General Motors of Canada – Oshawa

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist, Oshawa Museum

This month marks the end of an industrial era in Oshawa. By the end of day on Friday, December 20, 2019 the last vehicle will have rolled off the assembly line at General Motors. Automobile production has a long history in the City of Oshawa and General Motors has been an important part of the community for over 100 years.

Interior of the General Motors car barn located on the north-west corner of Bond Street and Ritson Road
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In 1907, R.S. McLaughlin, son of Robert, created the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. after visiting the United States and discovering that automobiles were becoming a modern luxury.  It was after this tour that R.S. McLaughlin decided to use Buick engines and chassis with McLaughlin bodies to create the McLaughlin-Buick automobile.

The company produced 154 of these McLaughlin-Buicks in 1907.  In 1915, the Chevrolet Motor Car Co. of Canada was formed.  It was also the same year that the original McLaughlin Carriage Co. was sold to Jim Tudhope of Orillia, after building and producing 270,000 carriages.  In 1918, McLaughlin and Chevrolet merged with General Motors to create General Motors of Canada.  According to R.S. McLaughlin, “that was a grand thing for Oshawa on the day that the sale was made, and the city of Oshawa and our workmen will never regret it.”

During the First World War, Oshawa’s auto industry had provided many of the military vehicles required by the Allied Nations, and in turn, the wartime effort assisted in the development of expanded facilitates.  Following WWI, new factory plant units were erected to support the production of the newly acquired automobile contracts.   In 1920 Oldsmobile joined Chevrolet and the McLaughlin Buick on the assembly lines.  In 1923 Cadillac was added to Oshawa’s production.  In 1926 there was further expansion in the company as additions to the north plant were made that enabled a further increase in production.  When the Pontiac name was added to the line-up more space was needed on the assembly line.

In 1920 General Motors of Canada patented the adjustable front seat.  The subsequent year, the world’s first stoplights [brake lights] appeared on Oshawa built cars.  Sadly in this same year, Robert – the founder of the company – passed away at age 86.  A few years later, in 1924, George decided to retire from General Motors.

In 1922, the company employed 1700 workers with two shifts, producing 200 cars a day.  In 1928 at peak production, General Motors in Oshawa employed 5000 workers and produced a car a minute.  This figure was a far cry from the 154 cars the McLaughlin Motor Car Company produced in its entire first year.

General Motors aided the town of Oshawa greatly by having several roads widened and resurfaced, by purchasing land and donating Lakeview Park to the citizens of Oshawa, and by sponsoring various sports teams.  Although in 1928 the company experienced record production figures, the following year’s stock market crash and resulting depression had a serious impact on the automobile industry.  General Motors was not immune to this affect.  The business had no choice but to cut back on production and employment until the economy began to improve in 1934. 

Two women working on the line during WWII, 1944.
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In 1938 the 1 000 000 000th car rolled off the lines – 31 years after the company’s first car was built.  This same year, the company began to build and test various army trucks and combat vehicles.  Being dedicated to the war effort, R.S. McLaughlin had approved the request brought before him the preceding year by the Department of National Defense to construct military equipment.  Tests had revealed the efficiency and reliability of the vehicles produced by General Motors and this is what prompted the request from the Department of National Defense.  By 1942 production on passenger vehicles came to a halt and full wartime production ensued.  Hundreds of thousands of assorted military vehicles, weapons, gun mounts, machine guns and Mosquito aircraft fuselages were among the military items made.  By 1943 completion of Canada’s 500 000th fighting vehicle was celebrated in Oshawa.  The Mosquito fuselage reached production of one per day.

General Motors plant in downtown Oshawa, 1940s.
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By the end of WWII, when military production   was   terminated, the plant had to be re-converted to facilitate the production of civilian vehicles.  This retrofit involved major remodeling and a complete re-tooling of the plant.  Of course General Motors was up to the task and it wasn’t long before the plant began turning out civilian passenger cars once again.

When GM ceased wartime production after the Second World War, the first post-war car came off the lines by October 1945.  In 1950 the plant expanded, and in 1954 passenger car assembly began at a new south plant complex in Oshawa.  The year 1956 marked the three millionth vehicle produced since 1907, and five years later GM had produced four million vehiclesTwo thousand units were being produced daily by 1965.  The Canada-US Trade agreement (Autopact) was signed allowing GM of Canada to increase its production considerably in the years to follow.  During 1968 the plastic moulding facilities were enlarged so that instrument panels, fender liners and grille sections could be manufactured.

General Motors of Canada was no stranger to military production; it had created many weapons and vehicles in the first and second World Wars.  In 1975 GM of Canada began construction on trucks for the Department of National Defense.  It only took one year to modify the assembly line so that the trucks could be produced on the same line as the regular commercial vehicles.

In 1983, the year of GM’s 75th birthday, William Street in front of the GM Head Office was temporarily changed to “GM Way.”   A street sign was posted to reflect the change.  GM Oshawa was given the privilege of building 21 royal blue luxury cars worth half a million dollars for Queen Elizabeth II’s scheduled visit to Ontario in 1984.  About this time, the company was proposing a 4-year plan to revamp the truck plant, and build a metal stamping facility.  The stamping plant would be of great benefit because at the time the bulk of parts (roofs, hoods and floor pans) were imported to Oshawa from the United States.  There could be shipping delays, and keeping a supply on hand took up a large amount of storage space.  When the stamping plant was up and running, parts could be made as required, and sent to the car plant next-door for assembly and painting.  The planned expansion also meant 300 new jobs.  The much-anticipated Autoplex became the “largest, most modern, integrated vehicle-manufacturing complex in North America.” It is spread over three locations; made up of a 2-car assembly plant, the truck assembly plant and a fabrication plant (stampings, batteries, lamps, plastics, etc).  GM plants in Canada had advantages over their U.S. counterparts–the cheaper dollar and the government run medical and social benefits.  

 In 1986 there was a 4-month shutdown at the Oshawa truck plant, and a one-month shutdown at one of the car plants.  The interior of the plant was torn up, expanded, and modernized.  It re-opened with more than 120 robots, hundreds of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV’s), and 526 automated welders.   Instead of the traditional assembly line where employees rushed to assemble parts on a moving conveyor, which could not be slowed down or stopped, the AGV’s, which run along tracks buried in the floor, would carry components to work stations of 8-15 people.  These AGV’s also tow units to booths where computer-controlled robots take over certain painting or welding tasks, jobs considered too repetitive or delicate for humans to perform. At this time, plans were underway to replace the production of the “A-Car” (Chevrolet Celebrity and Pontiac 6000) with the 10-car.  There was a major lay off for nightshift workers at Plant No. 1 from November 1987 to March of 1988. The layoff was due to a large drop in midsize car sales in the United States.   Shift workers would work two weeks of days and then two weeks off, for the duration of those four months.

General Motors Headquarters
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David Dowsley Collection

Until 1989 the GM office staff was spread out over nine buildings.  In August of that year GM sought to consolidate its office staff in one massive Head Office.  The former 70-year-old Head Office on William Street was abandoned with plans to convert it to a parking lot.  A five level building was built at the east end of Wentworth Street (now called Col. Sam Drive) with a beautiful view of the lake.

Oshawa became the first auto assembly line in North America to run on 3 shifts when it added the 3rd shift to the truck assembly plant in 1993.  In 1995 the six millionth truck rolled off the lines, since the production of trucks began in 1919.

General Motors was hit hard by the economic downturn between 2008  and 2010.  The truck plant in Oshawa was closed in May 2009 and in June the company declared bankruptcy.  However, after massive restricting and bail-out loans from both the federal and provincial governments, the company began to rebound in 2010 and posted profits for the first time in years. 

November 2018 saw the announcement that the company was closing the Oshawa plant as part of their global restructuring plan. For a community with close ties to the company for over 100 years, this news hit hard. While the company is not completely leaving the community, a portion of the plant will be retrofitted to build car parts and a portion of the plant property will become a new test track for autonomous vehicles, the closure of the plant will mean the end of a large part of Oshawa’s identity.

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