1. Home
  2. A (Canadian) car fit for royalty: The McLaughlin-Buick

A (Canadian) car fit for royalty: The McLaughlin-Buick

by Ronnie Schreiber

We take a trip down memory lane to visit an integral piece of the founding of General Motors Canada.

There was once a Canadian car company so respected for their quality that they were chosen to build limousines for the personal use of the King and Queen of England. So proud to be Canadian were they that they used the slogan, "It's Better Because It's Canadian."

So convinced that they built a superior product that they even took their American parent's slogan, "When better cars are built, Buick will build them" and went it one better: "Better cars are being built, and McLaughlin is building them."

Today, few people even in Canada would recognize the name McLaughlin as a brand of automobiles, but before World War II, it was one of the best selling brands of cars in Canada. McLaughlin also laid the foundation for General Motors of Canada, an essential operation of the giant American car manufacturer.

McLaughlin, or McLaughlin-Buick as it was known for much of its history, started out as the McLaughlin Carriage Company, founded by Robert McLaughlin, a blacksmith in a small town east of Oshawa, Ontario. The company thrived, due to a patented steering design, moved to Oshawa, where GM continues to have a huge assembly plant, and became one of the largest carriage builders in the world. By the turn of the 20th century they were producing over 25,000 carriages a year.

Robert had three sons. John James became a chemist, opening a soda beverage company and formulating what would later be known as Canada Dry ginger ale. His other two sons, George and Sam were brought into the carriage business. George was more of a businessman but Sam was a hands-on tinkerer. Though the company was thriving, and still building one carriage every ten minutes by 1915, a decade earlier Sam and George could see the writing on the wall and with the help of the company's comptroller, who owned a Ford car, they convinced their father to go into the automobile business.

Instead of wasting money developing their own automobile, the McLaughlins initially approached existing manufacturers about making their cars in Canada, including Pierce Arrow and Buick. They were impressed with the quality of Buick cars, having bought two for testing purposes, but they were not able to arrive at an agreement with William Durant, who then controlled Buick.

Disappointed, the brothers returned to Oshawa and put themselves to building an automobile of their own design. Unfortunately, the engineer they engaged to design an engine fell ill and they resumed discussions with Durant. This time, he was facing one of his periodic financial crises and in 1907 an agreement was signed to supply the McLaughlin Motor Car Company with Buick engines and chassis. This contract served both parties well for the next 15 years. McLaughlin had expertise in body building and at the time David Buick's "valve in head" OHV engines were the state of the art.

McLaughlin sold 154 cars that first year, with bodies designed by Sam McLaughlin himself. The Canadian cars were more stylish than the American Buicks, sometimes with completely different bodies. The car was marketed as "The Standard Canadian Car," though the company's name was hardly standard. Sometimes they were called McLaughlins and sometimes Buicks. In 1923, the Canadian company settled on McLaughlin-Buick, which lasted until passenger car production ended in 1942 with the switch to military materiel. After the war, when production of Canadian Buicks resumed at Oshawa, they were simply called Buicks.

The name change to McLaughlin-Buick reflected the fact that in 1918, facing the end of the 15 year contract with Buick, the McLaughlin family decided to sell out. McLaughlin Motor Car Company became General Motors of Canada, and Sam McLaughlin became its president as well as a vice president and director of the parent company in Detroit. This deal made sense since McLaughlin had already started assembling Chevrolets for the Canadian market in 1916, around the same time they sold off their carriage business. As the parent company assumed control, Canadian Buicks became less distinctive. Sam had to confine his design ambitions to show cars and one-off specials.

Fortunately for Sam, he had the opportunity to make some very special cars, royal limousines. It's not clear why the British royal family like Canadian Buicks, but on four different royal visits to Canada, in 1927, 1939, 1986 and 1994, British monarchs and their families have traveled in McLaughlin-Buicks built just for them. According to some reports they even had some McLaughlins shipped back to the UK for their own use. For the 1927 Royal Tour of the then Prince of Wales and his brother the Duke of York, the company supplied a specially modified 1928 McLaughlin-Buick, whose royal use the company advertised. In 1939, the company hand built two custom parade phaetons for the royal tour of King George and Queen Elizabeth (the current Queen Elizabeth's parents), perhaps the most famous Canadian cars ever.

Based on the 1939 McLaughlin-Buick Styleblazer, the cars were a point of pride for McLaughlin and GM. They were virtually hand built, stretched 457 mm, reinforced and turned into convertibles. Among the custom features is an intercom system to allow the royals to speak with their chauffeur. Besides its use in the 1939 Royal Tour, one of the royal McLaughlin-Buicks was put back into service when Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited Canada in 1986 for the Vancouver Expo and again when Charles' parents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip helped open the Commonwealth Games in 1994.

In all, McLaughlin-Buick supplied a total of 9 cars for use by the royal family, including personal cars, perhaps the most by any company not located in the UK. McLaughlin even made Edward VIII's personal limousine that he used in 1936 while having an affair with American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Known as "the abdication car," the 1936 model limo was custom ordered in 1935 before Edward ascended to the throne. The then Prince of Wales specifications for the custom-built car included

"giving two passengers luxury and privacy, specifications to include drinks cabinets, vanity mirrors, reading lights, correspondence facilities, radio, smoker's cabinet, jewelry cabinet, compartments for canteen and luncheon trays, and a drawer to accommodate London telephone directories"

Edward and Simpson used the car all during 1936 as the scandal and constitutional crisis grew. The couple used the car to escape photographers, which might not have been a great idea since Edward was simultaneously being ferried to royal appointments in it. The car itself became part of the scandal because it was not built in England, though Canada's place in the Commonwealth, in the King's realm, mollified some critics. Finally, Edward was driven in the car to his meeting with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin where he informed the government that he was abdicating in favor of his brother George VI. The defining image of the abdication was a sad-faced king, photographed though the window of the McLaughlin-Buick. After the abdication, the car was shipped to Cannes, France, where Edward and Simpson met to continue their affair. Eventually sold, for a while the car belonged to watchmaker and noted collector Nicola Bulgari, who has a fascination with General Motors products.

The 1939 limos remain in Canada and one of them can be seen at the Canadian Transportation Museum.