The McLaughlin Family & the Age of the Car
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|Roughing It in the Buick
by Donna Nurse
The problem with a book that sets out to be many things to many people is that it often ends up meaning little to anyone in particular. That plight very nearly befalls Driving Force, which chronicles the McLaughlin family's fortunes, their reign over General Motors Canada, and the impact of the car on society. What ultimately rescues the book is Heather Robertson's somewhat ruthless piecing together of a truly great Canadian story; one that, until now, has remained largely untold.
The McLaughlins were among the thousands of virtually penniless Irish immigrants who arrived on the shores of the St. Lawrence River at Grosse Ile in the early 1830s. William, his wife Mary, and their brood made their way to Darlington Township in Upper Canada, where they knew other Irish Protestants had settled. The McLaughlin saga really begins with one of William's exceptionally enterprising grandsons. Robert McLaughlin parlayed his gift for woodcarving into a thriving cutter and carriage building business and in 1878 he moved his family and his factory from Enniskillen to Oshawa. Robert's sickly, but equally entrepreneurial eldest son, John James, grew wealthy on his recipe for Canada Dry Ginger Ale. His other two sons, George and Sam, held positions in their father's carriage works. The pair encouraged their father to start manufacturing automobiles. It was a move that would profoundly shape the industrial character of southern Ontario.
Robertson follows Sam McLaughlin's career, as he negotiates with the American financier Will Durant for the right to manufacture Buicks in Canada and she explores and evaluates his nearly thirty-year tenure as president of General Motors Canada. This brash, athletic third son led the company through the Depression, World War II, labour unrest, and the eventual installation of a union.
Robertson means Colonel Sam (as he was known) to emerge as the book's most compelling personality. His distinct features, bombastic manner, and wily manoeuvres do make him a figure worthy of Dickens. Yet her story fails to bring him, or any of the other members of the McLaughlin clan, to life.
Part of the problem lies in her tendency to quote extensively from numerous secondary sources, which gives the slightly annoying impression of several people interrupting each other to tell a single story. The preponderance of quotes also causes the book to read more like an extended essay than a work of biography. When she describes the McLaughlins' horrendous voyage across the Atlantic, for instance, she does not speak directly of their experience; instead she repeatedly borrows excerpts from pioneer memoirs, such as Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush. For some reason Robertson decides to include the actual quotes rather than use their content to imaginatively inform her story.
Another reason our picture of the McLaughlins remains sketchy is that we rarely venture into their private homes. Our scant knowledge of the dynamics among family members makes it difficult to understand all but their most basic motivations. Robertson's occasional domestic passages enrich the narrative immeasurably-as when she describes how Robert's children loathed his second wife Sarah Jane Parr, whom they maliciously nicknamed "Steppie".
However, Driving Force is not just the story of a Canadian dynasty but also an account of the Automobile Age. Robertson does a marvellous job of depicting a Canadian public bemused by, then besotted with, the horseless carriage. One particularly amusing scene portrays the McLaughlins' dear friend, Oliver Hezzelwood, struggling to control his temperamental automobile. As a hilarious aside, Robertson includes the tribulations of the author Lucy Maud Montgomery and her car, "Lady Jane". She draws a historical link between Canadian society's growing obsession with cleanliness and the increasing popularity of the car. Robertson also shows how cars influenced women's fashions and enabled them to become more independent.
Robertson's story of the automobile in Canada gives us a panoramic view of a young country moving through the industrial age. Yet it lacks the dramatic tension and flowing narrative of a well-told tale. Reading Driving Force is rather like riding in an early Buick-McLaughlin. It moves ahead in fits and starts, eventually managing to reach its destination.