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Canadian Contraptions

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The 1955 Meteor Rideau is a re-trimmed 1955 Ford sold as a less-expensive option at Canadian Mercury dealers. Images courtesy

European and Asian cars have their devotees, Australian cars seem to be in the news a lot lately, and Yank Tanks are well known worldwide, but seemingly forgotten are the native vehicles of Canada, South America and Central America. Often, these were derivatives of U.S. designs but with local changes influenced by marketing, tariffs and sales infrastructure.

Now, your intrepid reporter doesn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, so his burning desire to investigate the Ford Falcons of Argentina and the Willys Aero’s second life in Brazil will have to wait for another day, but Canadian brochures are readily accessible and usually in English, so it’s a relatively simple matter to dig into the special vehicles produced for the Great White North.

Setting aside the independents leaves the Big Three. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all had manufacturing plants in Canada as early as the 1910s. The big reason at that time was that it gave them tariff-free access to the whole of the British Empire by virtue of being Canadian-, rather than U.S.-built vehicles.

1919 Maxwell ad

Chrysler’s predecessor, Maxwell Motor Company, produced the same cars on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.

Early on, Canadian-produced vehicles were essentially the same as their U.S. counterparts, albeit often with provisions for right-hand-drive production (the functional driver’s door on Ford Model T runabouts and touring cars, for example). But as variety proliferated for the U.S. market, the scale of consumption in Canada and the Empire didn’t warrant matching U.S. diversity.

Simultaneously, some diversity was demanded by the fact that many small towns only warranted one dealership from each corporation. Thus, a town with a Pontiac dealer might not have a Chevrolet dealer; a town with a Ford dealer might not have a Mercury franchise; and a town with a Plymouth dealer might not have a Dodge outlet.

The answer for the corporations was to offer more breadth within their brands. Thus were born Canada-only models that were different only superficially from U.S. models. Canadian Pontiac dealers tended to offer both a line of imported U.S. Pontiacs and a line of domestic Pontiacs built with a large percentage of Chevrolet components but with special Pontiac sheet metal (and, prior to 1955, Pontiac six-cylinder engines). As time wore on, the Chevrolet content in Canadian Pontiacs steadily increased.

1958 Cdn Pontiac-07

For 1958, Canadian-built Pontiacs could come with a Stovebolt Six, big-block V-8, or a small-block V-8. A far cry from the V-8s exclusively available in U.S.-market Pontiacs.

Canadian Ford dealers received specially trimmed Mercury bodies sold under the brand name “Monarch” (a name that would later become familiar to U.S. consumers as the Mercury model equivalent to the Ford Granada). Canadian Mercury dealers, meanwhile, received Fords with Mercury trim initially sold as the “Mercury 114” (so called for its Ford-length wheelbase) and later “Meteor”, and with the debut of the Ford Falcon, Canadian Mercury dealers received for 1960 only a specially trimmed version called the Frontenac.

Beginning in 1932, Chrysler Corporation was perhaps the earliest creator of Canada-only models, creating “Plodges” by combining Plymouth vehicles with Dodge trim to create a junior-series Dodge to compete with Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac at the low-priced end of the Canadian market. Another uniquely Canadian aspect of both Dodge and Plymouth brands in Canada was their use of the longer, Chrysler- and DeSoto-style engine. These engines, identified by their 25-inch-long cylinder head versus the 23-inch head used on U.S.-market Plymouth and Dodge engines, allowed Chrysler Corporation to rationalize its casting facilities in Canada around a single engine family. Similar displacements to U.S.-market cars were attained by appropriately varying the bore and stroke—although hot rodders would later discover that it was a simple matter to shoehorn in a large 251- or Chrysler six where once a Plymouth engine had resided by using the Canadian-spec motor-mount and radiator positions!

Fargo Power Wagon

The Fargo Power Wagon was identical to its Dodge equivalent, but used the 25-inch engine block found in Chrysler and DeSoto models instead of the shorter engine used in Dodge and Plymouth passenger cars.

Trucks were another area where Canada received unique models, again due to the exclusivity of certain dealerships. The Mercury M-1 and M-100 pickups are well known in this country as they are a handsome variation on the familiar Ford F-1 and F-100 models of the ‘40s and ‘50s. General Motors had no need to produce a Pontiac pickup, however, as it already had a secondary truck line in GMC, ready to be sold by any non-Chevrolet GM dealer who needed one. While Chrysler built a Plymouth truck in this country in the 1930s, it was the earlier “Fargo” name that would become most familiar as a Canadian truck brand sold through non-Dodge dealerships in our neighbor to the north. Like the Mercury trucks, Fargos were essentially badge-engineered Dodges.

All of this fascinating variation would wind down quite quickly after the mid-1960s, however, with the signing of the Canada-United States Automotive Products Agreement, commonly known as the “Auto Pact” in 1965. The Auto Pact, which was a precursor free-trade agreement to NAFTA, abolished tariffs on automobiles and automotive components between the United States and Canada. That would open the door to the full variety of U.S. models being sold through Canadian dealerships and eliminate the necessity of producing badge-engineered brands or models for Canadian consumption. A few vestiges, like the Pontiac Parisienne, would hang on through the 1980s, but the U.S. / Canada automotive scene is fairly well homogenized today.

1946 Mercury Trucks-01

To the U.S. collector, however, the variety remains tantalizing. How many folks out there in the Hemmings Nation own Canada-spec versions of familiar U.S. brands?