Canada and the United States have long been close neighbors. The large and relatively open border results in many things shared between the two countries from the economy to culture. However, there are also many subtle differences between the countries and the people. This is also the case with the automobile market. Canada and the US have very similar automobile markets, but there are small differences. This was especially true during the 1940s to the 1970s, when the differences were most apparent. It was during this period that Canada had numerous unique car brands and models that were not offered in the United States. This multipart series will cover the history of Canada’s auto industry and take an in-depth examination of the unique cars offered by Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.
Canada is the world’s second largest country by land mass, but historically has had a population that is only about 10% of the United States. Having a much smaller population, the Canadian Government took steps to protect the indigenous automobile industry. At the dawn of the auto industry, this was done through hefty import duties that were imposed on foreign produced vehicles and parts. Due to economies of scale, cars produced in the United States could be produced at a significantly lower cost. These tariffs allowed the Canadian produced cars to be competitively priced. The tariffs were initially complex, but were simplified in 1936 when a 17.5% duty was imposed along with a 7.5% excise tax. This system stayed in place for about three decades and had a dramatic effect on the Canadian Automotive landscape.
The tariffs resulted in many US manufacturers establishing Canadian production facilities during the infancy of the automobile industry. Many of the major components were still manufactured in the United States, but the assembly and some of the parts were Canadian sourced. This allowed the manufacturers to meet the Canadian content requirements and avoid the tariffs. Initially, American cars produced in Canada only had minor differences from those produced in the United States. As time progressed, increased sales allowed for manufactures to setup more production facilities in Canada, such as engine foundries. However, since the Canadian market was always much smaller than that of the United States, the diversity of the products made in Canada was considerably simplified.
Furthermore, Canada’s wide spread out sparse population resulted in a thinner dealership network. This created the need for each individual dealership to have to cover a wide range of vehicles, from low to high priced. A Pontiac-Buick dealer in the middle of the prairies needed a lower priced car to survive. While the Ford dealer in a small town also needed a higher-end vehicle to keep customers who were ready to move up to a more expensive car. American made models could be and were imported, but the hefty tariffs caused very high prices which kept the sales limited.
As the auto industry in Canada grew, the solution was the introduction of unique Canadian models and brands. These Canadian cars gave the dealership networks a wide range of products to cover all price ranges. Additionally, these cars were produced in Canada so they avoided the tariffs. Chrysler and General Motors created cheaper versions of their medium priced brands, Dodge and Pontiac. For a number of years, Canadian Dodge-Desoto-Chrysler dealers sold lower-priced Dodges that were essentially Plymouths bodies dressed up with Dodge front clips and trim, hence the unofficial nickname “Plodge.” Canadian Pontiacs looked like US models, but actually used Chevrolet body shells, chassis and drivetrains. With the much smaller production numbers in Canada, it made much more economic sense to limit the production differences between the brands. Producing a Dodge with the majority of its major components shared with a Plymouth or a Pontiac that used Chevrolet bodies, chassis and drivelines saved significant costs and simplified manufacturing. This allowed for Canadian Dodge and Pontiacs to be priced similarly to Plymouth and Chevrolet. It was a cost effective solution to offering the Canadian customer a variety of cars and brands similar to the US market. It also fulfilled the need of Dodge-Desoto-Chrysler and Pontiac-Buick dealers to have a low priced model to sell.
Ford took a slightly different approach. Rather than making lower priced versions of American brands, it introduced new brands that could be sold at Ford dealerships and Mercury-Lincoln Dealerships. The Meteor was a low priced brand that was offered at Mercury-Lincoln dealers. The Meteor began as what was essentially a badge engineered Ford with Mercury-like styling. The Monarch was the mid-price brand offered at Ford dealerships and was basically a badge-engineered Mercury with Ford-like styling. The Monarch brand allowed Ford dealers to sell a mid-priced car. This formula continued until 1961, after which both brands were dropped (there was no 1958 Monarch, as Edsel briefly filled its spot). However, in 1964, the Meteor brand was reintroduced. It was still a low-priced brand but now based on the Mercury body. Priced similarly to Ford, it had the same engine options as Ford, and was equipped and trimmed similarly to a Ford.
In addition to the traditional “standard” models, the big three offered some unique branded compacts and intermediate cars. These included Chrysler’s Valiant brand. Canadian Valiants were not the same as the US-market Plymouth Valiant. In Canada Valiant was an independent brand. For the 1960-62 years, the Canadian Valiant only had very minor differences to the US Plymouth Valiant. During the 1963-64 model years the Valiant used the larger US Dodge Dart body with a Plymouth Valiant front clip and dashboard. Things changed again in 1965 with the Canadian Valiant line-up which was composed of two model sizes. The smaller 100 and Custom 100s were essentially US-Plymouth Valiants, and the larger 200, Custom 200 and Signet were essentially Dodge Darts. In mid -1964. The Barracuda was added to the Valiant line, it is was very similar to the US Plymouth Valiant other than badging. For 1966 all Canadian Valiants used US market Dodge Dart bodies front to back, except for the Barracuda. The Valiant brand was sold at both Plymouth-Chrysler and Dodge-Chrysler dealers. In 1967, the Valiant brand was dropped, and Canada marketed the Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Dart which were essentially the same as the US market cars.
GM of Canada introduced the Acadian brand in 1962 which marketed a badge engineered Chevy II for Pontiac-Buick dealers. In 1964 Acadian expanded to included to include an intermediate sized car, the Acadian Beaumont. Like the smaller Acadian Invader and Canso, the Acadian Beaumont was essentially a badge-engineered Chevelle with Pontiac-like interior and exterior styling. In 1966 Beaumont, which remained a Chevelle clone, became its own brand. Beaumont lasted until 1969, and it was replaced by the Pontiac LeMans in 1970. The Acadian brand lasted until 1971 when it was replaced by the Pontiac Ventura II introduced mid-year. Most Ford Canadian compacts and intermediate were nearly identical to the US markets, but for a brief period Ford introduced the Frontenac, as a badge engineered Falcon that could be sold at Meteor-Mercury-Lincoln dealers.
The charts below is an overview of the unique Canadian brands and/or models that had significant differences from the US models between the years 1946 and 1981. This is chart is just a basic overview and not meant to detail all of the models and minor differences, so it is somewhat generalized. (click the charts to see a larger version)
As we all know, things did not stay the course in Canada and its automotive market has evolved to one that is nearly identical to the American market. During the late 1950s, the Canadian Government was concerned for the significant trade deficit with the United States in the automotive market. Canadian automobile manufacturing was inefficient due to the small economies of scale imposed by the smaller market. Productivity was only about 60-65% compared to the Americans. Canadian autoworkers were paid about 70% of the wages of an American autoworker, but the cost of cars to the Canadian consumer was much higher compared to the cost of cars to American customers.
In 1960, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed Vincent Bladen, a University of Toronto economist, to study the industry. His study had three recommendations. First he recommended that the 7.5% excise tax be removed. Second, he believe that the Canadian content requirements be reduced for small auto manufactures. At that time, Canadian cars needed a minimum of 60% Canadian parts and labour. He believed this change would encourage small car builders to sell their products in Canada. Lastly, he recommended a system of earned duty-free import parts be established, based on increased Canadian production. However, the big take-away from Bladen’s study was that the North American market needed to looked at as one entity, rather than separate Canadian and US markets. Bladen’s study resulted in some small changes to the tariff rules through the early 1960s.
This eventually lead the 1965 “Agreement concerning Automobile products between the United States and Canada,” more commonly known as the Auto Pact. Prime Minister Lester Pearson and President Lynden Johnson signed the agreement on January 16th 1965. This agreement would have a drastic effect on the Canadian Automobile market. The agreement in its simplest terms allowed for automobiles and their parts to cross the border duty free at the manufacture level. This change meant that no longer did a car have to be produced in Canada to avoid the tariffs. This trade agreement was great for the auto manufacturers, and it drastically increased the number of vehicles produced in Canada. However, it also lead to there being less variety in the cars being produced in Canada.
The Auto Pact increased the number of cars exported from US to the Canadian market and the number of cars imported from Canada into the US. Canada’s share of North American auto production increased from 7.1% in 1965 to 11.2% by 1971. Canadian vehicle and parts exports to the US increased from $886 million in 1966 to $9.9 billion in 1977. US vehicles and parts imported into Canada grew from $1.5 billion in 1966 to $10.9 billion in 1977. However, it did cause some political disagreement between Canadian and US governments through the 1970s over the trade deficits. By 1989, the North America Free Trade Agreement was put in place, making the Auto Pact no longer necessary. By 2001, the World Trade Organization had deemed the Auto Pact was inconsistent with world trade rules and it was ended. By this time Canada was above the production/sales ratio and the minimum value-added requirements of the Auto Pact.
The Auto Pact was the beginning of the end to the unique automobile industry in Canada. It would lead to the Big three manufactures drastically overhauling their Canadian production operations. Once the door at the border was opened which allowed parts and cars to cross the border tariff free, the organization of production at the various plants could be consolidated between the two countries to make production more efficient. Instead of having Canadian plants produce an entire array of vehicles for the Canadian market only, a plant in Canada could produce one model which could supply both Canada and the United States. One such example was the Chrysler Cordoba introduced for 1975. All Cordobas were produced in the Windsor, Ontario plant. It was no longer necessary or economical to produce Canadian specific models. By the end of the 1970s, most of the big three cars were very similar in the US and Canadian markets, and most production between Canada and the US had been consolidated.
That said, through the 1980s until present time, there still remained some unique cars, models and brands sold in Canada by major manufacturers. GM even had a few unique brands, such as Passport and Asuna. However, these vehicles were typically nothing more than lightly badge engineered vehicles. None of these cars had any significantly engineering differences to other models offered in either the US market or other international markets.
This article should have provided you with a better understanding of the history of the Canadian automobile market. However, this is only an overview and simplified explanation of some of the unique Canadian cars. As we go through this series, the many different Canadian cars, in particular those from 1946-1980, will be highlighted in greater detail.