In Search of the Canadian Car

Claude Faubert

Vice-President, Collection and Research

Canada Science and Technology Museum

1867 St Laurent Blvd Ottawa, Ontario K1G 5A3

Canada Science and Technology Museum
Ottawa, Canada
Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits 2011


In Search of the Canadian Car


Is there such a thing as a Canadian car? Many countries have produced automobiles that are forever associated with them. Peugeot reminds us of France, Volvo of Sweden and Toyota of Japan while Fiat evokes Italy and Cadillac does the same for the United States. But can people name a Canadian car?
In 2010, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Canada's only national and comprehensive science and technology museum, opened a major exhibition to explore this question. In Search of the Canadian Car engages visitors in an open-ended discussion about technology and its place in their lives, using examples from the Museum's rich collection of automobiles, automotive artifacts, related trade literature and archival material. The exhibition offers a variety of possible answers to the question of what makes a car Canadian by focusing on four sub-themes: design, manufacture, marketing and consumer preference. This approach encourages visitors to learn more about what it takes to create a commercially successful automobile and to question and contextualize their own ideas about what might make a car Canadian.

In each of the four thematic areas, the storyline rests primarily on the automobiles on display. The storyline is also supported by an assortment of secondary objects like trade literature, archival materials and photographs. Each area also includes computer consoles that provide oral history interviews, video and audio clips, advertisements and textual or statistical information. The texts are provided in French and English. The overall design of the exhibition takes its inspiration from the automobile manufacturing and marketing industries.

The primary audience for the exhibition is families with children ten years of age and older. Secondary audiences include car and technology enthusiasts, families with small children and school groups. The exhibition's sub-themes -- Designed by Canadians, Made by Canadians, Marketed to Canadians, and Chosen by Canadians -- make it easy for visitors of all ages to grasp the different ideas that the exhibition explores.
The exhibition is built around the question of national identity. Canadians have long thought about what makes them and their nation different from others. This concern grows out of Canada's long colonial status, its small economy, its proximity to and dependence on the United States, and its internal cultural and linguistic differences. The automobile is a particularly good way of exploring issues of identity. In many ways, the car reflects the very close cultural, political, economic and technological links Canadians have had and continue to have with the United States. Have Canadians developed different ways of thinking about designing, building, marketing, buying or otherwise relating to the automobile?

The section Designed by Canadians encourages visitors to recognize design as a factor in considering a car's nationality and presents elements of the history of car design in Canada. The artifacts include Henry Seth Taylor's steam buggy (1867), the first automobile designed and built by a Canadian, and the Manic GT (1971), with a design that combined European and American concepts in an attempt to create a uniquely Canadian look. The "Ask a Designer" interactive allows visitors to learn about design by selecting one of several frequently asked questions and hearing responses from the featured designers.

In the Made by Canadians section, the objects tell the story of the rise, decline, and re-birth of a Canadian automobile industry. The artifacts include a royal tour car built by McLaughlin Buick (1927), a company formed in partnership with an American maker, and a Mercury Meteor Montcalm (1973) built in Canada under the US-Canada Auto Pact (1965-2000). The section also features two cars built entirely from foreign parts in Canadian plants. For small children, there is a mechanical interactive called "Build-a-Car".

The section Marketed to Canadians uses objects to explore the branding, advertising and promotion of automobiles in Canada. The objects on display suggest how marketing might contribute to what makes a car Canadian and to highlight some of the techniques, images and messages used to promote cars as Canadian. The Mercury Meteor Montcalm (1961) is one example of several cars the automaker Mercury named after Canadian historical figures or well-known Canadian places. "Buy Canadian" is a refrain that has both historical and contemporary resonance and is well represented in ad copy of various types. The recurring message that cars have to be built to suit the needs of a typical Canadian family is often communicated with images of families with children and ice hockey equipment setting out for the ice rink on a cold, dark, and snowy winter morning.

Chosen by Canadians is the last of the four sub-themes and focuses the visitors' attention on consumer preference and the possible contribution of the popularity of a car in Canada to making it Canadian. The objective is to help visitors understand the concept of consumer popularity, to give information about Canadians' preferences over time and to examine some of the factors that influenced those preferences. The section features a Ford Model T (1914), a Volkswagen Beetle (1958) and a Chrysler Plymouth Voyageur minivan (1984). These very popular vehicles represent very different eras but together they show how Canadian preferences have changed over time from simplicity and low cost, to fuel efficiency and small size, and finally to versatility and carrying capacity.

Since the Museum is committed not only to exploring the past but also to showing what might happen in the future, the exhibition has a section called Just around the Corner that presents some of the new technologies being developed in the automobile industry. The content changes every six months or so, and in collaboration with the Museum''s many partners, exhibits on the hybrid car, the electric car and the use of biomaterials in car construction have already been developed.

At the end of their exploration, visitors are invited to tell what they think makes a Canadian car. The "CARculator" computer interactive in the shape of a large car wing gives them the opportunity to record what factors are most important to them in determining what makes a car Canadian. They can also see what other visitors have said. Finally, they can vote for the car in the exhibition that they think is most Canadian.

The Museum also produced a related web-based exhibition for the Virtual Museum of Canada ( It is based on the same themes as the physical exhibition, but includes additional automobiles and other objects from the collection of the Museum and of partner institutions. Finally, a website on Flickr allows virtual visitors to post their pictures of automobiles and give their own answer to the question of the In Search of the Canadian Car exhibition: Is there such a thing as a Canadian car?



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