerston, which the firm had vacated in 1904 when the owners, the Steele brothers, moved to Mount Forest.
When Fowler and the Krit company had their falling out, Fowler didn’t miss a step. The Tudhope Carriage Company of Orillia was a major Canadian carriage maker. That firm began assembling McIntyre automobiles in 1908. A year later its plant burned to the ground. The Tudhope family rebuilt its carriage factory but cancelled its arrangement with McIntyre. Instead, the company signed an agreement with the Metzger Motor Car Company.
Fowler quickly established an arrangement as Canadian representative of the McIntyre Company, and continued his discussions with the Steele brothers. They came up with an alternate proposal.
The Steele brothers agreed to sell Fowler their old plant in Palmerston, which had been vacant for a half dozen years. They had been using it for storage from time to time. It is quite possible that the Steele brothers preferred not to become involved in the volatile automotive industry. They also seemed cautious about tying themselves to Jim Fowler.
There was a major problem with the deal to purchase the Palmerston plant. Jim Fowler had no money, and the McIntyre Company was stretched to the limit. On March 15, 1911, Fowler met with Palmerston council. He needed a loan from the town to buy the old plant from the Steele brothers and to purchase equipment to assemble cars.
Discussions continued for several weeks. Council contacted the McIntyre firm. Company officials were encouraging in their support of Fowler’s proposal, but they would not be underwriting the financing of the Palmerston assembly plant. Eventually, council hammered out a deal: Fowler would be given a loan of $4,000 to buy the plant and $6,000 to acquire equipment and tools. The loan would be repayable over 10 years, and Fowler agreed to employ at least 50 men.
On April 5 council voted to issue debentures to finance the loan. In those days such an agreement required the approval of at least 60% of the ratepayers. Council scheduled the vote for May 1.
Palmerston was then very much a railway town. The Grand Trunk liked it that way, and tried to pressure its employees to vote against the loan. Their efforts proved to be spectacularly unsuccessful. The bylaw passed by a vote of 346 to 6, with an 82% turnout of ratepayers. That was 90 votes more than required.
Palmerston residents waited patiently through the summer for Fowler to begin renovation work on the factory, but nothing happened, and Fowler was not to be seen. At the end of August he wrote a letter to council, asking for an extension of time to fulfill his side of the deal. Palmerston councillors were not sympathetic. They were coming to the conclusion that Fowler was a windbag and “an operator,” to use the language of that time.
The prospects of manufacturing or assembling automobiles in either Mount Forest or Palmerston soon withered and died. The McIntyre Automobile Company, based in Auburn, Indiana, was struggling to keep its head above water. Two firms, Ford and General Motors, were quickly exerting their dominance in the industry, making the marketplace all but impossible for the small firms, which lacked the resources to set up a dealer network across the continent or to mount expensive national advertising campaigns.
Some of the smaller car makers closed down in 1912 and 1913. Others succumbed during World War I or to the economic difficulties that followed it.
The McIntyre Automobile Company, during the seven years of its existence, produced only 1,700 cars before folding in 1915. Its best year was 1912, when the firm turned out 285 cars at its Indiana plant, less than one per day. Given those numbers, the setting up of a Canadian assembly plant was not a major priority for McIntyre.
James Fowler was the most active of the promoters of the automotive industry in Wellington. There were others, but their plans never advanced beyond idle talk.
From the perspective of a century, it is obvious that the proposals advanced by Jim Fowler for automotive manufacturing in Wellington County were doomed from the beginning. Although no cars were made in Wellington for the Canadian market, there were several in the area that produced modest volumes before closing.
Canadian Motors in Galt assembled several hundred “Canada” cars between 1911 and 1915. The Kennedy Motor Company of Preston made 175 cars between 1909 and 1911. Plants in Kitchener (Berlin in those days) turned out the Leroy between 1899 and 1902, and the Royal from 1914 to 1917. Later, in the 1920s, the Brooks firm in Stratford produced about 300 steam powered cars.
All those brands are now unknown except to a few fanatics of automotive history. The history of the motor car is a central part of the history of Wellington County in the 20th century, but that story involves dealerships and servicing, rather than the making of automobiles.