Curbside Classic: 1931 McLaughlin-Buick Series 50 4-door Sedan Model 57 – The History of McLaughlin-Buick and Buick’s Straight-8

Over the years Curbside has had a number of articles on Canadian market cars.  We have covered Canadian Pontiacs, Meteors, and other post-war cars in pretty good detail.  Yet, there has been little discussion about perhaps one of the most important Canadian car brands, McLaughlin-Buick.  The McLaughlin Motor Car company, founded in 1907, lead to the birth of General Motors of Canada which later produced the more familiar Canadian GM vehicles.  The car that is the subject of this article is a 1931 McLaughlin-Buick Series 50 sedan.  I came across this fine sedan this past summer and thought it was an outstanding piece of Canadian history that fellow Curbsiders would also enjoy.

Before we get to the subject car though, a little bit of history on McLaughlin-Buick is in order.  Robert McLaughlin was born in 1836 in the Bowmanville, Ontario area.  He was the son of Irish immigrants William and Jane McLaughlin.  In 1866 he built a horse-drawn sleigh.  His craftsmanship was exceptional, which lead to other people requesting that McLaughlin build sleighs and wagons for them.  Due to this demand for him to build these implements, Robert McLaughlin sold his farm and established a carriage making business.

McLaughlin’s carriage business became highly successful.  Two of Robert’s sons, George (born in 1869) and Samuel (born in 1871), started working in the family business as teenagers.  George started as an apprentice in the trimming shop in 1885 and Samuel started out as an apprentice in the upholstery shop in 1887.  In 1892, both Sam and George became partners in their father’s business.  By the beginning of the 20th century, the successful company had built a modern manufacturing facility in Oshawa, Ontario, which was claimed to be one of the largest in the British Empire.

The automobile industry was in its infancy at the beginning of the 20th century and Robert McLaughlin showed no interest in moving his successful carriage business into automobile production.  Nevertheless, young Sam and George could see the automobile was the way of the future.  With the help of Oliver Hazzelwood, the company comptroller, they convinced Robert to let them look into the prospect of building automobiles.

1906 Buick Model F

 

Around 1905, Sam McLaughlin decided the best course of action was to approach different established US auto manufacturers to broker a deal for one of their automobiles.  They selected Pierce-Arrow, Jackson and Buick.  Of the three companies’ automobiles, Sam was most impressed with the Buick, which at that time was run by William “Billy” Durant.  Sam and Billy Durant got along well as they had previously established a relationship from when Durant was in the carriage making business.  Sam purchased a 1906 Buick Model F from the Dominion Automobile and Supply Co. in Toronto for further testing.  He deemed the Buick met his exacting standards and that this was the car he wanted to use as the basis for his automobile.  Sam McLaughlin’s attempt to make a deal with Durant was unsuccessful, as they couldn’t agree on the financials.

1908 McLaughlin Model F with Sam McLaughlin and Company Executives company

 

Consequentially, Sam and George decided that they would try to build their own automobile.  Their experience with carriages meant they could design and build their own bodies, but the frames, axles and transmissions would need to be purchased.  An American engineer named Arthur Milbrath was hired to design an engine.  However, as the project was getting off the ground he became seriously ill, and was unable to continue with the project.  Later in 1909 Milbrath founded his own engine manufacturing company called the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company.

1908 McLaughlin Model F, the first McLaughlin motor car

 

Since Milbrath didn’t work out, Sam decided to contact Billy Durant again.  Luck turned to Sam’s favor as Durant had become financially strapped in his efforts to form General Motors.  So Durant was inclined to make a deal with the McLaughlins as it would be a beneficial source of income.  The deal was brokered between the two parties where Buick would supply McLaughlin with Buick engines and chassis for a 15 year period.  As a result, on November 20th, 1907 the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was formed.  The McLaughlin cars used McLaughlin built bodies on top of a Buick chassis.  The cars were readily distinguishable from the US counterparts, as these early cars used bodies designed by McLaughlin.  There was some confusion with the branding though.  Officially they were McLaughlins but they were sometimes advertised as McLaughlin-Buicks and had both McLaughlin-Buick and McLaughlin labels on various car parts.

McLaughlin’s automobile business was successful and co-existed with the carriage business.  In 1915 production of Chevrolet cars for the Canadian market was offered to the McLaughlins.  Wisely, they decided to sell the successful carriage business to fund the purchase of the rights to produce Chevrolets in Canada.  By 1918, the original agreement was about to end.  The McLaughlins decided the best way forward was to sell out to General Motors.  Sam and George went to New York to meet the top men of General Motors: William Durant, Pierre DuPont, and John J. Raskob.  Within five minutes of meeting a deal was agreed upon.  The three GM men had one condition for the sale; Sam and George had to run the new Canadian business.

McLaughlin’s Oshawa, Ontario Plant in 1910

 

With that, the McLaughlin Motor Car Company became General Motors of Canada Limited.  Sam and George McLaughlin remained in charge as the President and Vice President.  George retired in 1924, while Sam stayed on as president until 1945.  He remained as chairman of the board of GM of Canada until he retired in 1967 and was an honorary chairman until his death in 1972.

McLaughlin-Buick Ad’s used their own version of Buick’s “When better automobiles are built, Buick will build them” slogan.

 

In 1923, the automobile brand was officially changed to McLaughlin-Buick, so all cars were labeled as such going forward.  The McLaughlin-Buick branded cars were typically very similar to the American Buick counterparts.  The styling was also now more consistent but the Canadian versions had some unique details.  Canadian plants started to manufacture engines and chassis, but started to use US made Fisher bodies.

The grille emblem on the 1931 McLaughlin Buick. Look closely and you can see the “McLaughlin” on the top and the “Canada” on the bottom.

 

For the 1931 model year, Buick had an extensive line-up of vehicles divided over four separate model series.  These were the 114” wheelbase Series 50 (the 114” wheelbase was formerly used by the defunct Marquette brand), the 118” wheelbase Series 60, the 124” wheelbase Series 80, and the 132” wheelbase series 90.  The 50 series was the lowest cost and the most popular of the Buicks.

The Canadian McLaughlin-Buicks, like the one that is the subject of this article, were very similar to the US counterparts with only minor differences.  For the 1931 model year, McLaughlin-Buick in Oshawa assembled all Buick body styles.  Unlike previous years, all bodies were built by Fisher in the United States and then shipped to Oshawa in “white” or “primed” condition.  The only exception was that Phaeton bodies were received by Oshawa completely finished.  However, all McLaughlin-Buick chassis were produced at Oshawa for 1931.

The 1931 Buicks didn’t appear all that different from the 1930 models as there were few changes to the body and styling.  However, it was the engineering that was the big story for the 1931 Buick.  The mechanicals were substantially different, in particular the all new engines.  Buick dropped its entire six-cylinder engine line-up, and replaced them with all three all-new inline eight-cylinder engines.  What brought about this major change to the engine line-up?

The styling for the 1929 Buick was not well received due it’s so called “pregnant” look.

 

By 1931, the depression was well under way and production in the automobile industry had drastically reduced from the roaring twenties.  Buick was one of the makes that saw a drop in production during the late 1920s.  Buick sales had been strong during the mid-1920s and part of this was attributed to the overhead valve inline six-cylinder engines which had an excellent reputation.  Nevertheless, even before the October 29th Wall Street crash, Buick sales had dropped off during the 1929 model year.  Some of the blame went to the so-called “pregnant” look of the 1929 Buicks, but some blame also went on the six-cylinder engines.  By 1929, a six-cylinder was no longer adequate for this vehicle class.  Even the low-priced Chevrolet offered a six-cylinder, “the six for the price of a four” as the ad copy stated.  Many of Buick’s competitors including the Auburn, Hudson, Hupmobile, Nash, Packard, Peerless and Studebaker offered eight-cylinder engines.  This made it seem as if Buick was selling a six for the price of an eight.

Buick’s OHV Inline-Six. This is a 331.5 cid in a 1930 Buick Series 60.

 

In the summer of 1929, Buick management decided that it was time to introduce a new inline eight-cylinder to the Buick line.  The responsibility of developing this new powerplant fell under Buick’s chief engineer, Ferdinand “Dutch” Bower.  He assigned 27-year old engineer John Dolza to be the head engineer on the engine project.  Dolza had immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1926 and joined Buick as a draftsman in 1927.  Dolza had studied at Politecnico di Torino and was trained as both an artist and an engineer.  Shortly after joining as a draftsman, he switched to Buick engineering, meaning that he had limited experience working in the engineering department when he was chosen to lead the engine project.

Before Dolza started designing the Buick Eight, he examined some of the competition’s eight-cylinder engines in detail.  These included the Packard Standard Eight, the Hudson F-Head, and Studebaker’s flathead.  From his detailed analysis, Dolza learned about each engine’s design in detail and completed a comprehensive report for the GM Technical Committee.  He would utilize some of the design features used in competitors’ eight-cylinder engines in his Buick eight-cylinders.Buick management wanted three distinct engine sizes to correspond with the various Buick model series.  The new eight-cylinder engines were also required to have similar external dimensions to the existing six-cylinders, meaning they could fit into the Bucks without any size increase to the engine bay.  Initially, Dolza designed the engines to have maximum parts interchangeability between the three sizes.  However, for an unknown reason Dutch Bower demanded that there be very little interchange between the three engine variants.  So Dolza had to redesign the engines to appease Bower.  In order to keep the eight-cylinder the same length as the six-cylinder, Dolza used five main engine bearings instead of nine used by some other straight-eights.  He also offset the connecting rod bearings by 0.13 inches, which reduced the crankcase length by an additional inch.

While conducting preliminary engine testing in desert conditions, the eight-cylinder engines suffered from failures at the high temperatures.  When the oil reached very high temperatures, it left the engine bearings too quickly, causing the Babbitt bearing surfaces to melt.  Dolza’s solution was an oil temperature regulator.  This was essentially an oil cooler that used the engine coolant to cool the engine oil.  This solved the oil starvation problems at high temperatures and also had the benefit of warming up the engine a little quicker.

To improve engine harmonics, a new crankshaft ring type torsion balancer was utilized.  The engine balancer was mounted to the crankshaft inside the cylinder crankcase.  It had “C” shaped metal weights mounted to thin leaf springs which absorbed vibrations. The ignition system was modernized through the use of a vacuum operated spark advance as opposed to the manually advanced spark controller used on the six-cylinder engines.

The 220.7 cid Straight-8 in the 1931 McLaughlin-Buick Series 50 Sedan

 

The Buck-Eight came in three sizes.  The first was the 220.7 cid engine used in the Series 50 Buicks.  This engine had a bore and stroke of 2.875” x 4.25” and it produced 76½ bhp.  A 272.6 cid engine had a bore and stroke of 3.0625” x 5.00” and it produced 90 bhp.  This engine was used in the Series 60 Buick models. The Series 80 and 90 Buicks used the 344.8 cid which had a bore and stroke of 3.3125” x 5.00”.  It produced 104 bhp and Buick claimed it had 80 mph capability.  The early Buick 220.7 cid eights used a single barrel carburetor, but the larger engines used a dual-throat Marvel updraft carburetor.

The other big mechanical upgrade for Buick was the introduction of Sychro-Mesh transmissions.  Early Series 50 cars used a non-synchronized transmission with an open drive line, but after January 1, 1931, they adopted the new Synchro-mesh transmission with a torque tube driveline like the bigger Buicks.  Other engineering upgrades included thermostatically controlled radiator shutters and an emergency brake that activated the shoes on all four brakes.

Even with the all new engines and other engineering upgrades, sales for Buick in 1931 dropped from 1930.  A total of 138,965 1931 Bucks were built plus an additional 5,864 McLaughlin-Buicks built in Canada.  Of the 5,864 McLaughlin Buicks made in Canada, 756 were right hand drive, of which 749 went to England.  There were an additional 189 left-hand drive McLaughlin Buicks exported.  While sales were down, the new car market was still in decline in 1931, so Buick wasn’t the only brand that had a drop in production.  Of all Buicks, the 50 series Model 57 sedan was the most produced.

Our subject car is a McLaughlin-Buick Series 50, Model 57 four door sedan.  It is owned by Kenneth Strudwick, who purchased the car in September of 2016.  With help from the McLaughlin-Buick Club and some of his own investigating, he has been able to trace the history of his car from 1970 to the present.  The history of the car for the years of 1931-1970 remains unknown.

Ken believes that the car went under some sort of restoration work during the 1960s, but it was not done professionally.  Ken describes the car as “a good B class car, but I also believe it has been a well maintained original vehicle prior to my ownership.”  It is in the condition that most of us Curbside Classic readers would find just about perfect.  It is certainly a well-looked-after car that has some signs of aging, which in my opinion only adds character.  It is not a show- car trailer queen, rather a nice old car that one can actually drive and enjoy.

Under the new floor mat, the original Fisher Body stamping and number are still on the wooden floorboard.

 

Ken had to do some work to the car once he took ownership of the McLaughlin-Buick.  He installed a new rubber floor mat.  He repaired the lower portion of the steering column.  This required him to have some the parts custom fabricated.  He and his mechanic also worked extensively on straightening and balancing the wooden wheels, which eliminated the vibration at higher speeds.  Other work included a tune-up with new ignition wires, spark plugs and repairing an exhaust manifold leak.  Ken says he still needs to repair the carburetor heat control linkage and the gas gauge, which he hopes to get to over this winter.

Ken was gracious enough to take me and my kids for a ride in his Buick.  What a thrill it was!  The old straight-eight pulled the car with a great smoothness and authority.  Although the car was nearly 80 years old on a very simple suspension, it rode well and was quite comfortable.  I rode in the back seat with my daughter and the accommodations were quite roomy for my tall lanky frame.  I also sat in the driver’s seat and the leg room was very limited in comparison.

Officially all Buicks sold in Canada were McLaughlin-Buicks until 1942 when production stopped for World War II.  That said, during the later 1930s and early 1940s the McLaughlin name all but vanished from the cars.  After World War II, the McLaughlin name was no longer used and no Buicks were produced in Canada.  During these early postwar years all Buicks for the Canadian market were imported into Canada.  Eventually Buick production in Canada would begin again for the 1951 model year.  While these 1951 Buicks were different from the American counterparts, they too did not wear the McLaughlin name.  It’s unfortunate that McLaughlin-Buick, which was once the backbone of General Motors of Canada slowly died out with little fanfare.  However, it is clear that the McLaughlin brand and family are a very important part of Canadian Automobile history.  So cars such as Ken’s 1931 McLaughlin-Buick are a true piece of Canadian history.  Here’s hoping Ken gets many more years of enjoyment from his McLaughlin-Buick.

A special thanks to McLaughlin-Buick club members Wes Ebbs and Frank Agueci for some of the historical information on McLaughlin-Buick.