Canada may not be known as a major player in the auto industry, but we have a long history in it.
We’ve even boasted some homegrown brands, such as New Brunswick’s Bricklin and Quebec’s Manic. One of Canada’s most successful vehicle manufacturers of all time was McLaughlin, an Oshawa-area carriage company that transitioned to auto manufacturing, merged with Buick and evolved into General Motors.
As General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) get set to negotiate new contracts with Unifor, the union that represents their workers, we thought it might be a good time to compile a brief history of auto manufacturing in Canada.
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1904: The Ford Motor Company opens a factory in Walkerville, Ontario (now part of central Windsor) to build the Model C, which Ford claims is the first car built in Canada.
1905: Toronto’s Russell Motor Car Company begins building the Model A.
1907: Oshawa’s McLaughlin begins building cars based on Buick chassis and engines.
1916: Money troubles force Russell to sell out to Willys-Overland, the company that would go on to build the first Jeep.
1918: McLaughlin sells out to General Motors, with Samuel McLaughlin becoming president of GM Canada.
1928: Ford opens an engine plant in Windsor, and Chrysler opens a vehicle assembly factory that makes Plymouth sedans, Dodge hardtops, DeSoto convertibles and Chrysler station wagons and coupes.
1950s: GM expands its manufacturing presence in Oshawa, and in 1954 builds an engine and transmission plant in St. Catharines that still builds a range of V6 and V8s and six-speed automatic transmissions.
1953: Ford opens a factory in Oakville that would later house the company’s Canadian headquarters.
1963: Volvo becomes the first non-U.S. carmaker to assemble cars in Canada when it opens a factory in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The company builds the facility to get around stiff import tariffs on imported goods. It’s the brand’s first plant outside its home country of Sweden.
1969: Montreal’s Jacques About debuts his Renault 10-based Manic GT sports car at the Montreal auto show.
1971: Manic folds after building just 160 cars when its supply of Renault parts dries up.
1974: Bricklin begins producing its wedge-shaped SV-1, in Saint John, New Brunswick, complete with gull-wing doors, a look that would be adopted a few years later by the Delorean DMC-12.
1975: Bricklin goes bankrupt.
1983: Chrysler tools up its Windsor plant to start building the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans, which would become massively popular and change the look of the vehicle marketplace.
1986: Honda sets up shop in Alliston, Ontario to build Accord family sedans. General Motors and Suzuki create CAMI, or Canadian Automotive Manufacturing Incorporated, and jointly build a factory in Ingersoll, Ontario.
1987: Chrysler buys the American Motors Corporation (AMC), and gets a brand-new factory in Brampton as part of the deal.
1988: Toyota opens its first manufacturing plant in Canada. Also, Honda’s Alliston plant switches to producing the popular Civic, which competes directly with Toyota’s Cambridge, Ontario-produced Corolla.
1989: Hyundai begins a four-year manufacturing fling in Bromont, Quebec, about an hour east of Montreal. The plan is to build enough Sonata sedans for Chrysler to re-brand many to sell at its own dealerships. The lights come on at the GM/Suzuki CAMI plant, which starts building the Sidekick and Geo Tracker SUVs, Chevrolet S10 and GMC Sonoma pickups, and Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy SUVs.
1992: Chrysler’s recently acquired Brampton factory starts building the company’s revolutionary LH series sedans: the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler LHS and Eagle Vision.
1993: Hyundai’s licensing deal with Chrysler falls through. Sonata sales alone aren’t strong enough to justify the Bromont plant’s existence, and it closes down.
1997: Toyota doubles its Cambridge, Ontario plant capacity and employee numbers, and begins to produce the new Camry Solara Coupe in 1998.
1998: Citing NAFTA and globalization, Volvo shutters its Halifax plant after 35 years of operation. The last cars built there are the S70 sedan and V70 station wagon. The factory employs just 200 workers when it closes, but the closure is a big blow to the local economy.
2000: Toyota announces a second factory at its Cambridge site, which becomes the first plant outside of Japan to build the company’s upscale Lexus models. Its workers still build the popular RX crossover.
2004: Chrysler’s Brampton factory starts building the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum, full-size cars conceived during an ill-fated merger with Mercedes-Benz and based on Benz platforms.
2005: Toyota makes the news again with plans for a third factory, this time in Woodstock, Ontario. To this day, it cranks out RAV4 compact crossovers.
2005: The GM/Suzuki CAMI plant in Ingersoll begins building the Chevrolet Equinox crossover, along with a Suzuki version called the XL-7.
2008: The first Canadian-built Volkswagens emerge from Chrysler’s Windsor plant after VW signs a deal to rebrand the Dodge Grand Caravan as the Routan minivan.
2009: Suzuki withdraws from CAMI, transferring full ownership of the plant to GM. A few years later, Suzuki’s automotive division disappears from the Canadian market completely, citing slow sales and lack of profit.
2014: Ford decides to build engines for its Fiesta compact in Mexico, instead of its Windsor engine plant.
2015: Toyota announces it will ship Corolla production to Mexico in 2019, a move that will strike a major blow to southern Ontario’s auto industry-intensive economy. Not two weeks later, GM confirms its decision to move Chevrolet Camaro production from Oshawa to Michigan, placing the future of one of Canada’s oldest car factories in doubt.
2016: In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, travel to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland to petition GM CEO Mary Barra to keep the company’s Oshawa plant open. With Camaro production done and Chevrolet Impala, Buick Regal and Cadillac XTS assembly slated to be cut, the factory would be left with just the Equinox (along with Ingersoll).
This tumultuous period in Canada’s auto manufacturing sector could come to a head soon: Unifor’s 23,000 workers with Ford, GM and FCA voted on August 25 to go on strike if they can’t find common ground with the Detroit Three before its current contracts expire on September 19.
Unifor is placing new manufacturing investment in Canada at the top of its list of demands, and President Jerry Dias has called the upcoming negotiations critical to the future of an industry that has sustained southern Ontario’s economy for more than 100 years. We hope the two sides can see eye-to-eye, so that we can add more positive milestones to future versions of this timeline.
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