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Canadian Car and Foundry

Aerial Photo of Canadian Car and Foundry

The year 1945 was pivotal for the future of Canadian Car and Foundry at the Lakehead. The plant had achieved enormous things during World War II but the hard fact was that it had only been active for 12 out of the 33 years since construction began in 1912. There seems little question that Can Car would today be a distant memory if the Company had not taken the decision to move into bus manufacturing, ushering in a new era in Thunder Bay’s transit history.

Shortly after the Second World War, when the Canadian Car and Foundry plant was slated to close, more than 5,000 employees who made a living building Hell Driver aircrafts were facing layoffs. A last minute partnership with American Car and Foundry (ACF) gave hope for jobs during the years following the war. For upwards of two decades Canadian transit authorities had made no new fleet acquisitions due to economic depression and war. The ACF-Brill Motors of Philadelphia, who had been in the public transportation business since 1869 by manufacturing horse-drawn streetcars, was now a new partner of the Fort William plant of the Canadian Car Foundry.

Picture of soldier paradeCanadian Car and Foundry had been planning for some time for the post-war activities of the plant; that is the chief reason why 1,500 employees remained at work even after the massive layoffs of August 1945 had run their course. Canadian Car’s entry into the bus market would involve the selection of a proven design, a well-thought out marketing strategy, and a sophisticated grasp of the realities of Canadian postwar politics.

The partnership with ACF-Brill was an especially fortunate decision for both sides. On the one hand, Canadian Car now had access to both an excellent design and Brill’s decades of experience in bus making. On the other, Can Car’s years in aircraft building had given it great expertise in working with aluminum and other light alloys and Brill’s personnel needed that expertise in developing and manufacturing a new generation of lightweight buses.

When it was announced that Can Car would be moving into the bus business in March 1945, the Canadian economy was still on a war footing with essential manufacturing materials often difficult to find for peacetime use. Buses would make their way to depression and war weary transit facilities in constituencies across the nation. Canadian Car promised that the new vehicles would have “the highest possible proportion of Canadian components and material” including great amounts of aluminum to be supplied by Alcan in Southern Ontario, which was of course scheduled to lose a great proportion of its business as the wartime aircraft industry wound down.

Photo of assembly line inside of Canadian Car Plant

Fittingly, one of the first orders for Can Car buses came up from the Lakehead. On August 30, 1945, at a special meeting of the Port Arthur Utility Commission, it was announced that the city would purchase 10 gasoline buses at a cost of $13,800 apiece—and investigate the possibility of acquiring a fleet of trolley buses. For a year after the war had ended, Can Car used Building 8 at the plant as a training centre for veterans to learn various technical trades. Despite World War II having a long remaining presence at the plant, the main focus of attention was understandably the new bus production line.

The bus line was one of the best organized production efforts in the plant’s history and its workforce was out to prove that to cities across Canada: incredibly, the first bus rolled off the line on September 26, 1945, exactly six short weeks after the surrender of Japan. Less than a month later, it was delivered to BC Motor Transportation Company.

From the beginning, there were two product lines, one for intercity coaches, and the other for city transit use. Incorporating such new technical features as Duo-flex springs and air conditioning, the intercity bus, the IC41, was named “The Country Gentleman.”  The plant’s aircraft background was reflected in bodies, framing and sub-structures that were virtually all aluminum in construction. 

Photo of a C36 Brill Bus made by Can CarThe city transit bus, whose first model number was C36, began with a 36 passenger capacity - which grew to 52 as new design followed new design over the years. Like the Country Gentleman, it was powered by a Hall Scott six cylinder, 5.025 liter gasoline engine developing 214 horsepower (160 kw) at 2200 rpm; made in a “pancake” style to fit under the bus floor, it allowed for a more streamlined, compact vehicle design. In design terms, perhaps the most distinctive feature of buses was the large number of curves. Unlike today’s box-like designs, both the Country Gentleman and the C36 had roofs that flowed smoothly at front and rear into the main body of the vehicle. The curves were achieved by “spinning", a high labour-intensive process by which flat pieces of metal are gradually shaped. Used originally for Hurricane nose cones, spinning would be phased out of later designs for Can-Car buses.

Assembling the Buses

By September of 1946, Canadian Car engineers and workmen in the Fort William plant had completed a prototype trolley bus. In Can Car's efforts to diversify its product and remain in competition with rival transportation manufacturing companies, they were able to rapidly introduce the electrically powered buses which drew current from overhead wires via two trolley poles. Production began eagerly in November of that year, with the first ten vehicles going to Kitchener-Waterloo. In Thunder Bay, the buses were assembled on two parallel lines stretching down “B” Bay, with thirteen line stations. The vehicles were mounted on tubular supports to facilitate work on the underframe. Most important was the modular construction of the bus, with the front, rear and other major sections being constructed separately, then spliced together into a whole vehicle. It was a production-friendly approach that would enable Can Car to produce thousands of buses rapidly and at low cost.

A former worker remembers the bus line:Men Working on Assembly Line at Can Car

“The only time in this whole plant that we’d ever seen a kit system work. It went like clockwork - everybody had his job and each person had to wait till he got his job, then the next person got his. We were called the Tin Bashers. I had the job of putting in the dash in the front. While we did that the rest would be sitting along the side like vultures with their kids. It was so well organized. Each mechanical person would come in with his kit of parts to put in, but he couldn’t put it in until you had your dash in, so they all sat there like vultures and the minute you got that dash in there, they were right after you, putting their parts in.”

Much of the work along the line was more labour intensive - and tougher - than it is today. One of the dirtiest jobs was buffing the rub strips. These were strips made out of aluminum about 3 inches wide; they ran on either side of the bus and across the bumpers. The buffing room was in “C” bay, and if one went in the room where they were, everything was coated in black from the wax being blown all over the place.

Similarly taxing was the paint process, as one worker recalls:

Photo of worker welding on assembly line at Can Car"The buses would be primed, painted and after that, ten or fifteen men would come out into this water trough and be in there hand rubbing that whole bus with sandpaper. Only after that it would go into the final paint shop where it was painted again.” The final step was a “baked finish” in which the whole vehicle was heated to temperatures of 60-80 degrees Celsius. “The bus would be put in ‘ovens’ to be steam heated; those ovens were huge things. When the buses came out they were just beautiful."

As with any production effort, there were the inevitable snags. The building of public transit vehicles to take a constant daily pounding is much more difficult than one would imagine. “There was a lot of trouble in bus building because there was no inspection of the parts of any kind. They would make them fit right on the line - there was an awful lot of rejection and stuff, compared to an aircraft where everything was measured and so on, and things had to fit."

Canadian Car Brill Ornament

While line inspection - at least at the beginning of the bus era - may have been somewhat cursory, the quality inspection at the end of production was very thorough indeed. Every bus which came off the line was put through a detailed set of tests by the Bus Technical Section then put into the hands of a test driver who put the new vehicle through its paces, both on the streets of Thunder Bay and in the surrounding countryside. One of the main difficulties was adapting the buses to Canada's frequently hostile winter weather. Buses in the northwestern Ontario region had trouble with their under frames rotting and deteriorating. The problem was remedied by developing an under panel that could be installed in winter to protect the bottom of the vehicles.

By May 1950, Canadian Car had manufactured its 2,000th bus. The Lakehead plant had arrived. Canadian Car and Foundry, in making the buses, had used nearly 100,000 square meters of plywood from Canada's west coast - and more than 3000 tons of aluminum mined in Quebec and processed in Ontario. Can Car would go on to expand their manufacturing capabilities as they had entered the rail-car market as well when they began manufacturing buses. Economic decline in the late 1950s and the shrinking of the bus market after the post-war era forced the company to refocus their production line on subway cars, streetcars, and commuter rail cars. In 1992 the facility was acquired by Bombardier and has continued rail car production to this day.