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The Toronto auto show and its royal connection - a McLaughlin-Buick

How a car hand-built in Oshawa, Ont., for royalty in High River, Alta., comes to the Toronto auto show by way of Scheibbs, Austria, is the sort of puzzle Jim Snyder takes to like a terrier on a T-bone.

Snyder’s dogged sleuthing located the 1928 McLaughlin-Buick Model 496 two years ago, decades after Canadian collectors had decided it was forever lost.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

The puzzle presented itself in 2014, when Snyder and Tony Lang, Corvette and muscle-car buffs respectively, long-time partners in a John Deere dealership, were much taken by a 1939 royal tour McLaughlin-Buick in the museum display at the Cobble Beach concours, not far from their homes outside Walkerton, Ont.

Related: The history behind five must-see classic cars at the Toronto auto show

Another royal tour car is in the Canada Science and Technology Museum collection, transportation curator Sharon Babaian says, one of two 1927 McLaughlin-Buicks. “We asked what happened to the second car,” Snyder says. “Her response was, ‘No idea!’ It became my mission.”

Diane Snyder interjects, “Jim’s interest is in history. He wasn’t going to let go of this, he spent hours on the Internet.”

Dan Proudfoot

Any 90-year-old car’s stories far exceed its horsepower. Edward, the Prince of Wales, buying a ranch on Pekisko Creek, west of High River, in 1919, serves as a forward to this one’s collected tales.

He’d been gob-smacked by the beauty and romance of the place while enjoying the hospitality of Calgary Stampede co-founder George Lane.

In 1927, Edward longed to return to vet construction of an addition to his E.P. Ranch (E.P. equals Edward Prince) ranch house. The powers-that-be determined this visit should become a royal tour. As Jim Snyder explains, an earlier tour marking Canada’s 50th anniversary in 1917 had been cancelled because of the First World War; this one could celebrate the 60th. Edward’s brother, Prince George, would come as well.

Two cars would be required, one shipped ahead to the next stop in the itinerary while the princes were doffing their top hats from the other.

Dan Proudfoot

GM of Canada founder Colonel Sam McLaughlin said he wasn’t making any open cars in 1927. When the governor-general’s office made clear this wouldn’t do, McLaughlin set his best craftsmen to work on the custom-built open tourers. The plates on their firewalls declared their model year as “28”; Colonel Sam could say he didn’t make any open cars in 1927, even though he did.

Their low, rakish windshield frames were sourced from LaSalle, GM’s new sub-Cadillac line, the six-cylinder engines from Buick. Otherwise, the cars were designed and hand-built in Canada, to the standard of European custom coachwork.

Dan Proudfoot

After the parades – the ribbons snipped at Toronto’s new Union Station, the Princes’ Gates at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds and the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, Ont., Edward’s sojourn at High River and the E.P. Ranch – the pomp was packed away for next time and the cars returned to Oshawa.

McLaughlin drove one until 1929, when he sold it to a friend, John Bulloch, who drove it into his nineties. The museum acquired this car from Bulloch’s niece, Bernice Marshall, in 1984.

The fate of the second remained unknown until Snyder seized the challenge. Still working for BDO Canada, the accountancy firm, he enjoys helping Lang, whose Lang Farms Ltd. exports soy beans to Belgium, build his collection.

Dan Proudfoot

“In one picture, it looked as though the steering wheel was on the right side,” Snyder says. “That made me think, ‘Could this car have gone to Europe?’ so I turned to European Internet sites.”

That was the key. He learned Bonhams, the auction house, had sold the car at its Oxford auction in March, 2013, for $97,217. But to whom?

“I requested Bonhams to contact the buyer and ask them to get in touch with me. Months went by. I thought we’d run into a dead end, when an e-mail arrives from Austria.”

Dan Proudfoot

Johannes Willenport, collector of cars raced by Jochen Rindt, the Austrian Formula One champion in 1970, but also fascinated by cars with royal connections, had died. Contact made, Lang bought the McLaughlin-Buick from the estate to crown his roster of Canadian-made cars – which includes an Oakland from Oshawa and a Chrysler from Walkerville, Ont.

The shipping container that arrived in Toronto on Dec. 27, 2015, contained not only the car but its chronicle, in notebooks, correspondence, records. In the decades since London banker Alfred Charles Holtby became its first registered owner in 1933, the classic had been both cherished and abused.

Dan Proudfoot

Midhurst Engineering, 1936-1962, transformed the regal carriage into a commoner – Midhurst fitted a crane, capitalizing on the open body and stout construction to make it a tow truck.

Ed and Beverly Bacon, of West Sussex in England, the fourth owners from 1992 to 2013, cared so intensely they visited Ottawa in the 1990s to examine its twin before beginning a restoration, having uncovered their car’s distinguished past at the Beaulieu Motor Museum Library.

Dan Proudfoot

A car such as the one McLaughlin’s men assembled in 1927 endures as its owners pass. Prince George died in a military air crash in 1942. Edward, who continued visiting E.P. Ranch until selling the property in 1962, died at Villa Windsor, Paris, in 1972.

“The people and the pursuit of their stories is what makes these cars so interesting,” Snyder says. The same could be said of any vehicle accorded space in the Art & The Automobile gallery as the Canadian International AutoShow marks Canada’s 150th anniversary.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

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Editor’s Note A previous version of this article incorrectly said the Peace Bridge is at Niagara Falls, when in fact it is in Fort Erie.

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