Rolling Out The Russell

January 1, 2002 by Steve Pitt

Thomas Russell poses behind the wheel during a display of Russell cars in the early 1900s.

On a brisk February day in 1907, four brave men eased a brand new, slightly modifed automobile off solid ground and headed out onto the windswept ice of Lake Ontario. They were wearing the standard outdoor sporting attire of the day–black overcoats and bowler hats–and seated in an open vehicle lacking a roof, doors or even a windshield.

The bitterly cold wind gusting across the lake made them continuously clasp their hats to their heads. That was fine because they were not out there for a pleasure trip, they were there to race. A few hundred yards from shore sat the challenger. Simply known as IT, their competitor was an elegant iceboat boasting a 30-foot mast and a 500-square-foot sail capable of moving IT to speeds in excess of 65 miles per hour. IT carried a crew of two and weighed less than 500 pounds. By comparison, the car possessed a four-cylinder gasoline engine that would have to move a half-ton vehicle plus four grown men.

Thousands of onlookers lined the Toronto waterfront and braved the weather to witness this outlandish contest. The odds-on favourite was the iceboat. IT was well known on the Toronto ice-racing circuit and its captain, Fred Phelan, was considered one of the best in the sport. The car, on the other hand, was not a racing machine. It was a family car from a factory in northwestern Toronto.

In an era that when a dog chased a car, the dog usually caught the car, few expected a factory automobile to best a professional racing yacht in its own element. The weather had made racing conditions nearly perfect. Rain and wind had scoured all excess snow off the lake, making the surface hard and smooth as pavement. The wind speed averaged at around 15 knots, ensuring that the boat would have power for the entire race.

For a few minutes, car and racing boat sat side by side while officials cleared spectators off the official 10-mile course and then, with the crack of a starter’s pistol, the race was on. The car took an early lead but that was expected–its 25-horse-power engine was one of the most powerful on the North American market. The car also boasted a three-speed transmission with shaft drive. On the smooth ice, the weight of four grown men was an asset as their combined weight added traction to the rear wheels.

However, the iceboat, by previous arrangement, was running on a course where it would have the wind “abeam” for both legs of the race. Racing fans had predicted that the car/iceboat challenge would be “a hot contest” and they were not disappointed. On the second leg of the race the wind picked up allowing IT to close the distance until the two craft were running side by side. Phelan’s mate climbed out on the port runner to counter-balance the craft as the wind filled its huge sail and pushed the boat to maximum speed. To help their own craft, the motorists hunched low in an attempt to reduce wind resistance. It was ski to axle all the way across the icy course with the car crossing the finish line just a frosty hair ahead of the iceboat.

A newspaper reporter called it “the most sensational race ever seen”, but for Thomas A. Russell, creator of the winning vehicle, it was just another confirmation that Canadian cars were second to none in speed and endurance.

Canada’s love affair with the automobile started in Confederation year–1867–when watchmaker Henry Seth Taylor mounted a steam engine on a lightweight buggy and began chugging around his hometown of Stanstead, Que. Even though Taylor’s steam car lacked certain refinements–brakes and a steering wheel, for example–it did prove that the age of the horseless carriages was dawning. Other Canadian inventors followed. By 1883, Toronto inventors William J. Still and F.B. Featheringstonhaugh were seen silently gliding through traffic in a two-seat electric car with the catchy name of the Featheringstonhaughmobile. In 1897, George Foss of Sherbrooke, Que., was the first Canadian to build and drive a gasoline powered vehicle.

As long as cars remained one-of-a-kind specimens, automobiles were merely toys for the rich or country fair curiosities. But, as early as the 1890s, several Canadian carriage makers were beginning to add engines to their carriages. Since 1867, the federal government had imposed a 35 per cent duty on American carriages and wagons. The good news was that the tariff had ensured a healthy home industry by preventing American competition. The bad news was that without serious competition, the Canadian carriage trade became localized as hundreds of small operators thrived, needing nothing more than their own local market to survive.

Early Canadian automobiles were little different from their horse-drawn counterparts. Some models even came with whip holders and bumper hooks to attach horse teams. The choice between steam, electric and gas engines was usually based on whatever engine could be obtained from suppliers. But in 1904, the Canadian car industry received a rude wake-up call. Henry Ford, a revolutionary car-making capitalist from the United States, began shipping American car parts across the Detroit River and assembling automobiles at the Walkerville Wagon Company in Windsor, Ont. By opening a plant in Canada, he could dodge the 35 per cent Canadian tariff, and gain full access to the vast British Empire market.

Almost immediately, other Canadian car companies began scrambling to find American “partners” to supply capital, road-tested designs and ready-made parts. The Tudhope Motor Company of Orillia, Ont., a former wagon and farm implement manufacturer, began producing Tudhope-McIntyre cars in partnership with W.H. McIntyre of Auburn, Indiana, in 1908. After a massive fire in 1909, the Tudhope company rose from the ashes with the Tudhope-Everitt after forming a partnership with the Metzger Motor Company of Detroit, Michigan. Further south in Oshawa, Ont., the McLaughlin Carriage Company initially experimented with a car design of its own, but as development costs mounted, McLaughlin formed a partnership with William Crapo Durant–the founder of General Motors–to build the McLaughlin- Buick. This was a Canadian-American hybrid that used a Buick engine on a McLaughlin frame. Other fledgling Canadian car manufacturers followed suit or perished. The one exception was Canadian Cycle and Motor company of Toronto.

To generations of Canadians, the initials CCM has meant two things: Bicycles and hockey equipment. The latter was a happy accident when–in 1904–Canadian Cycle and Motor Limited began producing skates just to have something to sell in the winter when bicycle sales were slow. Their blades, marketed as “automobile skates” due to their advanced design and modern steel construction, were so superior to the old-fashioned iron blades that CCM came to dominate the skate market for nearly a century.

At the turn of the century, bicycles were CCM’s main business and motor cars were its second obsession. Canadian Cycle and Motor was the brainchild of some of Canada’s most respected industrialists. Walter Massey of Massey-Harris, Joseph W. Flavelle of Simpson’s and Canada Packers, Senator George A. Cox of the Bank of Commerce and National Trust and Alfred E. Ames, president of the Toronto Stock Exchange, created CCM to corner the Canadian bicycle market.

By issuing shares and investing sizeable personal fortunes, CCM’s board of directors raised the capital to buy Canada’s five largest independent bicycle companies and amalgamate them into one massive conglomerate. Unfortunately, the bicycle fad suddenly wilted and CCM found itself stuck with idle factories, thousands of unwanted bikes and hoards of disgruntled stockholders.

CCM’s board of directors needed a miracle and they found it in Thomas A. Russell, a 24-year-old farmer’s son with a degree in political science from the University of Toronto.

Youth, farm roots and an interest in politics hardly seemed like the credentials for taking over a manufacturing conglomerate, but Russell had demonstrated a shrewd business sense and a dash of P.T. Barnum showmanship. In 1900, he became Executive Secretary of the Canadian Manufacturers Association, CMA, a small clique of Canadian businessmen whose main preoccupations were to preserve federal tariffs and promote “buying Canadian” to the general public.

In less than two years, Russell not only managed to increase CMA’s membership more than 400 per cent, but also founded Industrial Canada, a new magazine that helped spread the CMA’s doctrine to businessmen across the country. Russell’s enthusiasm and energy attracted notice and in 1901 he was offered the position of general manager of CCM.

His first task was to save the company. He closed the several small, inefficient CCM factories that were scattered across Ontario and concentrated his workforce under one roof in northwestern Toronto. Next, he liquidated surplus inventory to raise capital and pay down debt. Finally, he began exploring new product lines that would eventually make CCM a household word in Canada.

As their name implied, Canadian Cycle and Motor Limited was interested in both bicycle and automobile production. CCM had inherited a steam-powered car called the Locomobile from one of its bicycle companies, but the steamer’s 20-mile range and annoying tendency to freeze solid in winter made CCM discontinue production in 1902. In the same year, CCM brought out an electric car called the Ivanhoe. Designed by H.P. Maxim–son of the famous machine-gun inventor, Hiram Maxim–the two-seat Ivanhoe had a range of 40 miles and was capable of blinding bursts of speed up to 14 miles per hour.

Although the Ivanhoe was a qualified success as a city car, Thomas Russell was soon won over by the superior range, power and reliability of the new gasoline engines. In 1905, CCM marketed its first car, a two-cylinder gasoline vehicle named the Russell Model A. The Russell offered a rugged steel and wood construction, pneumatic tires with ball-bearing hubs and a three-speed transmission with shaft drive. In most respects, the Russell clearly outclassed its rivals and cost $450 more than Ford’s equivalent, the Model C.

However, Russell did not intend to beat his competitors by trying to produce the least expensive product. Instead, CCM stressed quality and Canadian-ness. One of Russell’s most repeated advertising themes was: “A high-grade car at a wonderfully low price…not a low-grade car made to sell at a price.”

While a nose-to-nose ice boat race captured the hearts of sporting enthusiasts of all classes, Russell felt that his car’s true market was among Canada’s elite. Fortunately, CCM’s well-heeled board of governors could provide Russell with plenty of strings to pull so it was not surprising to see Canada’s Governor General, Earl Grey, touring the Manitoba prairie in a Russell limousine. John C. Eaton, heir to the Eaton department store chain, was also a familiar figure driving through some of Toronto’s better neighbourhoods in a custom Russell roadster bearing the Ontario licence plate #1.

In 1911, when the Duke and Duchess of Connaught visited Canada, Russell cars were provided for the entire Royal party. In return, Russell was able to publish promotional material topped with the singular phrase “By Royal Appointment”. In recognition of the special driving needs of its customers, the best Russell cars came with flower vases, hand stitched leather upholstery and calling card holders.

Russell’s keen business instincts prompted him to acquire the rights to the Knight engine, a revolutionary new motor that ran so quietly wags quickly dubbed it the Silent Knight. This engine already powered some of the very best cars in the world, including the Daimler which was favoured by most of the European royal families. By obtaining exclusive Canadian rights, Russell scored more than just bragging rights. No other Canadian company could build cars with Knight engines in Canada and, more important, no American cars equipped with Knight engines could be imported into Canada.

In 1914, Russell’s energy and genius for organization actually caused him trouble when World War I erupted. He travelled to Ottawa to meet with Colonel Sam Hughes, Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, to discuss a possible military contract for Russell motor vehicles. Hughes liked CCM’s trucks, but he was more impressed with Russell himself and consequently handed him the rank of honorary major. And so in very short order, Russell found himself appointed a special government purchasing agent in charge of equipping Canada’s military with motor vehicles.

Through no fault of his own, within two years Russell found himself facing a parliamentary committee that was investigating kickbacks and corruption in the defence ministry. The scandal eventually ended the career of Hughes, but Russell himself was exonerated and even publicly commended in a Toronto Globe editorial for his honesty.

By the time Russell returned to duty he found himself with more responsibilities. CCM was turning out bicycles for the military and its subsidiary, the Russell Motor Car Company was producing staff cars, trucks and even a bizarre squadron of armoured vehicles that could be driven from either end, but the guns of the Western Front also had an insatiable appetite for ammunition. CCM was asked to turn out millions of shells and Russell was put in charge of making it happen.

While Russell was concentrating on the war effort, an American businessman decided the time was ripe to establish a foothold in Canada. In 1914, the Willys-Overland car company was second only to Ford in car production. Its president, John Willys, wanted to market his own Knight-equipped car in Canada but the Russell’s exclusive contract for the Knight engine thwarted his plans. The only way around Russell was to buy the Russell Motor Car Company from its parent organization, CCM.

In 1915, Willys made an offer and it was accepted because although Russell Motor was a successful company, it never was a big money-maker. Thus ended an era in Canadian automotive history. While tens of millions of cars have been made in Canada since 1867, the Russell Motor Car Company was the only Canadian owned company to ever produce and market a product designed by Canadians, built by Canadians and sold to Canadians.

Given the challenge of building a car industry with a population as small and a geography as large as Canada’s, it is perhaps surprising that the Russell made it as far as it did. Against great odds, the Russell survived for 10 years and the credit belongs to Thomas A. Russell. Fortunately, his career did not end with his namesake. He eventually became president of CCM and, in 1930, president of Massey-Harris until his death in 1940.

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