WETASKIWIN, AB. — Canada celebrated its sesquicentennial in July 2017 and the Reynolds-Alberta Museum continues to pay tribute to those 150 years by shining a light on one of this country’s significant automotive stories. The McLaughlin Story: 150 Years of Carriages, Cars & Canada Dry introduces museum attendees to a family that helped put Canada on wheels.
“The ultimate goal is to bring this story forward and present it to people who might not be familiar with who the McLaughlin family is, and their connection to General Motors,” says RAM’s marketing and communication assistant Nicole Mueller.
Based in Wetaskiwin, the Reynolds-Alberta transportation museum is home to a large collection of McLaughlin items, and while the museum’s collection forms a large part of the display, a few loaned items help round out the exhibition.
“I don’t think the McLaughlin story in Canada is as familiar as it might have once been,” says Justin Cuffe, RAM’s curator of the transportation collection. “I think people are more familiar with the General Motors story, but we wanted to go back and see where it all started.”
According to the McLaughlin Buick Club of Canada’s website, Robert McLaughlin was born near Bowmanville, Ontario and as a young man began carving axe handles and other tools. In 1866, he built a horse-drawn sleigh for himself and then another for a neighbour in 1867. Before long, McLaughlin had plenty of orders for his transportation items and by 1877 had moved the McLaughlin Carriage Company to a larger shop in Oshawa. To tell the horse-drawn carriage part of the story, RAM has on display a McLaughlin cutter and a trap. However, it is suggested anyone interested in the carriages should travel to the Remington Carriage Museum in Cardston.
McLaughlin and his wife Mary had five children. The oldest, John James, became a chemist and began producing sodas. He worked on a ginger flavour that eventually became known as Canada Dry. McLaughlin’s other two sons, George and Robert (better known as Sam), worked on the shop floor in the carriage company. Business prospered, with several expansions taking place. Branch offices were opened in Saint John, Montreal, London, Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary.
But by the early 1900s automobiles were entering the scene. Brothers George and Sam realized the potential for building cars, and met with established producers including Pierce-Arrow and Buick. William Durant had taken over Buick, and Sam attempted to negotiate a deal that would see Buick supply running gear and McLaughlin the car bodies. The deal fell through, but the McLaughlins were still determined to build their own car. They equipped a shop with machinery and tools and hired an engineer, Arthur Milbrath, to design an engine. When Milbrath became seriously ill, Sam asked for Durant’s help, thinking a Buick engineer might be sent. Instead, Durant and two of his executives arrived and a new deal was worked out that would see Buick engines power McLaughlin cars.
“The oldest McLaughlin-Buick produced (a 1908 Model F) is on loan (to RAM) from the GM Heritage Center,” Cuffe explains. “It was Sam’s personal car, and is serial number six.
“By 1915, the carriage company was sold and in 1918, the McLaughlin family sold their shares in the auto company to become General Motors of Canada with Sam as president and George as vice-president.”
To bring the McLaughlin story up to 1920, the museum showcases a McLaughlin-Buick Model K-45 Master Six Touring Car with its inline six-cylinder Buick engine. Part of the RAM narrative focuses on the role this car played for rumrunners during the Prohibition Era due to its speed and endurance and its ability to outrun the authorities. The Master Six was aptly nicknamed the Whiskey Six.
Another McLaughlin-Buick of the 1920s on display is one of two vehicles built for a 1927 Royal Tour of Canada. A four-door convertible touring car, the Model 28-496 could seat seven and was used by His Royal Highness Edward, Prince of Wales and his brother Prince George. Handsomely painted in teal and cream, this McLaughlin-Buick is on loan from the Canadian Science and Technology Museum.
“McLaughlin-Buicks of the 1930s include a Model 30-69 Series 60 Phaeton once owned by Jasper Park Lodge,” Cuffe explains. “We also have a 1939 McLaughlin-Buick, the last to have the name McLaughlin – after that they were all Buicks.
“We talk about many of the wartime implements the company produced during the Second World War,” Cuffe continues, “And we discuss Sam’s involvement as he continued as president of General Motors of Canada until 1945, and then sat on GM’s board of directors.”
RAM ends the McLaughlin story with Sam’s death in 1972 and discusses details of the family’s estate and generous philanthropy.
Cuffe says, “There’s a tremendous spectrum of interesting stories in this exhibition, and it remains up until October 2018.”
Greg Williams is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). Have a column tip? Contact him at 403-287-1067 or [email protected]