Life in the slow lane
Maclean’s, December 11, 1995
Driving Force: The McLaughlin Family and the Age of the Car
By Heather Robertson
McClelland & Stewart, 402 pages, $34.99
At the beginning of her “Notes and Sources” appendix, Heather Robertson writes: “This is the first book to be written about the McLaughlins of Oshawa and General Motors of Canada.” Robertson’s book shows why. The McLaughlins were, at best, uninspired branch-plant managers and, by any measure, pretty dull folks. The family patriarch, Robert McLaughlin, began making axe-handles in Ontario in the mid-19th century. Later, he manufactured buggies because the profit margin was bigger. As the century drew to its close, the family’s entrepreneurial spirit, such as it was, sputtered and quit. The McLaughlins never did create their own car. When they finally got into the automobile business in 1907 — over the objections of Robert, who died in 1921 — they did so by attaching McLaughlin nameplates to vehicles assembled in Oshawa from McLaughlin-manufactured bodies and parts made in Michigan, all of which had been conceived and designed by David Buick. It does not add up to much of a business saga. But Robertson’s account in Driving Force offers a glimpse into the acquiescent branch-plant mentality that helped define — for better or worse — much of Canada’s industrial character.
As Toronto magazine writer and author Robertson tells it, the McLaughlins had a good thing going in reassembling U.S. auto parts. But when, in December, 1918, GM made them a fabulously lucrative offer that they could not refuse, they sold their enterprise to the American giant a decade after they had started. Robert’s two sons, Robert Samuel (Sam) and George, embarked on their main vocation: cashing dividend checks and amusing themselves. George worked at being dour and parsimonious, increasing his efforts in that direction following his 1924 retirement from the post of vice-president of GM Canada. He died in 1942. The chief occupations of his brother, Sam—who became president of GM Canada and vice-president of the American parent after the McLaughlins sold their business—were aping the style of the American robber barons he envied and angling for a knighthood. He died in 1972.
The McLaughlins did not generate much in the way of scandal or drama; they had just enough passion to muster occasional picayune resentments and simmering peevishness. Drama in the book emanates from the titanic struggles of the U.S. automakers and their corporate battles; it comes from the fight of Oshawa’s GM workers to be treated as something other than cheap, expendable plant equipment. And it comes from a five-page account of a 1921 lawsuit involving Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery, stemming from an automobile collision. (Neither party was driving a McLaughlin car.) Robertson brightens her narrative with similar glimpses of the wider car culture throughout the book.
Robertson labors mightily to animate the McLaughlin saga. But it is difficult to warm to the self-absorbed Sam and the willfully insulated George. Robertson is to be admired for presenting what appear to be honest portrayals of her subjects. Too bad she chose such lackluster ones.