This Week in History


From Carriages to Cars

For the week of Monday September 8, 2003

On September 8, 1871, Robert Samuel McLaughlin was born in Enniskillen, Ontario. He was a founder and important player in Canada’s automotive industry.

Sam’s father built horse-drawn carriages and sleighs in Oshawa, Ontario, during the late 19th century. At age 21, after an apprenticeship in his father's business, the McLaughlin Carriage Co., Sam was named partner and chief designer responsible for the annual design of new models. Even after the business suffered a fire in 1899, the family chose to stay in Oshawa, ensuring the city’s future place in the Canadian auto industry.

McLaughlin Brothers George, Sam, JJ with father Robert Sr. (seated)
McLaughlin brothers (from left) George, Sam, J.J. with father Robert Sr. (seated)
© Parkwood Estate National Historic Site

In 1907, after touring many American car plants, Sam and his brother George convinced their father to enter the automobile business. They made a deal with Buick to use its engines in their cars, which contributed greatly to the family’s success. The McLaughlin Motor Car Company was born.

Sam received another offer in 1915, this time to use Chevrolet engines in McLaughlin car bodies. However, part of the proposal was that the new cars would be called Chevrolets instead of carrying the McLaughlin name, as was the case with models using Buick engines. Sam eventually decided to sell the less-successful carriage works that had been the base of the family business and take on the new Chevrolet automobile.

In December 1918, Sam sold the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. and the Chevrolet Motor Co. of Canada to the General Motors Corporation in the United States. This sale resulted in the formation of General Motors of Canada Limited, a company still operating today. Sam continued to work with the new company, acting as its President and later Chairman of the Board. Until the Second World War, GM’s cars continued to show his influence on their design. The “McLaughlin Buick” continued to be a GM model name until 1943.

Sam McLaughlin in a Buick

Sam McLaughlin in a Buick
© Parkwood Estate National Historic Site

Sam designed car features at the family’s Oshawa plant that we today take for granted. Among these developments are power windshield wipers, designed in 1912, the adjustable front seat, developed in 1920, and the rear stoplight, invented in 1921.

Later in his life, Sam became one of Canada’s best-known philanthropists. With a fortune estimated at $275 million, he was able to make many donations to universities, hospitals, cultural institutions, and the Municipality of Oshawa. He died January 6, 1972 at the age of 100.

Robert Samuel McLaughlin is a person of national historic significance because of his contributions to Canadian industry. His Oshawa estate, Parkwood, is a national historic site.

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