Overtaking horse and carriage, motor vehicles surged as means of transport. T.A. Russell built cars for the wealthy with quiet engines and luxurious interiors
While other men were building cars for the masses in the early 1900s, low-priced vehicles that almost anyone could afford, Thomas Russell had his eye set on the well-to-do. Though he used slogans like “A high-grade car at a wonderfully-low price” and “Made up to a standard, not down to a price,” his namesake car, the Russell, was hundreds of dollars more than the competition – $450 more than Henry Ford’s Model C, to be exact.
The beautiful Russell Model A was in a class of its own, with ball-bearing hubs, pneumatic tries, hand-stitched leather padded seats, gasoline 2-cylinder engine, and a shaft drive with sliding gear, three-speed transmission. Produced at the Russell Motor Car Company starting in 1905, the automobile was Canadian-made, through and through, “the only Canadian owned company to ever produce and market a product designed by Canadians, built by Canadians and sold to Canadians,” according to Steve Pitt in the January 2002 issue of Legion Magazine. The Russell was a hit internationally, too, selling in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
At 24 years old, Thomas Alexander Russell was a farm boy with a political science degree. Business was not in his background, but he took on the post of Executive Secretary of the Canadian Manufacturers Association in 1899 and made a grand success of the job. Russell’s exuberance for the task helped membership explode by over 400 percent; he also started the the trade magazine, Industrial Canada. Canadian Cycle and Motor Limited (CCM) of Toronto, Ontario came calling two years later, scooping up the energetic young man to take charge as General Manager of the flagging bicycle company.
Russell Cars Were Luxury Automobiles
Bicycle sales had dropped dramatically at the turn of the century, leaving CCM in a lull. (The company’s time as a top skate manufacturer was yet to come.) Two automobiles that CCM tried out were not successful – the steam-powered Locomotor and the electric Ivanhoe runabout. Russell was more interested in the new gasoline engines. After the company produced the Russell Model A in 1905, the larger Russell Model B was designed a year later, said Bill Vance in Canadian Driver Magazine in 2000. Shortly after, the Model C, with a power-ready four-cylinder engine was developed. Later luxury cars were appointed with brass trims, acetylene headlamps, and polished hardwood. The extravagant vehicles were priced well beyond reach of the average car buyer.
Russell Car Versus an Iceboat
In January 1907, the Russell car was put to the test, but this was no car versus car ordinary race. This publicity stunt was a trial of car versus iceboat on frozen Lake Ontario. The automobile was already a heavy vehicle, weighing in at half a ton, plus four men along for the ride. The raceboat was light, less than a quarter ton, with only two passengers. It was powered by the wind pushing a large sail on a 30-foot mast, and in its element on that day. The ice was clear, the cold wind steady. The racers were neck and neck (and no doubt frozen in their fine coats and bowler hats) until the end. To much cheering and celebration by the large number of onlookers, the Russell Car won.
The Russell Car Company continued to expand, building sleek automobiles with larger engines – up to 50 horsepower in the 1908 models – and moved into the manufacture of new utility vehicles: fire trucks, buses, ambulances and delivery trucks, said Bill Vance. Receiving the full Canadian rights for Knight engines, Russell captured the market for quiet motors. Even American-built cars with the Knight engine were not permitted import in Canada due to his licence. Originally a branch of CCM, the business was so successful that CCM became a branch of the Russell Motor Car Company.
Canadian Company Built WWI Vehicles
Called to duty (in Canada) during WWI as automobile purchasing agent for the government in 1914, Russell returned to his booming business, now producing bicycles on the CCM side and “staff cars, trucks and even a bizarre squadron of armoured vehicles that could be driven from either end,” under the Russell Motor Car Company. The business was also manufacturing munitions for the war effort.
Willys-Overland Needed Knight Engine
The era of the wholly-Canadian made car ended in 1915 when John Willys of the Willys-Overland Company, Toledo, Ohio, purchased the Russell Motor Car Company. He needed the rights to the Knight engine so that Willys could sell his vehicles in Canada.
Thomas Alexander Russell married Olive Lillian Brown in Toronto in 1903. He was 26 years old, she was 25. He moved to the Massey-Harris company as president in 1930, holding the post for ten years. Russell died at home on December 24, 1940 at age 63, having succeeded in manufacturing vehicles that were truly “Canadian-made”.
- Pitt, Steve, “Rolling Out the Russell,” Legion Magazine, January 1, 2002
- Vance, Bill, “Making Memories: A truly native Canadian car,” Canadian Driver Magazine, March 19, 2000
- Filey, Mike, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Dundurn Press, Toronto 1999
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2012. Copyright Susanna McLeod