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Robert Samuel McLaughlin "Colonel Sam" (1871 - 1972)

Founder General Motors of Canada

Born in Enniskillen, Ont., in 1871, Robert Samuel McLaughlin started as an apprentice upholsterer in his father's factory, the McLaughlin Carriage Works in Oshawa in 1887. His pay was $3 a week, from which his father deducted $2.50 for room and board.

Sam was not keen on building carriage bodies, but had a flair for upholstery. As a journeyman upholsterer who could spit tacks as he worked, he moved to the high ranks of $6 a week. Soon he expanded his talents to designing more than 140 models of carriages and sleighs.

Young Sam loved travel and speed. Once for a holiday he rode his bicycle over dirt roads from Oshawa to Brockville and back - a distance of more than 300 miles. Often he rode the toll road for 30 miles from Oshawa to Toronto, delighted that he didn't have to pay because he was using his bike, not a horse-drawn carriage.

The successful McLaughlin family enterprise was turning out 25,000 horse-drawn buggies and sleighs a year when the first horseless carriages appeared in Canada around 1900. The family apparently didn't pay much attention to the new-fangled contraptions.

Sam's First Car Ride
He took his first car ride in 1904 in a thousand-dollar Ford belonging to Oliver Hezzlewood, the McLaughlin Carriage Works bookkeeper. "I think it ran on one cylinder and was chain driven," McLaughlin told Maclean's Magazine in 1954. "It had no doors, top or windshield." When it rained, passengers got soaked to the skin.

At Hezzlewood's request, McLaughlin devised a rubberized sheet that fit over the body of the car, with four holes cut for the heads of the driver and three passengers. It worked. In gratitude, Hezzlewood allowed young McLaughlin to drive his car. "From then on I had a new kind of wheel in my head: motor-driven wheels," McLaughlin said.

In 1907, the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. was incorporated in Oshawa, ready to handle an annual production of 100 McLaughlin-designed cars. William Durant, owner of the Buick Co. of Detroit, offered to supply the engines. The joint venture launched the first motor car actually assembled in Canada, with parts brought in from Michigan: the McLaughlin-Buick Model F.

Sam McLaughlin became a director of General Motors in 1910 and, in 1918, sold the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. to GM, becoming president of General Motors Canada. He retained the title and served as company chairman until well into his 90s.

" Chrysler, Olds, Chevrolet - the men, not the cars - were his buddies," wrote author Heather Robertson, "for McLaughlin presided at the birth of the North American auto industry." One of McLaughlin's proudest achievements was his induction in the 11th Ontario Regiment as Honorary Colonel. For the rest of his life, to friends and associates he was known as "Colonel Sam."

McLaughlin Foundation is Established
McLaughlin was 80 years old when he established the McLaughlin Foundation in 1951. "I want you all to share in everything I have done," he said.

His primary intention in establishing the Foundation was to promote good health among Canadians by encouraging study and research in medical science. But he was also concerned about arts, culture, education and community. The same year that he created the McLaughlin Travelling Fellowships for young doctors, he also established the Queen's University Trust to foster research and graduate studies in fields other than medicine. The McLaughlin Foundation began with $1 million in 1951, and grew by another $32 million after Sam McLaughlin's death in 1972. When the Foundation ceases by the end of 2001, it will have donated nearly $200 million to institutions, charities and individuals in many parts of Canada.
Separate from both the Trust and the Foundation, there were also significant gifts that came personally from Colonel Sam. Among them:

  • The McLaughlin Planetarium
  • The Intensive Care Unit of The Hospital for Sick Children
  • The Guelph University Library
  • Part of the Group of Seven collection of the McMichael Gallery

Colonel Sam at 100
On Colonel Sam's 100th birthday, he received congratulations from well-wishers ranging from the Queen Mother (whom he had entertained at his Oshawa mansion) and Henry Ford II to a Niagara Falls peach picker who began his letter, "Dear Friend Sam." Four months later, early in 1972, he died. The Oshawa Times reported that some 20,000 mourners filed past his flag-draped coffin.

The McLaughlin Carriage motto reflected the motto for Colonel Sam's life: "One grade only, and that the best."