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FOSS V FORD – Realigning Canadian Automotive History

Inventors can impact generations to come, often changing the way we do things and defining historical eras. Accounts of inventors’ achievements and stories about their lives are kept with interest and for posterity. Historians seek evidence and facts so that the achievements of these inventors are accurately reflected in the documents held 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-powered car in Canada. It may not surprise you to learn that the majority of those surveyed believed that Ford was the first automobile manufacturer in Canada. Of course, Ford has the advantage of brand recognition and longevity. However, Ford was not Canadian and did not build the first gasoline car in Canada either.

The latest release of the Academy Award-winning film, Ford v Ferrari, renewed recognition that in the mid-1960s, the Ford brand was a force to be reckoned with. The momentum behind this film has created an opportunity for the Foss family to bring to light a part of Canadian history that is often overlooked. You see, 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 Ford invented the Quadracycle in the United States. Ford’s first automobiles were not distributed in Canada until the early 20th century. So in the late 1800s it was Ford v Foss.

Recognition of this groundbreaking piece of Canadian history has been buried and lost for far too long in Ford’s shadow. The Foss family has recently revived among Canadian historians and vintage car enthusiasts an interest in celebrating the achievements of George Foote Foss, the original inventor of Canada’s first successful gasoline-powered automobile.

The rivalry between Ford and Ferrari demonstrates how competition, along with vision, personal conviction and collaboration, can lead to breakthroughs in automotive innovation. As we see in the film, in the mid-1960s, American automotive designer Carroll Shelby collaborated with his precision-focused friend, British racing driver Ken Miles. Together, they accepted the goal set by Henry Ford II to beat Ferrari by creating a faster racing car. They adopted a collective vision to defy the laws of physics in the racing world and cautiously avoided corporate interference to build a revolutionary vehicle for Ford Motor Co. The plan was to go head-to-head against the race cars of Enzo Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in France. After years of Ferrari dominance, his vision became a reality. In 1966 he won the Ford GT 40, taking all three podium positions: first, second and third.

The story of the Fossmobile may not have the pizzazz needed for a blockbuster movie 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 a dusty little bike repair and mechanic shop in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1897. Like the main characters in the movie Ford v Ferrari, Foss Had vision and personal conviction. He enlisted the help of three workers and sought out the Iron Works Company of Sherbrooke, which helped make the initial castings for the engine he designed. He designed parts from scratch, combining his intuition to think outside the box with his bike repair and machining skills. Foss persevered until he managed to put together something that could be driven on the hilly streets of Sherbrooke.

It is well documented that he drove this invention for four years, long before any other cars appeared in the area. George Foss brings Henry Ford on more than one occasion to discuss the notion of building cars together. Ultimately, Foss rejected Ford, feeling that the two had different personality styles and visions.

The Foss family continues to raise awareness of Foss, Canada’s first gas-powered automobile inventor, by speaking at events and hosting information booths. His 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 to make this vision a reality.

It was disappointing to hear that most people we spoke to at recent events assumed that Ford was somehow responsible for Canada’s first car. This illuminates the need to look beyond the now familiar legacy of Ford v Ferrari, 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 to the book “Cars of Canada”, Durnford/Baechler (1973, McClelland and Stewart Limited), is the following;

“A universal misconception is the claim that Ford was the first Canadian producer of automobiles. For years, John Moodie wrongly claimed to have imported the first car into Canada. UH Dandurand claimed to have had the first car in Montreal, but he did not. And that’s right. Many sacred legends turn out to be unfounded.”

Some 47 years later, these myths seem to continue, particularly Ford’s. There is no doubt that Henry Ford and Ford v Ferrari proudly belong in the American history books. However, here in Canada, the man we should recognize as the original builder is George Foote Foss. Recounting this important Canadian historical legacy may eventually dispel the myth that Ford was the first to have a gasoline-powered 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 behemoth Ford to overshadow his legacy.

The original Fossmobile tribute/replica is being carefully and painstakingly constructed to help shed light on this historic feat. The Foss family has taken on 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 replica/tribute car to be placed in a Canadian museum, so that visitors can have a better chance of appreciating this significant Canadian achievement. The Fossmobile Tribute car and accompanying memorabilia will help more clearly rectify Canadian automotive history and re-establish what Foss v Ford was and is, as Canada’s first gasoline-powered car manufacturer.

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