by Brad Bowling
Although largely forgotten today, Canada’s McLaughlin family was once a major force in the North American transportation industry. The 1910 buggy featured here sits squarely in the overlap between McLaughlin’s carriage production and its transformation to automobile manufacturing. Success in both pursuits made McLaughlin a vital component in General Motors of Canada’s birth.
After teaching himself woodworking from old issues of Coachmakers’ Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Robert McLaughlin began his empire with a modest carriage business in Enniskillen, Ontario, Canada, in 1869. In January 1878, McLaughlin and family moved 200 miles northeast to Oshawa, where he set up shop as Oshawa Carriage Works.
McLaughlin had a head for finance, efficient manufacturing, and aggressive marketing. He patented improvements for carriage design, including a front steering (or “gear”) arrangement that is said to have revolutionized the industry upon its 1880 introduction. McLaughlin also had a reputation for building a premium-priced, high-quality product. The McLaughlin Carriage Co., as it was renamed around 1884, proudly marketed itself as having “One grade only, and that the best.”
Records of McLaughlin carriage production are not available, but peak annual output ranged from 14,000 to 25,000 units, depending on the source. When McLaughlin’s sons George and Sam convinced him in 1907 that the automobile would end horse-drawn transportation, he arranged to build Buicks in a Canadian factory for William Durant, the founder of General Motors (1908) and Chevrolet (1911). The medium-price cars were sold as McLaughlins at first, then McLaughlin-Buicks, and finally McLaughlins again. So great was the McLaughlin reputation that the company often included its carriages in advertising for its automobiles.
In 1915, the McLaughlin clan sold its interest in the McLaughlin Carriage Works to Carriage Factories Ltd. in Orillia, Ontario. Three years later, the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. and Chevrolet Motor Car Co. of Canada combined to form General Motors of Canada, with George and Sam McLaughlin at the helm.
(George and Sam had a brother who resisted their father’s encouragement to enter the carriage trade. John James McLaughlin became a pharmacist and, in 1904, invented a beverage he named Canada Dry Ginger Ale.)
In 2013 Bill Rausch, a fire apparatus collector and restorer in Goodrich, Michigan, talked his neighbor into selling his 1910 McLaughlin “doctor’s buggy.” Rather than restore the lightweight, Canadian-built phaeton to its factory condition, Rausch used it to create a replica of a fire chief’s buggy that might have served his hometown at the start of the 20th century.
Carriages from that period were fragile, spindly affairs, very few of which survived or were saved when everyone switched to automobiles. Using vintage photos for reference, Rausch converted the McLaughlin into a Goodrich Fire Dept. chief’s buggy.
During disassembly of the carriage, Rausch removed the folding top, which he donated to a friend’s 1909 Ford Model N restoration project. While he and neighbor Gary Smith repaired the woodwork, which included new slats for the bottom of the body, Todd Andler’s American Carriage Co. in Nashville, Michigan, refurbished the original wheels. After Rausch applied the burgundy paint, he sent the buggy to Ken Soderbeck at Hand in Hand Restoration in Jackson, Michigan, to work his magic with gold leaf striping. Soderbeck also reproduced a vintage-correct body tag from a photograph.
Today, the 106-year-old carriage is a beautiful reminder of a time when horsepower came on four legs and the horse was as crucial to a community’s fire safety as the bucket, hose, and ladder.