Canada’s Unique Autoscape, Part 2
That just about covers the “big three”, but the automotive scene in 1960s Canada also saw the beginning of European manufacturers setting up shop in North America. In 1963, Volvo built the Volvo Halifax Assembly Plant on the Halifax harbour in Nova Scotia (although technically in Dartmouth, which is to Halifax as Jersey City is to New York City). At the time, it was the first assembly plant Volvo had opened outside its home country, and also happened to be the first non-domestic automotive assembly plant in North America. Originally building Volvo 122 S, 123 GT and 122 B18s (all a bodystyle more commonly known as the Volvo Amazon), the plant was unique for Volvo, in that a team assembled an entire vehicle at one station — a process that would be used at other Volvo plants thereafter. The cars themselves, however, were not all that unique when compared to those sold elsewhere. That wasn’t to say there weren’t differences – the 123GT was rebranded in Canada as the Volvo Canadian.
The timing of the new plant was fantastic, as Volvo was able to take advantage of the newly formed APTA and therefore save on North American import tariffs when selling cars in the U.S.. The plant was quite successful, producing 3700 cars in 1966. In 1967, Volvo built a new plant in Bayer’s Lake Industrial Park, on the edge of the city of Halifax (in fact about a 2 minute walk from where I’m sitting right now – the building still exists). The new, 30,000-square-foot plant was capable of producing 8,000 cars per year. It continued producing Volvos until 1998, when the plant closed. Although still considered a successful venture until it’s last days, Volvo claimed that NAFTA and globalization rendered the plant unnecessary. While it was open, many Volvo models for the North American market were produced at this plant, including the Volvo 140, 240, 740, 760, 850, 940, S70/V70 and the S80.
Sports Car Mania
Although I’m finished with the brands we’re all familiar with, I suppose I should note one that most people aren’t aware of — the Manic GT. It’s story begins in the late 1960, when a Renault Canada employee named Jacques About (no – it’s not pronounced A-boot) was asked to complete a study to ascertain the feasibility of importing the Renault Alpine sports car into Canada. For those who aren’t aware, the Alpine was a lightweight, rear-engine sports car build by a third party (Alpine), that used Renault drivetrains and was sold through European Renault dealerships. Although the outcome of his study was favourable, Renault chose not to proceed anyhow. But the seed was planted in Monsieur About’s brain.
The 32-year-old Montreal native was certain such a car would be a success on Canadian soil, regardless of what his employers thought. He then left Renault Canada to pursue his dream, but rather than simply running out and building a car, About first sought to gain credibility by building a French GRAC racing car under license and promoted it to moderate success. He named the car the Manic GRAC (named not for the mental state, but for the Manicougan River in Quebec).
Mr. About then formed Automobile Manic Inc., in 1968, in the hope of finally building a sports car in the same vein as the Renault Alpine, and set about acquiring investors. Impressed by his racing car, financial backing came pouring in, including investments from heavyweights like Bombardier and the Canadian government. About bought a manufacturing plant, and, with the help of fellow Frenchman designer Serge Soumille, began building a small, lightweight 2 seater coupe based on the platform and drivetrain of the rear-engined Renault 10. This car was the Manic GT.
A great deal different than the typical overpowered American sports car of the 1960s, the tiny, fibreglass bodied coupe came with a 1.5L engine with a maximum of 105 horsepower. It’s tiny stable of horses were routed through either a 4-speed or 5-speed manual transmission. On top of this sat a body that looked like a mix of Renault Alpine, Lotus Europa, and some Saab Sonnet thrown in for good measure. This fibreglass body was unique in that instead of being bolted to the Renault frame, it was molded directly to it — a process that allowed for lighter weight and a lower body.
Production began in 1969. Things started out well, with the company producing 5 cars a week with a 2 month waiting list for new orders. About hoped to produce about 1,300 cars annually. Unfortunately, problems began almost right from the beginning — not because of the car itself, but because of their reliance on Renault parts. Renault was already in the process of phasing out the R10, and the supply of parts sent to Canada from Renault slowed to a trickle. Because they couldn’t get the parts to keep up with the demand for the new car, only 160 were produced before the factory closed in 1971.
The Manic GT remains a rare car today not only because of its extremely low production numbers, but also in part because of it’s unique and ultimately frustrating construction process. French cars of the 1960s tended to have the habit of rusting prematurely – and this was exaggerated in Canadian winters filled with snow and salt. Because the fibreglass was molded directly to the frame, you couldn’t simply remove the body to repair a rusted frame, making maintenance rather difficult.
The End of the Canadian Car?
As 1970 closed in, many of the unique Canadian cars had been abandoned, no longer cost efficient since the incorporation of the APTA. Dodge didn’t offer any special products for Canada past 1967 (save for their Fargo trucks). Ford still had its Meteor, but that was now little more than a cheap Mercury. The exception being GM, which was still riding the wave of revenue generated by Pontiac’s strong Northern sales. But by the late 1960s, even GM’s offerings had mostly devolved into little more than Chevrolets with trim packages, supplemented by a few slow selling captive imports. Only the full-size Pontiac offerings could still be considered truly distinct, and they looked almost identical to their American equivalents.
The oil crisis was coming, however, and the Canadian market would once again see some exclusive offerings from Ford and GM. It wouldn’t be long before chrome laden small Fords and diminutive Chevrolets with a red arrowhead on their grilles would be available for those Canadians looking to save what was now a hot commodity — gasoline.