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Classic Car: Colonel Sam’s baby turns 103

Neil Butters’s 1910 Model 8 will be on display in Port Hope this Saturday.

Bob English/The Globe and Mail

Clamber up on to the narrow front seat beside Neil Butters at the wheel of his 1910 Oshawa-built McLaughlin-Buick Model 8 Tourer and you're rubbing shoulders with half a century of family history. And, with a little imagination, the shade of one of the Canadian automotive industry's pioneers.

On this same leather-covered seat a young ex-buggy-builder called R.S. McLaughlin once sat, in 1910 feeling flush after establishing McLaughlin Motor Car Co., soon to become General Motors of Canada.

Colonel Sam, as he would later be known, would have performed exactly the same hand-cranking, brass spark and throttle lever twiddling routine as Neil – to start and then find settings that settle the motor into a chuff-chuff-chuffing slow tick-over – before driving off in the Model 8. The car was once McLaughlin's personal ride and is one of the earliest survivors of the cars he began producing in 1908, and which carried the family name through 1942.

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One-hundred-and-three years later, we were setting out on a test run around the streets of Cobourg, Ont., to make sure the venerable Model 8 was up to making the drive to nearby Port Hope on Saturday, Aug. 24, for the Antique and Classic Car Club of Canada's 50th Concours d'Elegance, an event that attracts up to 75 classy classic cars to the town, located about 100 kilometres east of Toronto.

This year's event will not only mark the A4C's historic milestone, but the 105th anniversary of the McLaughlin-Buick, and the 110th anniversary of Buick itself, with both being featured marques. Butters' Model 8 will have the honour of representing the beginnings of the Canadian brand.

With its overhead-valve, four-cylinder, 25-30 hp engine warmed up, it was time for a vintage Colonel Sam experience. Neil depressed the low gear foot pedal – the transmission is a planetary type, like that in Ford's Model T, with two other pedals, one for reversing and the other the brake – and off we went.

At what was deemed an appropriate (jogging rate) speed, the long, externally-mounted high-gear lever was pushed forward, engaging it with a clunk and, with the motor now chugging slowly enough to count the revolutions, we puttered through neighbourhood streets. Butters says it will cruise at 35-40 mph though. And that's likely fast enough, given its skinny tires, mounted on wooden artillery-spoke wheels, and hard-sprung solid axles. And with only small emergency rear drums, and a transmission band brake, giving yourself plenty of time to stop is a good idea.

In Colonel Sam's day, it must have all seemed like magic and, once word got out, buyers weren't hard to find, at least according to a newspaper from 1909. The copy reads: If the world has made a beaten path to the house in the woods, the owner of that house must have made "the best yet." The Canadian "World" has made a beaten path to the home of the McLaughlin-Buick Motor Cars.

And, as proof, it cited Ontario sales figures for 1909 showing McLaughlin-Buick 245, Ford 198, Russell 128, Cadillac 88, Oldsmobile 59, Tudhope 29, Packard 28, Reo 24, White Steamer 29, and the combined efforts of 50 other makes 236.

Butters' model Model 8 was built just two years after McLaughlin – one of two sons of Robert, who founded the sleigh, buggy and wagon-making company in 1867 – talked his father into getting into the car business. Technology, in the form of engines, transmissions and suspensions was sourced from Buick (founded in 1903, but soon part of William Durant's new General Motors), with bodies constructed by McLaughlin's skilled carriage-builders.

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The first 154 were produced in 1908, and subsequent production sold under the McLaughlin, McLaughlin-Buick and Buick names. The company was soon also building Chevrolets for Canadian consumption, and in 1918 the McLaughlins sold their business to General Motors, with Sam becoming the first president of General Motors of Canada. Colonel Sam would remain president until 1945, and chairman of the board until his death in 1972, at the age of 100.

Butters – who is now 65 and retired – was born, grew up and still lives in Cobourg, and says McLaughlin owned the Model 8 for more than 40 years before selling it to the son of a fellow GM board member in the early 1950s.

The Model 8, restored in 1953, would become one of Canada's early "hobby" cars while owned by Cobourg Canadian Tire store owner Neil Kennedy . Kennedy showed it at the Canadian National Exhibition, and drove it on old auto tours – as dashboard plaques attest – until selling it in 1957 to local Rambler and Austin dealer Hayden Butters.

Neil says his father Hayden began buying, selling, collecting and enjoying old cars in the early 1950s, often with him in tow. A black-and-white picture shows him and his dad in the Model 8`s front seat in 1958.

And Hayden was at its wheel when it made a unique contribution to Canada's automotive history, transporting Ontario's minister of highways when he officially opened the newly completed stretch of Highway 401 between Brighton and Port Hope in the summer of 1961. It was also on hand that year to help Colonel Sam celebrate his 90th birthday, and there`s a picture of him behind the wheel.

The car slipped away from Butters' family ownership in the late 1980s, but was repatriated a decade ago, in time to join in the festivities marking the 100th anniversary of the McLaughlin-Buick in Oshawa in 2008.

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It would be worth the drive to Port Hope for this Saturday's A4C concours just to get a look at this veteran example of Canadian motoring history and entrepreneurship.

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