The 1939 Royal Visit Car Collection

Written by George Webster on .

The 1939 Royal Visit Car Collection
In 1939, recently-crowned King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth visited Canada for the Royal Tour. It was the first time a reigning British monarch visited an overseas dominion, making it a very significant visit. The big three car makers in Canada – GM, Chrysler and Ford – produced special edition cars for processional use and they played a central role in the tour.

The recent Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech, reminded us of the circumstances of King George’s succession to the throne after his playboy brother King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. A more recent movie, Hyde Park on Hudson, gives a somewhat fictionalized version of the royal couple’s side trip to visit FDR as part of their visit to Canada.

As the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII visited Canada a number of times and was very popular. The new King George VI, who had a stuttering problem and quietly been in the background, was a stark contrast from his outgoing older brother.

The 1939 Royal Visit Car CollectionWith the war clouds gathering in Europe, it was important the new King reach out to his Canadian subjects to support Britain in the event of a battle. His sojourn into the United States was clearly led by the same motivation. Just a few months after the royal visit, the war had begun. Some historians claim that an important reason for this visit was that, given Canada’s new role in the Commonwealth following the 1931 Statute of Westminster, this trip was a lesson underlining Canada as an independent state equal to Britain and the monarch’s new role as King of Canada. At the time this seemed to be an important point.

Despite worries that Canadians might not take to the new, introverted King, the tour was a great success. Crowds flocked to see them wherever they went – whether it was in cosmopolitan centres like Montreal or small prairie towns like Biggar, Saskatchewan. Even Americans came across the border to see the royal celebrities. Both of them, but especially Queen Elizabeth, reached out to the crowd in an informal way that endeared them to their subjects.

We know about the celebrity status from the recent visit of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, but in an era with little competition from the celebrity industry we know today, this was celebrity on the grandest level. When else would a celebrity of even small stature visit cities and towns across the country? Of course, the monarchy aspect – the King of Canada visiting the country – was important. As the Masterpiece show Downtown Abbey reminds us, we have a fascination with titles and protocol – and even more so back then.

The royal couple arrived in Quebec by ship on May 17 and ended their tour when they boarded their ship in Halifax on June 15.

Given the cars were going to be a major opportunity for product placement, each of the big three automakers in Canada were invited to provide a car. GM opted to produce two essentially-identical cars based on the Oshawa-built and Canadian-named McLaughlin-Buick convertible. Rather than choosing the top-of-the line Imperial (which was made in the U.S.), Chrysler chose to use the Windsor-built Royal. Ford decided to offer its Detroit-built Lincoln K Phaeton four-door convertible. The four cars were then painted the same shade of Royal Maroon used on the royal cars in England.

The McLaughlin half of the McLaughlin-Buick name came from the Oshawa-based carriage company. Sam McLaughlin, son of the founder, began producing cars using Buick engines in 1907. In 1910, he sold his stake to General Motors and became president of GM Canada but continued to use the McLaughlin-Buick name on Oshawa-built Buicks until WWII. The McLaughlin namesake gave the country good representation and helped to give focus on the new Kings role in Canada.

For construction of the car, GM team cut it in half and stretched the wheelbase by 15 inches (381 mm) to 155 inches (3,937 mm). When it was complete, GM said the car was over 20 feet (6,096 mm) long. By comparison, this is longer than the extended version of today’s Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator.

New glass was installed to make the roof higher and rise towards the rear to give parade-watchers a better view of the royal couple and to accommodate the tall headgear the King wore on occasion. No bulletproof glass necessary; they used the highest grade of laminated glass, the same as in all its production cars. Of course, these changes required the construction of a special convertible top, which had a special crank-driven ‘raising mechanism’ in the trunk.

The 1939 Royal Visit Car Collection
As was common in formal bodywork like this, there was a divider between the driver and passenger compartment – this one had electric-powered glass partition – quite ahead of its time. The rear passengers could also speak to the chauffeur via a “Dictaphone” device. You have to wonder how often the King used this device. Of note, the chauffeur for the majority of the tour was the governor-general’s driver, Tom Southgate.

The passenger area was finished in the most luxurious manner possible for the time. There was a clock, compartments for lap robes, smoking accessories, vanity cases, hand mirrors and a pad and pencil. One of the McLaughlin-Buicks had maroon upholstery (broadcloth in the rear, leather up front), while the other had beige upholstery.

The Chrysler Royal was built on a 138-inch (3,505 mm) wheelbase while the Lincoln had a 145-inch (3,683 mm) wheelbase. Both cars had appointments similar to the McLaughlin-Buicks. Under the hood, the Chrysler used a four-litre inline-six cylinder engine; the Lincoln had a 6.8-litre V12, while the Buicks used a long 5.2-litre, inline-eight.

The GM cars were said to cost about $15,000 to build (by comparison a 1939 Chevrolet or Ford cost about $750) – making this equivalent to nearly a half-million dollars today. The cars were loaned to the government for the tour with the understanding that they would be returned afterwards, with a payment of $5,000 made to each company.

The cars were arranged in teams of two – one McLaughlin-Buick in each team. The idea was that, as the royal couple crossed the country by train, the cars would leapfrog ahead in pairs to ensure there was always a car and a back-up ready at each stop. Keeping product placement in mind, the cars were rotated as they went from city to city. For example, they used the Chrysler in Quebec City, Lincoln in Montreal, a Buick and Lincoln in Ottawa, Chrysler in Kingston and a Buick and Lincoln in Toronto and so on.

As the royal couple worked its way across the country by train, some stops were only for a few minutes, negating the need for a car. In these cases, they greeted people from the back of the train or from a platform erected near the railway station.

They reached Vancouver and crossed to Victoria by ferry using the Lincoln in both places. Vern Bethel, owner of one of the McLaughlin-Buicks said during the visit out west, GM replaced the two-piece glass behind the rear doors with a single piece of glass, due to a pillar obstructing the King’s view of the people.

The 1939 Royal Visit Car Collection

The 1939 Royal Visit Car Collection The 1939 Royal Visit Car Collection

The tour returned back by a different route, taking the royal couple to Southwest Ontario, including London, Windsor and Hamilton. In St. Catharines they used the Lincoln to drive through a light-beam to officially open the new Queen Elizabeth Way. The modern highway ran from Toronto to Niagara Falls and was named after the original Queen Elizabeth, rather than the present Queen. Next they drove to Niagara Falls where they laid a monument to dedicate the soon-to-be-built Rainbow Bridge.

From there, the royal entourage travelled to visit with President Roosevelt in Washington and then New York for the World’s Fair and the President’s Hyde Park retreat. None of the Canadian cars made the trip south. There they used a variety of cars provided by their hosts, including the President’s hand-controlled 1936 Ford Phaeton at Hyde Park.

After returning to Canada via Plattsburgh, NY, they continued east; the itinerary visiting each remaining province. The couple also made a stop in St. John’s, Newfoundland, then still a British colony, before concluding the tour in Halifax.

After the tour, the cars were driven to Ottawa and returned to the respective automakers. The Lincoln went on display at the World’s Fair in New York before it was placed in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. where it remained for several years. Eventually it was sold and has changed hands a few times since. In 2011, it was sold at RM Auctions in St. John’s, Michigan to an anonymous bidder for nearly $300,000.

As for the Chrysler, no one knows what has happened to it.

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The McLaughlin-Buicks were put on display at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 1939. In 1940, the Secretary of State asked GM to loan one of the McLaughlin-Buicks to the new Governor-General, Earl of Athlone. The convertible roof on the car was modified to make only the rear portion go up and down, landaulet-style. The remaining portion was made into a one-piece cover that can be removed to return the car to its full open style. This addressed problems with raising and lowering the long cantilever convertible top.

The next Governor-General, Viscount Alexander, used this car to host President Truman during a visit to Ottawa in 1947. The car was returned to GM in Oshawa and, after a number of owners, it was placed in the Canadian Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) in Ottawa where it remains. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, the CSTM has much of its collection in storage with limited access to the public. The Buick sits in this restricted area, seen by appointment only.

The other McLaughlin-Buick was sold in 1940 to Helen Ross Palmer, a private owner, who with co-driver Maybelle Burns, drove the car across the country to her home near Victoria, BC. The unusual car aroused considerable interest as it made its way across the country. The car remained in the family for several years. In 1941, it was used during a visit from the Duke of Kent, the Kings younger brother. Governor General Viscount Alexander also used the car while on the West Coast in 1946, as did Viscount Montgomery. After Palmer’s death, her daughter Helen Martay inherited the car.

After hearing Mrs. Martay was looking to sell the car, Vern Bethel, a McLaughlin-Buick enthusiast, visited Victoria in 1972 to purchase the car. Originally, he believed rumours the car was previously burned, but he subsequently moved to Vancouver and has been the proud owner ever since.

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The Royal Train also played an important role in the trip, carrying the entourage across the country and back. Two special steam engines in royal livery pulled the train for the bulk of the trip – Canadian Pacific #2850 going westward and Canadian National #6400 (the prototype of the “Royal Hudson” engines) eastward. The CN #6400 now resides in the CSTM in Ottawa; the CP #2850 is in the Exporail Railway Museum near Montreal.

For most Canadians, the history of these Canadian icons is almost completely unknown. These four cars – especially the unique McLaughlin-Buick – hold a special place in Canadian automotive history and are a beautiful representation of Canada’s relationship with the monarchy and the rest of the Commonwealth.

Many thanks go to Vern Bethel and Mike Tanney for their assistance on this project. Vern is the guru of all things related to McLaughlin-Buick. Mike Yeoman also provided invaluable research material from the archives in Ottawa.

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