by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
Gordon Morton McGregor, who headed Ford Motor Company of Canada Ltd., set up a national network of Ford dealerships, with territorial rights granted in exchange for signed contracts and commitments to specific volumes, following the pattern established by Henry Ford in the U.S. McGregor created the Winnipeg branch of Ford of Canada in 1909 to oversee dealerships in Western Canada, with its initial office on Water Avenue (now William Stephenson Way). By 1911, the Winnipeg branch office moved to larger accommodations at 309 Cumberland Ave.
The next anticipated step was for the Winnipeg branch to have its own car assembly facility to serve the needs of the automobile buying public of Western Canada.
The Free Press on December 8, 1915, predicted other automobile manufacturers would have to follow Ford’s lead and locate their own manufacturing facility in Winnipeg.
“The new Ford plant at Winnipeg will be practically the first plant of its kind in the west, but it is a step which have to be followed by a large number of eastern manufacturers if they intend to hold the western trade, which has heretofore been one of the biggest branches of the automobile trade in Canada.”
The Free Press on December 8, 1915, commented that the prospect of a new plant in Winnipeg would also spur on more Ford automobile sales. According to the newspaper, the plant “will materially reduce the freightage on cars heretofore paid by the buyers all over the west ...”
The Ford sales pitch started out with the boast that they produced “a Canadian car, built by Canadians,” and when the plant opened in Winnipeg, the city was also featured prominently in Western Canadian ads. McGregor in company bulletins pitched the Model T as “a Canadian-made motorcar sold by Canadian dealers and serviced by Canadian technicians and Canadian-made parts” (Roberts).
It was a well-founded boast as Ford of Canada was gradually weaning itself from any reliance on parts manufactured in Detroit. By 1913, Ford of Canada was casting its own engine blocks and assigning Canadian specific serial numbers, which started with the letter “C.” The first engine produced was stamped on the block with “C1.” Prior to 1913, the engines were obtained from Ford’s Highland Park plant in Detroit, and to give the impression that Canadians were buying a completely Canadian product, the “Made in U.S.A.” markings on engine blocks had to be ground off.
“The prosperity of the automobile business has been surprising in view of the many pessimistic predictions which were made for it at the beginning of the war in Europe,” according to Ford of Canada advertisements placed in newspapers.
“The immensely increasing demand for Ford cars in Western Canada made it necessary to build a fourth new branch at Winnipeg,” Ford of Canada claimed in its 1916 ads. “This is a handsome five story building located at the corner of Portage Avenue and Wall Street.”
The original 123,000-square-foot building at 1181 Portage Ave. still stands today, and is now known as the Robert Fletcher Building, or simply the Fletcher Building.
The Ford building in Winnipeg bears a striking resemblance to the five-storey assembly plant that was constructed in 1915 in Toronto on Dupont Street (Ford sold the building in 1924 and eventually began turning out cars in Oakville, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto). Another similarity is that both buildings still exist.
In May 1915, Malcolmson travelled east to inspect the assembly lines in the Ontario Ford plants. The first assembly line in Canada was introduced in 1914 at the Ford plant at Walkerville, Ontario (the surrounding land and plant became known as Ford City, which was later incorporated into Windsor, as was Walkerville), and was then producing 27 cars a day. Ford’s first assembly line in Detroit at his Highland Park facility only began operating a year earlier. Ford didn’t invent the assembly line, but he improved its efficiency.
Malcolmson planned to use the information he obtained for an assembly line being considered for the Winnipeg plant.
Actually, when the building first opened it featured only a showroom and storage and service space, although the design by architect John Graham included an assembly line on the three upper floors. With the inclusion of the assembly line, the total cost of the building grew from $250,000 to an estimated $325,000 (Free Press, December 16, 1937).
The sodding-turning ceremony for the first Canadian automobile assembly plant west of Toronto was held on September 25, 1915.
By the spring of 1916, the first phase of the building was completed, and the Winnipeg branch of the Ford Motor Company of Canada announced it would throw the plant’s doors open to the public from July 20 to 23.
“It is well worth anybody’s time to give this new building a thorough inspection during the three days set,” advised the Free Press on July 8, 1916. “The building itself is a distinct asset to the industrial life of Winnipeg ... It is equipped from basement to roof with the latest machinery and appliances known to the industry, and, as a result, is a pleasant place for the workmen employed, and is a guarantee of prompt and efficient attention to every Ford owner.”
In the three months that the plant had been opened, 1,000 cars had been repaired. But it wouldn’t be until December 4, 1916, that the assembly line, based on a design by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, was completed. He was responsible for the design of Ford’s massive factory complex (River Rouge) in Detroit and other Ford facilities in North America and aboard, as well as 20 per cent of all factory buildings built in the U.S. up to 1928. The Winnipeg plant rolled out its first fully assembled automobiles at the beginning of 1917.
The ground floor of the Winnipeg plant featured the showroom and service station for Ford vehicle owners, spare and assembly line parts were stored on the second floor, while the three upper floors were devoted to the assembly line. Beams were not used to bear the weight of the floors, “but giant octagonal columns” with flared caps. The diameter of each column began at 16 inches on the top floor and increased to 30 inches, “going down as they weight they have to support grows greater (Regina-based Morning-Leader, July 29, 1916). “Wide staircases of concrete with steel rails connect the different flats at both the front and rear of the building.”
A railway spur line connected the building to the outside world, and was used to receive Ford parts from Eastern Canada for assembly into finished automobiles that were then transported by rail to Ford dealerships between Lake of the Woods and Vancouver. In 1920, an assembly plant was opened in Vancouver, which was relocated to Burnaby in 1938. Ford of Canada closed its Burnaby plant in 1960.
When operating at full capacity, the Regina newspaper reported that 65 assembly line workers could turn out as many as 153 cars daily during a 8 3/4-hour shift.
Interestingly, the projected number of cars produced daily in Winnipeg varied quite significantly over the years. Different newspapers at different times reported daily vehicle outputs ranging from 65 to over 150 units, but the highest rate of production was 150 Model T cars a day, which was attained in the Winnipeg plant’s first year of operation.
Five hundred people visited the plant on the first day of the open house at the Winnipeg plant, which was described by the Free Press as, “A veritable ‘Aladdin’s Palace.’” Among the building’s features the visitors saw in use was a service garage complete with a filling station, “where gasoline is sold at a low rate.” Up until then gasoline was a relatively rare commodity, so early Ford cars were designed to also run on different fuels such as kerosene and ethanol.
The first-floor showroom was decorated for the occasion with the flags of Great Britain, Canada, Belgium, Russia and Italy — all allies in the First World War (the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1917). The showroom was also adorned with ferns, palms and bay trees. But only two types of cars were on display, as the volume of dealership business had been so high that they were unable to keep stock on-hand.
While the assembly line wasn’t completed, visitors were impressed by the service department where a number of unnamed “interesting machines and equipment” had been installed to shorten the time frame for repairs (Free Press, July 22).
With the end of the war in 1918, components to build cars were becoming more plentiful, although not as readily available to allow the Winnipeg plant to run at full capacity.
How Winnipeg’s assembly line functioned was demonstrated during the annual Regina Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition in 1919.
Saskatchewan was an important market for Ford vehicles produced at the Winnipeg plant, and the province had 282 authorized Ford dealers. By this time, Saskatchewan was the largest producer of wheat in Canada.
Farmers across the prairies loved the Model T for its versatility. Remove a rear wheel, fasten a pulley to the hub for a flat belt and a Ford could drive a bucksaw, thresher, silo blower, conveyor for filling haylofts, baler, water pump, electrical generator, as well as countless other applications (Wikipedia).
In the years before the “good roads” philosophy took hold, country roads were nothing more than muddy and rutted trails, but the Ford, with its ruggedness and “all-terrain” capability could virtually drive through the worst conditions thrown in its path. Farmers also learned that a Ford using metal rims could drive over railway tracks. Since it was so reliable and adaptable, farmers in the three Prairie Provinces could be assured that they could get their produce to market.
“Ironically, the Model T also contributed to the country’s evolution from about 80-per-cent rural at the time of the Model T’s arrival to more than half urban in 1921” (Patricia Hluchy, Toronto Star, May 18, 2008).
“The Model T really helps to accelerate this process of urbanization because it creates a lot of wealth, it creates a lot of secondary industries; there are thousands of people who move from farms to get jobs in factories ...,” Steve Penfold, a University of Toronto professor, who teaches a course on the history of the automobile in North America, told Hluchy.
On July 28,1919, the Morning-Leader reported that the Regina demonstration was as near “as possible under the existing conditions to the process adopted in Winnipeg.” C.J. Lane, the superintendent of the Winnipeg plant, made sure that the 16 workers assembling the vehicle followed the steps used at the Portage and Wall facility.
“From a simple frame consisting of a couple of tied steel girders to a completely equipped automobile operating under its own power, within the brief span of twenty minutes, is the remarkable story of the assembling of the Ford car which being daily demonstrated in the old winter fair building ...”
(Next week: part 3)