FOSS V FORD – Re-Aligning Canadian Automotive History

Inventors can impact generations to come, often changing the way we do things and defining historical eras. Recounts of the inventors’ accomplishments, and stories about their lives are upheld with interest and for posterity. Historians look for proof and facts, so that the accomplishments of these inventors are accurately reflected in documents, held in libraries, archives and museums.

While recently working at two events, we were able to casually ask members of the general public if they knew who invented the first gasoline automobile in Canada. It may not surprise you to hear that most of those we polled believed that Ford was the first automobile builder in Canada. Of course, Ford has the advantage of brand recognition and longevity. However, Ford was not Canadian and nor did he build the first gasoline automobile in Canada.

The latest release of the academy award-winning movie, Ford v Ferrari, renewed recognition that during the mid 1960s, the Ford brand was a force to be reckoned with. The momentum of this movie has created an opportunity for the Foss family, to bring to light an often-overlooked piece of Canadian history. You see, the inventor of the first gasoline automobile in Canada was not Ford, but was in fact the lesser known Foss. Foss built the Fossmobile in 1897, around the same time as Ford invented the Quadracycle in the United States. Ford’s first automobiles were not distributed in Canada until the early 1900s. So, in the late 1800’s it was Ford v Foss.

The acknowledgement for this ground-breaking piece of Canadian history, has for too long been somehow buried and lost under the shadow of Ford. The Foss family has recently rekindled within Canadian historians and vintage automobile enthusiasts, an interest in celebrating the accomplishments of George Foote Foss, the original inventor of the first successful gasoline automobile in Canada.

The Ford v Ferrari rivalry demonstrates how competition, along with vision, personal conviction, and collaboration, can lead to great strides in automotive innovation. As we see in the movie, in the mid 1960s, American automotive designer Carroll Shelby collaborated with his precision focused friend, British race car driver Ken Miles. Together, they embraced the goal set out by Henry Ford II, to beat Ferrari by making a faster race car. They embraced a collective vision to challenge the racing world’s laws of physics and gingerly stepped around corporate interference in order to build a revolutionary vehicle for the Ford Motor Co. The plan was to compete head-to-head against the race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24-Hour of Le Mans, in France. After years of Ferrari dominance, their vision was realized. In 1966 the Ford GT 40 won, taking all three podium positions: first, second and third.

The story of the Fossmobile may not have the pizzazz needed for a blockbuster film plot, but it does deserve attention, for its historic relevance. Long before Ford was selling automobiles in Canada, the original Fossmobile was built by George Foote Foss, in a tiny, dusty old bicycle repair and machine shop, in Sherbrooke, Quebec in 1897. Like the main characters in the Ford v Ferrari movie, Foss had vision and personal conviction. He enlisted the help of three workmen and sought out the Iron Works Company of Sherbrooke who helped make the initial castings for the engine he designed. He engineered parts from scratch, combining his intuition to think outside the box with his skills from his machining and bicycle repairs. Foss persevered until he had put together something that could be driven on the hilly streets of Sherbrooke.

It is well documented that he drove this invention around for four years, well before any other automobiles showed up in the area. George Foss met Henry Ford on more than one occasion, to discuss the notion of building automobiles together. Ultimately Foss turned Ford down, sensing that the two had different personality styles and visions.

The Foss family continues to build awareness around Foss, the first Canadian gasoline car inventor, by speaking at events and hosting information booths. Their biggest and most significant project to date is the rebuilding of a tribute/replica of the original Fossmobile. This project involves a significant amount of fundraising in order to bring this vision to fruition.

It was disappointing to hear that most of the people we spoke to at recent events assumed that Ford was somehow responsible for Canada’s first automobile. This illuminated the need to look beyond the now well-known Ford v Ferrari legacy, to the more distant past of the original Ford v Foss legacy, at least here in Canada. Written in the last paragraph of the preface in the “Cars of Canada” book, Durnford / Baechler (1973, McClelland and Stewart Limited), is the following;

“A universal error is the claim that Ford was the first Canadian automobile producer. For years John Moodie mistakenly claimed to have imported the first car into Canada. U.H Dandurand claimed to have had the first car in Montreal, but he didn’t. And so it goes. Many hallowed legends prove unfounded.”

Some 47 years later, these myths seem to continue on, particularly the Ford one. There is no question that Henry Ford and Ford v Ferrari belongs proudly in American history books. However, here in Canada the man we should be acknowledging as the original builder, is George Foote Foss. The retelling of this important historical Canadian legacy may eventually dispel the myth that Ford was the first to have a gasoline automobile in Canada. It is our responsibility as Canadians to embrace this quiet builder’s important part of Canadian automotive history and not let the Ford giant outshine his legacy.

The tribute/replica of the original Fossmobile is carefully and painstakingly being built to help shine a light on this historic feat. The Foss family has undertaken the enormous task of overseeing this project. A team has been assembled to execute every detail and the project is well on its way to completion. The goal is for this tribute/replica car to be placed into a Canadian museum, so that visitors can have a better chance to appreciate this significant Canadian accomplishment. The Fossmobile Tribute automobile and its supporting memorabilia will help to more clearly rectify Canadian automotive history, and re-establish that it was and is Foss v Ford, as the first gasoline automobile builder in Canada.

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