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Drive Culture Made in Canada: A look at the long history of Canadian cars and the people who build them

Robots work on an LX vehicle at Chrysler’s assembly plant in Brampton, Ont.

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Nearly 4,000 people work at the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles factory in Brampton, Ont., making Dodge Challengers and Chargers. A few hundred kilometres closer to Detroit, 6,000 workers build the Pacifica and Grand Caravan minivans. In Oshawa and Ingersoll, Ont., factories churn out the Equinox and the Impala. In Alliston, Ont., 4,000 people people build Honda Civics and CR-Vs. At two locations in Cambridge, Ont., and one in Woodstock, Ont., more than half a million Toyotas come through the factory doors every year.

Add in a huge network of ancillary industries and suppliers, from a wheel-casting factory in Delta, B.C., to Ford engine plants in Windsor, Ont., to the huge Magna corporation headquartered in Aurora, Ont., and tens of thousands of Canadian families owe their livelihoods to the domestic auto industry. Canada is often seen as a place filled with resources to be extracted, a land of fishers, miners, oil-patch workers, and lumberjacks – but we shouldn’t overlook those who make things.

Last year, on March 7, the Brampton assembly line ground to a halt to honour the loss of one of those people. The huge machines were stilled and throughout the factory hundreds of workers stood quietly, some shifting on their feet, some motionless with eyes closed in private prayer. The single minute of silence echoed eerily in such a huge and ordinarily noisy place, but it was a rare and fitting tribute.

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Bill Wallcraft worked for Chrysler for nearly 30 years. He moved away from his beloved rural Ontario roots, looking to find work to support a young family and soon started at the old AMC paint shop at Kennedy Road and Steeles Avenue in Brampton, Ont., working on Wranglers. His time at Brampton Assembly, then called Bramalea, began in 1992, and he eventually settled in as team lead on the door line. Wallcraft was one year away from retirement when he died, suddenly, from a heart attack.

“He had a real feeling of pride in his work, I think everybody at the plant did,” Stephanie Wallcraft, one of Bill’s daughters, said. “There was this object, produced by their own hands, that someone was going to purchase and enjoy, perhaps for many years.”

A Chrysler 300 body shell at an assembly plant in Brampton, Ont.

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A worker fits doors on a vehicle at the Chrysler assembly plant.

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For more than a century, the toil of ordinary hands has grown Canada’s automotive manufacturing sector into an important industry. Take the Ford Motor Company of Canada. Established in 1904, just a single year after Ford began in the United States, Ford Canada was a linchpin of industrialization for the Commonwealth. If Ford put America on wheels, then Ford Canada did the same for much of the world, exporting cars as far as India and Australia.

In doing so, all manner of Canadian automotive trivia was created. For instance, it’s easy to tell a Canadian-made Model T from an American one, as the former has a door on each side, the better to switch the assembly line back and forth between left-hand drive and right-hand drive. Also, as Ford of Australia was a direct subsidiary of Ford Canada, one of the Aussie factories ended up with a Canadian-style snow-shedding roof. There’s not much snow in your usual Australian weather forecast.

There was this object, produced by their own hands, that someone was going to purchase and enjoy, perhaps for many years.

— Stephanie Wallcraft, daughter of Bill Wallcraft, who worked for Chrysler for nearly 30 years

In these early days, there were hundreds of small Canadian automakers, some dating back before the turn of the century. Among them were names lost to time such as the Russell Motor Car Company, which survives today as CCM, the manufacturer of bicycles and hockey sticks.

Probably the best remembered of those early machines was the aristocratic McLaughlin-Buick. Two of these were made for the 1927 royal visit of Princes Edward and George, celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Canadian Confederation. The royals so enjoyed the cars, Prince Edward had one commissioned for use as his royal limousine upon his coronation in 1936.

Later, with clouds of war gathering over Europe, Edward’s brother returned to again tour Canada as the newly crowned King George VI. This time, two enormous open Buick limousines were coach-built by workers in Oshawa, men plucked right off the assembly line.

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“Some of these workers would go on to build De Havilland Mosquitos fighter-bombers,” said Vern Bethel, a McLaughlin-Buick collector who owns one of the Royal Buick open limousines. “There were leadworkers and woodworkers, guys who came out of retirement to put these unique cars together.”

The artistocratic McLaughlin-Buick is probably the best remembered of Canada’s early cars.

Brendan McAleer

Two McLaughlin-Buicks were made for the 1927 royal visit of Princes Edward and George.

Brendan McAleer

With war came a demand for materiel that saw manufacturing explode across the country. In Regina, the General Motors plant employed 1,000 workers. At the Ford Assembly plant in Burnaby, B.C., a flathead V-8 was used to provide sufficient water pressure to meet factory needs.

In the postwar period, optimism combined with the 1965 signing of the Canada-U.S. Automotive Products Agreement, saw an explosion in auto sector jobs, primarily in Ontario. At the same time, as Canada-only nameplates such as the Pontiac Beaumont established a lasting fan base, Canadian automotive exports boomed tenfold; there was also a reciprocal trade boom with the importation of U.S. auto parts.

Over the decades, the industry waxed and waned under the pressures of the market and world economics. The arrival of Honda and Toyota factories in the 1980s brought an increase in jobs. The Civic, Canada’s bestselling passenger car for the past two decades, is built here. Canadian workers have built more than three million Corollas for Toyota, the first of them still preserved at the factory.

Brian Krinock, senior vice-president of vehicle plants for Toyota Motor North America, poses with a preserved 1989 Corolla. Canadian workers have built more than three million Corollas for Toyota.

Paul Giamou/Handout

Workers build a modern Corolla at a Toyota production plant. The arrival of Toyota and Honda factories in Canada in the 1980s brought an increase in jobs.

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Elements of Japanese manufacturing philosophy were absorbed by all automakers. In the background of a photo of Bill Wallcraft and his co-workers, you can see a whiteboard with “kaizen” written on it. The word literally means “change for better,” and in manufacturing it relates to small, continuous improvements, suggested by the workers themselves. It’s not just about increasing efficiency, it’s about ownership and about pride.

The pinnacle of modern Canadian automaking is the Ford GT. Built by Multimatic in Markham, Ont., the GT is a carbon-fibre supercar that’s equal to the best built by any country. More than equal: in 2016, a racing version of the Ford GT finished first in class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.

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Multimatic is not a household name, but its skill in carbon-fibre manufacturing made it a natural partner for Ford’s halo project. Johnathan Vinden, Multimatic’s director of communications, says the company is used to working behind the scenes to supply engineering expertise. “Despite shunning the limelight,” he said, “Multimatic is proud of its role in delivering this world-class supercar.”

Canadian-made cars have won on a global stage. We’ve built cars for kings, minivans and crossovers for families. You can find a made-in-Canada label on a smoothly efficient Lexus RX450h hybrid, or on an unapologetically fuel-swilling Dodge Charger Hellcat.

Cars made in Canada range from sensible, efficient hybrids to roaring muscle cars, such as the 2018 Dodge Challenger Hellcat.

Brendan McAleer

The 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon under production in Brampton, Ont.

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Yet wait before you wave the flag in triumph. Industry always chases cheaper labour where it can and Corolla production is winding down. With tariffs and trade wars looming, prospects for Canadian autoworkers get even gloomier. Even if these storms can be weathered, there’s always increasing automation of factories, seeking to replace man with machine.

Today in Canada, we still build cars. Every factory is a village, each line has its family. People build lasting friendships with the faces they see daily. Their children and grandchildren grow up playing together. At the centre of things is the work, but so much orbits around it. If we lose this, if the factories go silent forever, we should mourn the loss.

Or perhaps, on Canada Day, we should celebrate that such a way of life ever existed. That a man such as Bill Wallcraft could build a community with his colleagues, raise strong daughters, make such an impact in his work that they’d shut down the factory just to mark his passing.

And that someday, 10, 15, 20 years hence, someone might be buying their dream Challenger off a used car lot. V-8. Manual. The kind of machine they don’t make any more. The kind of car that, if you looked behind the door panels and under the hood, you’d still find the fingerprints of workers like Bill, the lasting traces of people who built things with pride.

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