Canada Only General Motors Cars


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Written by Bill Bowman

General Motors is 100 years old in Canada, beginning as a partnership with Sam McLauglin in Oshawa, Ontario. The carriage maker began producing cars in 1908 in conjunction with Buick, and the cars were known as McLaughlin-Buick’s.

While GM grew in the U.S. and William Durant assembled his empire, Canadian versions of the cars started to appear in domestic manufacturing facilities. Chevrolet (started in Canada in 1915) was tied in with McLauglin when it became part of GM in 1918. In 1920, the building of Oldsmobiles in Canada got underway, and Pontiacs were first built in Oshawa in 1926. GM Canada built Cadillacs from 1923 to 1936 and LaSalles from 1927 to 1935.

By 1930, aside from the Oshawa, Ontario Facility, GM had plants in St. Catharines, Ontario, an engine plant in Walkerville, Ontario, and an assembly facility in Regina, Saskatchewan (the only auto-related enterprise west of Ontario). Of the five GM divisions, Pontiac had the most Canada only versions. It was the same as its U.S. counterpart from 1926 until 1937, when the Model 224 was introduced with a 224-cubic inch Chevrolet engine. In 1938, the Pontiac Special and Deluxe models were based on a Chevrolet with Pontiac front–end treatment and fenders. The cars were called Arrow and Arrow Deluxe, and in 1941 the names Fleetleader and Fleetleader Deluxe were used.

A Canada only Chevy based truck was produced in the 1930s and 1940s, with the most patriotic of names, Maple Leaf.

Pontiac was a big seller in Canada, with about 30 per cent of GM sales at this time. The cars remained the same after World War II, but the expensive models such as convertibles and station wagons were imported from the U.S., as were cars with GM’s new Hydramatic automatic transmission.

When a totally new lineup was introduced in 1949, Pontiacs were still Chevrolets under the body, and sales rose to third overall in Canada.

In 1953, Pontiac received new names, the Pathfinder and Pathfinder Deluxe but the name Laurentian was adopted for the top of the line hardtops.

When the 1955 Chevrolet was introduced with a new V8 engine, Pontiac followed suit in the U.S., but these were totally different vehicles with longer wheelbases. In Canada, the method of building Pontiacs incorporated the 115-inch wheelbase platform and engines of Chevrolet. The U.S. cars had their own family of engines, but Canadian Pontiacs used the new Chevy small block and a bored out (to 261 cubic inches) version of the Chevy Stovebolt Six.

Big changes in body style and names came to Pontiac in 1958. While still Chevy based, the Oshawa built cars were now available in three models: the low priced Strato-Chief, the Laurentian and the top line Parisienne.

In 1959, Pontiac introduced its famous "Wide Track" line of cars in the U.S., but Canada adhered to the now familiar Pontiac body on a Chevy application. GM of Canada built over 73,000 Pontiacs in 1960. For model designations, the Strato-Chief, Laurentian and Parisienne counterparts in the U.S. were the Catalina, Star-Chief and Bonneville.

When car companies started building smaller cars in the early 1960’s, Pontiac countered with its Tempest, but this car was not available in Canada. By 1963, Pontiac was the top selling car in Canada, and two years later the one millionth Pontiac was produced in Canada.

In 1968, Pontiacs in Canada were built with their own version of the "Wide Track", using the one-inch wider wheel track of the Chevy station wagon. The Grand Parisienne was introduced, a regular Parisienne dressed up with trim items of its U.S. Grand Prix and Bonneville cousins.

By 1971, as the Canada-United States Autopact of 1965 settled in, Pontiacs built between the two countries were virtually identical. The Laurentian, Catalina and Parisienne were built with both Chevy V8 engines, and most cars produced in Canada with the Pontiac 400 and 455 engines went to the States.

In 1982, full-size Pontiacs were dropped from production in the U.S. The only model now available was the Parisienne, which was Chevy Caprice based. The Laurentian name, used for 28 years in Canada, was dropped.

In 1973, Pontiac sold its Canadian only version of the Chevy subcompact car, the Vega, and when the Chevy Chevette was introduced a couple of years later, Pontiac had its own version, the Acadian.

The Acadian name first appeared in 1962 on the Chevy II based Pontiac in Canada. This compact featured different upholstery, grille and trim work from the Chevy II, and was available in the Invader, Canso and Beaumont series.

In 1964, the Beaumont name was given to Pontiac’s version of the new Chevelle, which was built in Canada in all body styles, with Chevy engines throughout the 1960’s until Oshawa started building Tempests in 1970.

The names given to the Canadian Pontiacs were very nationalistic, and in most cases, the model names were French in origin. The name Laurentian pertains to the St. Lawrence River. Parisienne is feminine in nature, meaning a girl or woman of Paris. Early French settlers in the Maritimes were known as Acadians, and the cape and waterway between Cape Breton and the Nova Scotia mainland is called Canso. There is a town in Quebec called Beaumont, while the name Invader means to intrude upon or enter forcefully.

Aside from Pontiac, the rest of the GM family received little special attention in Canada over its U.S. counterparts. Although the Canadian built McLaughlin-Buick name was dropped in 1942, GM Canada did build a unique Custom model (starting in 1951) that matched the entry level U.S. Buick Special. Outside the car were the same, but inside, a mixture of Buick and Oldsmobile trim was used. By 1966, the only Buick built in Canada was the Skylark model, and then the Sainte-Thérèse plant in Quebec built Skylarks until 1977, with most of these heading to the U.S.

GM Canada built Oldsmobiles in Canada from 1920 on, but always low-end cars with engines imported from Michigan. The Starfire was built alongside the Buick Skyhawk at Sainte-Thérèse, starting in the late 1970’s. The Sainte-Thérèse plant, which has since been leveled, was the final production home of the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird in 2002.

Chevrolet has been built in Canada since 1915, with only minor trim variations from the U.S. models. Most of the higher priced models such as the 1955-1957 Nomad wagons and 1958 Impala hardtops were imported from the United States. Corvairs were produced in Canada from 1960 until 1966. All Chevy Malibus, Chevelles and full-size Chevy models were the same for both countries in the 1960s and 1970s, although the Biscayne model was retired in the U.S. in 1975, but kept on in Canada until 1977.

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