Inventors can influence future generations, often changing the way we do things and defining historical eras. Accounts of the inventors’ achievements and stories of their lives are recorded with interest and for posterity. Historians seek evidence and facts so that the achievements of these inventors are reflected in documents preserved in libraries, archives and museums.
While working on two events recently, we were able to casually ask members of the general public if they knew who invented the first gasoline car in Canada. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of our respondents believed that Ford was the first car manufacturer in Canada. Of course, Ford has the advantage of brand recognition and longevity. However, Ford was not Canadian, nor did it build the first gasoline car in Canada.
The latest release of the Oscar-winning film “Ford v Ferrari” reconfirmed that the Ford brand was a force to be reckoned with in the mid-1960s. The dynamism of this film has provided the Foss family with an opportunity to bring to light an often-overlooked piece of Canadian history. The inventor of the first gasoline car in Canada was not Ford, but the lesser known Foss. Foss built the Fossmobile in 1897, around the same time that Ford in the United States was inventing the quadracycle. Ford’s first automobiles were not sold in Canada until the early 1900s. So in the late 19th century it was Ford versus Foss.
The recognition of this seminal piece of Canadian history has somehow been buried and lost under the shadow of Ford for too long. The Foss family has recently reignited interest among Canadian historians and classic car enthusiasts in celebrating the achievements of George Foote Foss, the original inventor of Canada’s first successful gasoline car.
The Ford-Ferrari rivalry shows how competition combined with vision, personal belief and collaboration can lead to great strides in automotive innovation. As we see in the film, American automotive designer Carroll Shelby worked with his precision-focused friend, British racing driver Ken Miles, in the mid-1960s. Together they represented Henry Ford II’s goal of beating Ferrari by making a faster racing car. Sharing a shared vision of defying the laws of physics in the racing world, they gingerly sidestepped corporate interference to build a revolutionary vehicle for Ford Motor Co. The plan was to compete against Enzo Ferrari’s racing cars in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. After years of Ferrari dominance, their vision was realized. In 1966 the Ford GT 40 won, taking all three podiums: first, second and third.
The story of the Fossmobile may not have the panache needed for a blockbuster film plot, but it deserves attention for its historical relevance. Long before Ford sold cars in Canada, the original Fossmobile was built by George Foote Foss in 1897 in a small, dusty old bicycle repair and machine shop in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Like the main characters in the film Ford vs. Ferrari, Foss had vision and personal conviction. Enlisting the help of three workers, he sought out the Iron Works Company in Sherbrooke, who helped produce the first castings for the engine he was designing. He designed parts from scratch, combining his intuition to think outside the box with his machining and bike repair skills. Foss persevered until he had put together something that could be driven on the hilly roads of Sherbrooke.
It’s well documented that he drove this invention around for four years, well before other cars appeared in the area. George Foss met with Henry Ford on more than one occasion to discuss the idea of joint automaking. Ultimately, Foss rejected Ford, sensing that the two had different personality styles and visions.
The Foss family continues to build awareness of Foss, the first Canadian gasoline car inventor, by speaking at events and hosting information booths. Their biggest and most significant project to date is to rebuild a homage/replica of the original Fossmobile. This project requires a significant amount of fundraising to make this vision a reality.
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 highlighted the need, at least here in Canada, to look beyond the now well-known Ford v Ferrari legacy to the more distant past of the original Ford v Foss legacy. Written in the last paragraph of the foreword in the book “Cars of Canada”, Durnford/Baechler (1973, McClelland and Stewart Limited), it says the following;
“A common misconception is that Ford was the first Canadian automobile manufacturer. For years, John Moodie falsely claimed to have imported the first car to Canada. UH Dandurand claimed to have had the first car in Montreal, but he didn’t. And so it goes. Many hallowed legends turn out to be unfounded.”
Some 47 years later, those myths seem to live on, particularly that of Ford. There is no question that Henry Ford and Ford vs. Ferrari belong proudly in the American history books. However, here in Canada, the man we should acknowledge as the original builder is George Foote Foss. Retelling this important historical Canadian legacy could eventually dispel the myth that Ford was the first to have a gasoline car in Canada. It is our responsibility as Canadians to embrace the important part of Canadian automotive history from this quiet builder and not allow the Ford giant to eclipse its legacy.
The tribute/replica of the original Fossmobile is carefully and conscientiously built to shed light on this historical feat. The Foss family has taken on the enormous task of overseeing this project. A team has been put together to carry out every detail and the project is well on its way to completion. The goal is for this tribute/replica car to be placed in a Canadian museum so visitors have a better chance of appreciating this significant Canadian achievement. The Fossmobile Tribute automobile and its supporting memorabilia will help rectify Canadian automotive history more clearly, restoring that it was, and is, Foss v Ford, as the first gasoline-powered automobile manufacturer in Canada.