The Hardships of Early Canadian Motoring

By Roderick Sergiades

With self-driving cars on the horizon and automobiles already featuring some autonomous features, including self parking and cruise control, modern drivers may have difficulty fathoming the hardships early motorists faced.


The first Canadian self-propelled vehicle appeared all the way back in 1867 when Quebec’s Henry Seth Taylor created his steam buggy, which required something a tad more than just pressing a button to start. This ‘car’ needed much time – likely exceeding a half hour — and many steps to become operational. By the late 1890s, fairly reliable steam and range-limited electric vehicles began to appear on Canadian roads, some even produced here. But in the late Victorian era, automobiles remained strictly a plaything of the wealthy, who tended to shy away from the very unreliable, temperamental, noisy and smelly gasoline-powered cars that were only just beginning to appear.


Into the Edwardian era cars remained quite primitive by modern standards. Most possessed only a tiller to navigate with, as steering wheel precision was redundant due to the rutty, muddy roads then commonplace which restricted speed. They were also almost completely bereft of any electrical components, as their lights (if they had them) were usually kerosene or acetylene powered. Even the spark plugs of gas-powered cars derived their electrical current from magnetos and not batteries, the latter not yet an automotive staple. Inclement weather mandated wearing a mac as enclosed cars (sedans or saloons) were almost non-existent and uncommon roof-topped automobiles provided minimal protection. When sedans did become commonplace during the Roaring Twenties many, fortunately, came with driver-side windshield wipers – of the hand-powered variety.


When the LeRoy, the first domestically-produced gasoline-powered car appeared in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario in 1902, it came sans brakes. The competitively priced $650 machine cost more than twice the average annual income and could only brake when its planetary transmission was thrown into reverse. For those cars sporting more conventional mechanical brakes (similar to today’s handbrake), they only applied to the rear wheels. Today’s standard four-wheel and hydraulic-brake systems would not begin to appear until the mid to late 1920s.


Not surprisingly, with the well proved horse and buggy dominating the young Dominion’s roads, there were only 535 motor vehicles (including cars) registered in 1904 in Ontario, the most of any province. Nationally about 600 horseless carriages roamed the mostly clay and sand roads, although some routes had been ‘macadamized’ through compacted layers of crushed stone. By 1910, there was only one paved highway section in the entire country, a ten-mile (16 km) stretch from Montreal to Ste. Rose. When The Great War broke out, Ontario’s 55,000 miles of road had only 3,000 surfaced with broken stone, 19,000 of gravel, while the rest were graded earth or worse.


Times had begun to change by 1908, when a whopping 3,033 motor vehicles were now registered in eight of nine provinces and Canada’s (and possibly the world’s) first gas station opened in Vancouver. Gasoline was usually sold through pharmacies and principally as a cleaning agent. Also that year, Prince Edward Island, through pressure placed upon its legislators by a concerned equestrian industry, imposed a ban on all cars that would not be fully repealed until 1919.


No self-respecting motorist would be caught dead without the right attire, as shown in this 1912 ad.
The year the Titanic sank, 1912, most people thought cars an improper means of transportation. Their enthusiasts were seen as eccentric or adventuresome and often called ‘tourists’.


Not surprisingly many ‘automobilists’ thought themselves discriminated against. Their champion, the Ontario Motor League, said that year in their Official Automobile Road Guide of Canada that much of the public is anti-car and motorists a persecuted minority. They wrote, “You have a perfect right to use the highway. Your rights are equal with those using other vehicles”, and to be very mindful of villagers and local laws when driving through their communities.


A 1914 Canadian Model T Ford ad featuring the Dominion’s cheapest car
Early cars were capable of speeds as great as 25 or even 30 mph (40 to 50 km/h), or as fast as a late 19th century steam locomotive. The car that put the world on wheels, the 1908-introduced Model T Ford was best kept at speeds of 30 mph or less, lest it should start to shake apart. And even though “mile-a-minute” cars began to appear in the mid to late ’20s, they were often slowed by legislated speed limits  of only 35 mph (57 km/h) in open country and 20 mph (32 km/h) in cities and towns across Ontario. In PEI it was even worse, at just 15 mph (24 km/h) in any urban area. If you exceeded 40 mph (64 km/h), imprisonment was possible in New Brunswick. These provinces would not legislate higher speed limits until the 1930s.


Early gasoline-car ads, including the Oshawa-built 1914 McLaughlin-Buick, were constantly striving to convince the public of their reliability.
The Great White North having come by its nickname honestly, presented another challenge to early motorists. If you weren’t fortunate enough to own an air-cooled Franklin or an electric car, you were faced with the daily evening activity of draining water from your car’s radiator, as modern anti-freeze didn’t appear until 1926. Of course you could, as many motorists did, use alcohol to prevent your engine block from freezing and cracking, but this meant laboriously topping it up frequently and living with the damage alcohol inflicted on your car’s engine over time. Many motorists simply just put their wheels ‘on ice’ until spring.


As gasoline-powered cars rapidly rose in popularity during the Teens, most still lacked the convenience of electric cars for easy starting. With the former it was necessary in all weather to stand in front, position your grip on the protruding handle in an unnatural position and briefly crank hard (usually). An electric car only needed a turn of the key and the gentle pull of a lever from the comfort of the cab. This was the principal reason why Clara Ford preferred her 1914 Detroit Electric to the cars that had made her husband’s company the largest automaker in the world.


Something few drivers appreciate today is the skill double de-clutching required when changing gears. Long before the automatic transmission arrived in the late ’30s and synchromesh gearboxes in the late Twenties, the motorist when depressing the clutch had to listen and/or ‘feel’ for the ‘right’ motor revolutions before changing gear.
This 1925 ad features the Canadian-only Brooks Steamer, just as the steam-car era was coming to a close:


Despite these limitations of the early motorcar, the ‘autoists’ of the day often faced a bigger impediment in the guise of – horses. It wasn’t the equestrians themselves, but their horseshoe nails, which were constantly coming out. For my great-grandfather, who often drove his Model T during the Teens on a 100-mile trip (162 kms) from Toronto to his Peterborough-area cottage, he was guaranteed at least two flat tires there and two back.


As the motorcar rapidly evolved during the Teens and into the early ’20s, more significant changes came. In 1915, with few exceptions, the entire Canadian automotive industry shifted the steering wheel from the right side to the now standard left. This was in response to the runaway success of Henry’s Model T, which had always been on the left and now commanded over half the market.


Complicating matters even further, almost half the provinces switched away from driving on the left side of the road, à la Great Britain, during the early 1920s. They included British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Although Newfoundland and Labrador did not join Confederation until 1949, they remained the last holdout and didn’t switch until 1947.
Brockville-Atlas was one of the better known domestic automakers. In the early ’20s, a friend of the author bought one used similar to the 1912 model shown here.
For today’s drivers who are competently challenged, their longing for the good old days is understandable, as most provinces did not require driving tests until the Great Depression, when the beginning of that decade saw over one million cars registered nationwide.


So, as you enjoy all the ease of modern motoring, and the mindless autonomous cars to come, give thanks to the hardy motoring pioneers who paved the way when the now standard car heater was pure science fiction.