Robert McLaughlin was born near Peterboro, Ontario, on November 16th, 1835, but moved with his father to Tyronne, West Durham County, in 1841; Died in Oshawa, Nov. 23, 1921.
His liking for mechanical pursuits found early development. As a lad in his teens, after his day’s work on his father’s farm was done, he employed his spare moments in making whiffle-trees, neck-yokes and whip-stocks, which he sold to the neighbors. But life on the farm never appealed to him, and in 1867 he set up business in Enniskillen, Ontario, as a manufacturer of vehicles. The original staff consisted of one journeyman carriage builder, one blacksmith and one apprentice. He, himself, was designer, painter and manager. From this small beginning was developed the Dominion-wide business of the McLaughlin Company, which in turn was the predecessor of the vast Corporation now known as General Motors of Canada, Limited, which, including the Walkerville division, in normal times gives employment to thirty-five hundred citizens.
For the first few years he had an up-hill fight, but the business soon began to develop, and he found it necessary to enlarge his premises. In 1877 he moved to the town of Oshawa, where new buildings were erected and considerable additions made to the staff.
During the eighties his two sons, R. S. and G. W., joined the business, and in 1893 the McLaughlin Carriage Company was organized and the buildings enlarged.
Mr. McLaughlin was always particular that any goods bearing his name should be of the highest quality only and exactly as represented, and about this time the firm adopted as their trade slogan the phrase “One Grade Only, and that the Best.” Working under these principles success was rapid and permanent. There was a large furniture factory in the town unoccupied at this time, and a trade was effected between the Corporation and Mr. McLaughlin whereby the vacant factory passed into the ownership of the Carriage Company. The citizens wondered at the magnitude of the deal in those days, and some said it would be many years before the whole of the plant could possibly be occupied. It was not long, however, until additions had to be made even to the new plant.
In 1899 the entire factory was consumed by fire, but before the ashes were cold it was decided to build a new and larger establishment. In the meantime a valuable chain of selling agencies had been established and in order to retain this organization intact, Mr. McLaughlin leased an empty factory in Gananoque where McLaughlin vehicles were built during the time of the erection of the new industry in Oshawa.
In about the year 1905 considerable national interest was awakened in connection with the new method of locomotion, namely, the motor car, and the younger members of the staff were very anxious to try their luck in the new field. Mr. McLaughlin, senior, was not so sanguine about the permanency of the automobile in those early days, but after considering the matter for over a year, finally consented to try the venture, and in 1907 the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was formed with R. S. McLaughlin as President, G. W. McLaughlin Vice-President and 0. Hezzelwood Secretary-Treasurer, Mr. Robert McLaughlin retaining the Presidency of the Carriage Company.
Success also followed the new venture and the McLaughlin motor car became so popular that in 1915, foreseeing practically the end of the horse-drawn vehicle, the carriage business was sold in its entirety to Carriage Factories, Limited, at Brockville.
That portion of the plant thus made vacant was equipped for the production of motor cars, and it was in this year that the Company added the Chevrolet line. As an illustration of the vigor and rapidity of action which followed his every decision when made, it may be stated that it was in October, 1915, that the conclusion was reached to sell the carriage plant, and on the 30th day of November, or in less than six weeks, the last car load of carriage materials left Oshawa for Brockville. Six weeks was taken to equip the plant, and before Christmas of the following year over six thousand complete Chevrolet cars had been made and shipped.
In 1919 the business was merged into a unit of the world’s greatest automobile industryGeneral Motors Corporation.
His was a life of earnest endeavour to benefit his country and fellow citizens. In the early struggles of the Salvation Army, and before they had come so prominently before the public in the way of rescue work, Mr. McLaughlin was a friend and assisted them at various times in a substantial way. He was personally known to their leaders and was chosen by the Commissioner to lay the corner-stone of their fine Citadel on Simcoe Street South when that enterprise was undertaken.
He was the first president of the Y.M.C.A. in Oshawa, and took a leading part in the initial ceremonies when Lieut.-Governor Sir John Gibson laid the corner-stone and the Ven. Archdeacon Cody and other prominent people were present. He turned the first sod of the Oshawa Railway and was an early advocate of placing the manufacturers of the town in a position to have transportation facilities at their doors.
He was a benefactor of Queen’s University and Knox College, and a supporter of the local Presbyterian Church. When the present structure was undertaken he was chosen to lay the corner-stone, and was interested in everything pertaining to the completion of the building, and later on in the erection of the manse adjoining.
The Muskoka Sanitarium received his sympathetic interest and he was a generous contributor to its funds.
Quite recently, it will be remembered, that when the campaign was begun for funds to restore the structure destroyed by fire, his home was the headquarters for a demonstration in its interests, when leading men of Toronto and Central Ontario took part in the ceremonies and committees were formed to carry on the campaign.
During his long residence in Oshawa he occupied positions at the Council Board, and served a term as Mayor, and was the first Chairman of the Board of Water Commissioners. He was a Director of the Western Bank up to the date that it was merged into the Standard Bank.