Photos courtesy Ron Foss and the Foss Family Archives
McLaughlin-Buick. Russell. Bricklin. Manic GT. Canada might not have a mass-market automotive nameplate to call its own anymore, but it has a rich automotive history that goes back to the steam age: The first car to arrive in Canada was a steam buggy imported from New Jersey to PEI in 1866, and the first known Canadian-built car was a steam buggy put together by Quebec watchmaker Henry Seth Taylor in 1867.
Canada was ahead of the curve with electric cars, too: In 1893, Toronto lawyer Fredrick Fetherstonhaugh became one of Canada’s first car customers when he commissioned inventor Joseph Still and carriage maker John Dixon to build him an electric car.
The country’s first gasoline-powered car didn’t arrive until four years later, in 1897. That’s when George Foote Foss, a 20-year-old mechanic, blacksmith, and bicycle repairman from Sherbrooke, Quebec, built himself a car using body and chassis parts from horse-drawn carriages, racing sulky wheels, and a four-horsepower, single-cylinder engine of his own manufacture, designed with help from articles in Scientific American.
Foss drove the Fossmobile (as it became known) around Sherbrooke for four years. During this time he turned down an offer to partner with Henry Ford, believing Ford’s Quadricycle to be inferior to the Fossmobile. He also turned down financial backing to mass-produce the Fossmobile, as he felt he lacked the necessary experience. He later moved to Montreal where his car sat idle for a year before being sold and lost to time.
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A Place in History
The folks of Sherbrooke didn’t forget about the Fossmobile, erecting a monument to George Foote Foss and his pioneering car near the site of his original bicycle shop. The monument was unveiled in 1997, celebrating the car’s 100th anniversary.
Beyond that, the story of George Foote Foss and his Fossmobile has remained little-known. Foss’s grandson Ron Foss wants to change that with the production of a replica Fossmobile using period-correct parts.
“It’s a story not well told,” Foss explains. “I got a box of memoirs from my aunt when I was executing her will, and it included all these photographs of my grandfather and his car. I wanted to archive the story in a more official format.”
While researching the car’s story, Ron Foss stumbled by accident across a period-correct motor. “It had no identification or name on it, and I thought, ‘That might actually be my grandfather’s engine.’” Subsequent investigation showed the engine is most likely a De Dion engine produced under licence, but the designs from Scientific American that George Foote Foss used are very similar to the De Dion, and acquiring the engine gave Ron Foss the inspiration for the replica Fossmobile.
“Once I found the engine I happened to trip across the chassis, and then the fellow with the chassis phoned me up and said, ‘I have this old body, do you want it too?’”
An Immense Undertaking
Even with the core pieces in hand, recreating a one-off antique automobile is an immense undertaking, and Ron Foss didn’t want to build the car simply to have it sit in his garage. If he was going to create a replica, he wanted it displayed where people could see and experience it.
“I contacted a couple of museums, and they indicated an interest in displaying it, and that’s when I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to build this thing.’”
Working from the original photos and period parts catalogues, Foss and his team of restorers at Legendary Motorcar Company are confident that the finished car will be as close as one could get without having the original to work from.
“The chassis we have is identical to the one in the Crestmobile, and we have evidence of conversations between George Foote Foss and the people at Crestmobile.” The sulky racing wheels and wood “piano-style” body were standard parts in their day, and photos show that the ones Ron Foss acquired are an exact match for the Fossmobile’s original parts.
When finished, the replica Fossmobile will represent a tangible link to Canada’s innovative past, allowing new generations to see first-hand where we’ve come from. But the car isn’t there yet, and Foss is raising funds to allow its completion. To donate, visit www.fossmobile.ca or go to GoFundMe and search “Fossmobile”.