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McLAUGHLIN, ROBERT, manufacturer, office holder, and politician; b. 16 Nov. 1836 in Cavan Township, Upper Canada, eldest son of John McLaughlin and Eliza Rusk; m. first 5 Feb. 1864 Mary Smith (d. 1877), and they had two daughters and three sons, including John James* and Robert Samuel*; m. secondly 17 Jan. 1878 Sarah Jane Parr (d. 1899) in Oshawa, Ont.; m. thirdly 17 Dec. 1901 Eleanor McCulloch, née Smith (d. 1930), in East Whitby Township, Ont.; d. 23 Nov. 1921 in Oshawa.

Born on a farm near Millbrook of Irish Presbyterian immigrants, Robert McLaughlin moved with his family in 1837 to a lot near Tyrone, in Darlington Township, where he attended the local log school. His father wanted him to farm, but he preferred woodworking; his production of axe-handles and whiffletrees led him, guided by old issues of the Coachmakers’ Illustrated Monthly Magazine (Columbus, Ohio), to make his first cutters in 1863-64. In 1869 he moved to the village of Enniskillen, where he built a carriage works, which, in 1871 at least, he operated in partnership with Daniel Kernick. A participant as a youth in daily readings of the Bible with his family, in Enniskillen he taught Sunday school in the Presbyterian church.

Attentive to his accounts and the quality of his materials, McLaughlin achieved modest prosperity, though competing with cheap, machine-made American imports in the 1870s was “an uphill fight,” according to Industrial Canada (Toronto). By mid 1877 he had concluded that moving to a larger centre would be necessary for continued growth, and to provide a fresh start for his family. In March 1877 his wife had died of consumption, leaving him with five children, whose life worsened when their busy father married the tyrannical Sarah Jane Parr, apparently an employee in their household. It is impossible to say how long it took Robert to admit her harmful impact.

By January 1878 the McLaughlins had relocated to Oshawa, on Lake Ontario and near the Grand Trunk Railway. Local competitors, even relatives, doubted Robert’s chances of success, but his sale of some land and a loan from the local Western Bank of Canada, whose president was also one of his iron suppliers, allowed him to build the Oshawa Carriage Works, a three-storey brick factory. Expansion of the company, which became known as McLaughlin Carriage about 1884, was facilitated by careful costing, new designs (some influenced by Carriage Monthly, a Philadelphia journal), and aggressive marketing, especially of the gear (the front-end turning and coupling mechanism) McLaughlin had first patented in 1880. His letter-books for the late 1870s and the 1880s show the square-dealing McLaughlin in his element: selling, coordinating orders of wood and hardware, resolving disputes, hiring and firing, protecting his patents (and buying others), refining carriage mechanisms, tabulating the credit ratings of potential retailers across Canada, and pushing and humouring agents in the field. “Don’t stay to talk to doubtful marks, go for the good ones,” he advised a company traveller who was working Ontario in 1886. In areas where he had no agents, he quietly placed one of his “best buggies” to attract interest. Only rarely do personal matters intrude in this correspondence, in occasional letters to his ageing father and one in January 1885 to his eldest son John, a pharmacy student in Toronto, admonishing him to wear underclothes, for better health.

The continued growth in the 1890s of the mostly wholesale business of McLaughlin Carriage is all the more impressive given that the trade in Ontario experienced some decline in this decade, McLaughlin’s pieces were not the cheapest, and Robert Lindsay Torrance (head of J. B. Armstrong and Company) of Guelph, Robert Gray of Chatham, and James Brockett Tudhope of Orillia all offered serious competition. Using a catchy motto (“One grade only, and that the best”), warranties, and easily recognized trademarks, McLaughlin promoted his works in his catalogues as “the best equipped and most extensive Factory in the Dominion.” An attempted partnership in 1889 involving his son John had not worked out, but McLaughlin made his other boys junior partners in 1892: George William, who had entered the works as an apprentice in 1885, was quiet and steady; Sam, who began in upholstery in 1887 and moved up to design, was outgoing and restless. In December 1896 (by which time their stepmother had left, evidently under pressure from the whole family), George was sent to Saint John to open the firm’s first branch and find retailers in the Maritimes. By 1899 McLaughlin had an annual output of 2,500 cutters and sleighs and an equal number of carriages, in a wide array of models. Thin rubber tires began appearing on models in 1901 and two years later fenders and bicycle-style wire wheels with pneumatic tires were offered. Around 1908 his catalogues became bilingual.

In Oshawa the abstemious McLaughlin had established a daunting presence: he was a member of the town’s first board of health (1884) and its first board of water commissioners (1904), a school trustee and municipal councillor, mayor in 1899, a supporter of the Salvation Army, first president of the local Young Men’s Christian Association, a freemason and a Templar, and an elder in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Behind a front of modesty lay a calculating businessman. As is evidenced by his caustic letters in the local press, he did not treat critics lightly, nor did he tolerate lax or intemperate workers. To move his vehicles more efficiently to the Grand Trunk’s main line, he invested in the construction in 1895 of the Oshawa Railway, which local ratepayers strenuously opposed. After fire destroyed his works in December 1899, numerous towns jostled to land his business; McLaughlin accepted space in Gananoque, near two of his main suppliers, Gananoque Spring and Axle and George Gillies’s forgery. McLaughlin’s professed loyalty to Oshawa and its unabashed offer of a $50,000 loan to finance rebuilding, which McLaughlin (though heavily insured) took after resigning as mayor, brought the business back. He also seized the opportunity to renegotiate his freight rates with the Grand Trunk. By November 1900 a new factory had been completed. Additional buildings would be needed over the following decade, the cornerstone for one being laid in October 1902 by the Liberal minister of public works, Joseph-Israël Tarte*.

The previous year the now widowed McLaughlin was living on Colborne Street with a servant and his 34-year-old daughter Mary Jane. Though he had never indulged his daughters, and Mary Jane had run away from home in her youth, they adored their father. His remarriage in 1901 was welcomed by the family, who liked Eleanor McCulloch and whatever comfort she restored to McLaughlin’s life. In his sixties he showed no sign of slowing down or of giving way to the new, automotive form of transportation. Boosted as the largest carriage maker in the British empire – its output would reach more than 14,000 units in 1904 – the McLaughlin Carriage Company Limited was provincially incorporated on 7 Aug. 1901. In February 1903, when 263 carriage workers struck for union recognition and a wage increase, a comfortably positioned McLaughlin opened his books to show that they were the highest paid employees in Oshawa, and the strike petered out. Automobiles were initially treated with disdain. Company calendars for 1903–6 depict high-stepping horses and carriages overtaking crashed motor cars and injured drivers. Sam nevertheless caught the fever: in 1904–5 he excitedly explored the prospect of making automobiles in Oshawa, and his purchase in Toronto in 1906 of an American-made, two-cylinder Buick focused his search. A business plan worked out by Sam and George was, to their surprise, approved by the elder McLaughlin, who, Sam later explained, now thought automobiles would be a worthwhile sideline. Robert McLaughlin most likely had a hand in drafting the contract offered three Detroit tradesmen in February 1907 to come as foremen to build “elegant and marketable” autos using American chassis. This arrangement collapsed, as did another that summer to bring in an American engineer to make parts and import others for a prototype. Sam, who with George had already borrowed heavily and started advertising, quickly struck a deal for the purchase of chassis from the Buick Motor Company of Michigan, which was eager to capitalize on the McLaughlins’ situation and the Canadian tariff breaks on imported parts. This branch-plant deal was formally accepted on 3 Oct. 1907 by Robert McLaughlin as president of McLaughlin Carriage. On 20 November the McLaughlin Motor Car Company Limited was provincially incorporated with Sam as president and George as vice-president, though their father held the controlling interest. Starting with a payroll of three under the management of E. W. Drew, the new company assembled 154 McLaughlin-Buicks in 1908; their debut at the Toronto automobile show in March of that year received only modest recognition. The McLaughlins made the bodies, which reflected a carriage-craft origin, especially in their folding tops and finely finished mahogany panelling and windshield frames. The McLaughlin-Buicks fell into a medium-price sector, closer to Oldsmobiles than to the cheap Fords being assembled in Walkerville (Windsor), Ont. [see Gordon Morton McGregor]. In a market where all domestic producers offered some statement of Canadian origin, McLaughlin Sr did not hesitate to let his carriage company’s reputation enter the early advertising for McLaughlin-Buicks.

With carriage and automobile production gradually climbing, McLaughlin properly credited his sons, but he still put in long hours at work. In addition, in 1907 he had joined the Western Bank as a director. The Governor, as he was called, rarely took vacations and generally remained aloof publicly, preferring to fraternize (and spit tobacco) on his shop floors. Only the family knew the extent of his warmth, gentle humour, and kindly gestures. His recreations were limited to his grandchildren, his dog, landscape painting, and his player-piano (Scottish tunes were his favourites); if he did not like the programmed sound of pieces, he would remove and alter the music rolls. In his art, amateurish and repetitive though it was, the one-time carriage painter could still display a workmanlike handling of colours. A Liberal in politics and a member of the executive council of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, he followed national developments in the realm of trade. He had been described in the Canadian album in 1893 as “a Reformer who is not afraid of competition from manufacturers south of the Boundary Line, and believes in gradual tariff reform, looking toward free trade.” Over time he reversed himself. After years of benefiting from Canada’s protective tariffs, on carriages and then automobiles, he felt strongly about the shift of the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier* in 1910–11 towards reciprocal trade with the United States. Canadian auto makers were split on the issue; McLaughlin, like most, was convinced that his firm would suffer.

In June 1910 he politely asked Laurier to maintain existing tariffs. He shared with him two letters he had written to the editor of the Toronto Globe, James Alexander Macdonald, in opposition to reciprocity. The first was a detailed argument for continuing the tariff structure. Not wishing to tangle openly with the “free traders,” he told Macdonald in his covering letter that he did not want to publish what he had written, but he did want to make a case. The government’s announcement of talks with the Americans, he claimed, had cost him a half-million dollar investment in Oshawa by an unnamed but “very wealthy Auto Car Company” in the United States. Even if it was true about the withdrawal – the loquacious Sam would never mention it – it failed to move the prime minister, who, inundated with grievances from other industrialists, merely thanked McLaughlin for his opinion. In January 1911 McLaughlin was part of the delegation of “representative manufacturers” who waited upon the government, again to no effect. In September he attacked Laurier’s free-trade policy on the front page of the Globe and threatened to leave the party. In the event, the Liberals went down to defeat days later, reciprocity died, and McLaughlin and other members of the CMA resumed a more relaxed consideration of industrial concerns. In November McLaughlin became its Ontario vice-president.

Between 1912 and 1915 he carefully gauged both the decline of carriage sales and Sam’s ongoing pains to attract the attention and respect of kingpins in the fast-moving American auto industry. To allow for the production of the highly marketable Chevrolet, an addition lined up by Sam (possibly without his father’s knowledge), McLaughlin agreed in 1915 to dispose of the carriage company’s business, again to the mild surprise of his sons. Recognizing the opportunity for clear transitions, McLaughlin was probably relieved too: he was determined not to see his sons shackled, Carriage Factories Limited (Tudhope’s firm in Orillia) was a willing buyer, and, as is evident from his explanation to his carriage agents in November 1915, he was not blind to the inroads made by the gasoline engine. McLaughlin Carriage nonetheless continued as the holding company and McLaughlin Sr remained its nominal president. Though he was not a natural car man (despite his admitted “mechanical turn”), he still had some practical involvement, as buyer of the wood that went into the auto bodies. When his sons pressured him about 1916 to give up this role, he became irritated – he was the head, he knew woods inside out, and he still knew how to marshal support in the “Manchester of Canada,” as Oshawa styled itself. In August 1916, when his works were being expanded for the assembly of Chevrolets, he signed an agreement on behalf of McLaughlin Carriage whereby the city agreed to fix the company’s assessment and facilitate better railway shipping.

Automobiles apparently did not excite the unimpressionable McLaughlin. When Sam took him for a ride in a model with raised windows, a granddaughter recalled, the Governor’s habit of turning aside to spit tobacco juice produced a mess unnoticed by the bespectacled gentleman with the white beard. In November 1918 McLaughlin Carriage, McLaughlin Motor Car, and the Chevrolet Motor Car Company of Canada Limited were formally taken over by General Motors, though how McLaughlin, then nearing 82 and out of the negotiations, felt about the loss of his business is uncertain. He retained an office – he painted there as well as at home – and would have been aware of GM’s methodical replacement of executives, expansion of the Oshawa works, and construction of a motor plant in Walkerville. Birthday banquets in 1919 and 1920 kept him in touch with carriage-making old-timers. In November 1919 he was genuinely pleased to reminisce with a Globe reporter, who unwittingly brought out McLaughlin’s commitment to ongoing learning, a factor perhaps in his industrial evolution. One of his last public appearances in Oshawa was at the opening on 25 Sept. 1920 of Lakeview Park, which he donated to the city.

McLaughlin had not seemed ill for long before he died in November 1921 of colon cancer. From his deathbed he consoled his fearful grandchildren and bid farewell to veteran carriagemen. Press coverage of his passing ranged from the banner headlines of the Oshawa Reformer to the brief notice in Automotive Industries (New York), date line Detroit. Dignitaries from across Canada descended on Oshawa for the funeral, factories and stores closed, and a line of McLaughlin-Buicks conveyed the floral tributes from St Andrew’s Church to Union Cemetery. McLaughlin left an estate valued at $496,288, much of it in shares in GM, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company of Canada, and the Robert Simpson Company. Under the terms of his will he compensated his daughters for their small share in the sale to GM, and bequests were made to the Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium near Gravenhurst, the Queen Mary Hospital for consumptive children at Weston (Toronto), the Oshawa General Hospital, and the Children’s Shelter of Ontario County, also in Oshawa. After 1921 McLaughlin underwent a kind of corporate sanctification, hastened by George and Sam’s gifts as raconteurs and by Oshawa’s continued reverence.

David Roberts

Restored examples of Robert McLaughlin’s carriages and sleighs may be seen in Oshawa, Ont., at Parkwood Estate and the Canadian Automotive Museum, which also has a few McLaughlin-Buick automobiles. Oil paintings by McLaughlin are held by Parkwood and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa. Excellent photographs of Robert McLaughlin are in the possession of a great-granddaughter, Mary Patricia Bishop, of Toronto.

AO, C 88, sect.A (mfm.); RG 22-264: 6524; RG 80-5-0-74, no.7794; RG 80-5-0-293, no.13178; RG 80-8-0-831, no.24607; RG 80-27-2, 42: 37. NA, MG 26, G: 172585–90. Queen’s Univ. Arch. (Kingston, Ont.), McLaughlin Carriage Works fonds, 1874–1934; George William McLaughlin fonds. D. S. Hoig, Reminiscences and recollections: an interesting pen picture of early days, characters and events in Oshawa (Oshawa, 1933). M. McI. Hood, Oshawa . . . a history of “Canada’s motor city” (Oshawa, 1968). Industrial Canada (Toronto), 1904–21. Dorothy McLaughlin Henderson, Robert McLaughlin: carriage builder (Toronto, 1972). Ontario Gazette (Toronto), 1901: 900; 1907: 1308–9. Heather Robertson, Driving force: the McLaughlin family and the age of the car (Toronto, 1995)

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David Roberts, “McLAUGHLIN, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mclaughlin_robert_15E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mclaughlin_robert_15E.html
Author of Article: David Roberts
Title of Article: McLAUGHLIN, ROBERT
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 2005
Year of revision: 2005
Access Date: December 18, 2014