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CANADA: The Fossmobile finds a home at the Canadian Automotive Museum

Burlington man's labour of love recreates grandfather's invention — Canada's first-ever gas-powered motor vehicle

It had a tendency to scare the horses and get stuck in the mud, long-time Burlington resident Ron Foss recalls his grandfather telling him as a child about his rather remarkable creation.

George Foote Foss was humbly speaking of the Fossmobile — Canada's first ever gas-powered motor car — which he built out of his Sherbrooke, Quebec machine and bicycle repair shop in 1897. He was 19 years old at the time.

He had been inspired after a trip to Boston, where he tried an early electric car that ran out of power after 20 minutes and had to be towed back. 

A "tinkerer" by nature, George returned home and built the Fossmobile, which then became a common sight on Sherbrooke roads as George zoomed about town for four years before selling the one and only automobile he ever made.

Passing on a partnership with Ford

His Fossmobile predated Ford's Model T by over a decade but George was never interested in commercializing it.

He had contact with Henry Ford in the early years and, at one point, Ford suggested he and Foss build cars together. But George decided the partnership was not for him.

"There were a few factors, one was he was only 21 years old," said Ron. "He did not really think there was a viability of this piece of equipment, and that to pour money, time and energy into something that scared horses and got stuck in the mud might not be a good investment of time. He was somewhat risk averse, but he also did not like the character of Henry Ford."

He also rejected an offer of financial backing to build automobiles, "because he did not like credit," Ron recalls, an aversion that would last throughout his lifetime.

"But he had no regrets in not building the automobile. By the '50s, I can remember him saying they really had become a bit of menace. People were having accidents and there were no safety features in cars back in those days."

In fact, by the time, Ron knew his grandfather, the pioneering automobile creator had given up driving altogether.

George Foote Foss sold his creation in 1902 for $75 and never saw it again.

Ron and his father would later try to follow the trail of what happened to the first Fossmobile to preserve the family history. They searched garages and barns around Montreal and Quebec, to no avail.

The replica

The idea for a replica was germinating in Ron's consciousness, however, having discussed it with his father before his death. Ron formed Fossmobile Enterprises and started the hard work of creating a museum-quality replica.

It was a labour of love. He first found a period engine. "We don't have any original parts from the Fossmobile so everything, we are trying to figure out how to put it all together," he said.

It later emerged that the person from whom he sourced the engine had several more period pieces that would help the project along tremendously. Most importantly, he had a burned out, rusted chassis from a 1900 Locomobile.

"When it got up here, we put it into an acid bath to get the rust and stuff off of it and 90 per cent of it was completely reusable because it is all cast steel and very hardy," Ron said.

With many key pieces in place, Ron began to hunt for the smaller parts. "EBay and aBay Motors became my best friend," he said. "There is a ton of material out there, even going back that far.

"We are very proud of the fact that the authenticity of the Fossmobile is very close, based on the measurements we used, based on access to these period-correct parts."

One key difference from the original, however, is that the replica does not run.

"I have always been of the opinion that it did not need to run," Ron said. "One of my first steps when I took on this project was to find a home for it. I did not want to make it my own sort of garage trophy. This was something I felt needed to be done for Canadians. To make people in Canada aware, this invention took place right here, in Canada, prior to Ford's Model Ts."

A legacy preserved

When he approached local museums, they provided a list of criteria the project would have to meet for inclusion. Ron selected the most stringent criteria, that of Ingenium, as the goal. One thing the museums did not require was a running vehicle.

Starting it up would also risk damaging the 122-year-old engine and period parts. "My fear is if we put it under stress by trying to start it up, something might crack or give out on it," Ron said.

The replica is now en route to the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, where it will go on display starting Friday.

Ron said the museum is a great fit for the Fossmobile. "It seemed to make the most sense," he said. "It has a wide collection of Canadian automobiles, Canadian-built automobiles. And we felt, for them, having the very first car built in Canada, would be a tribute to their mission."

Foss is proud of the achievement and hopeful that many more Canadians will be exposed to his grandfather's extraordinary legacy.

As for George Foote Foss himself, however, his grandson says he would most likely be nonplussed to see his creation enshrined in a museum. "He would be as he always was — 'What is all the fuss about?'" he said. "Not really recognizing or accepting that he did something phenomenal.

"My father on the other hand, I think would have been over the top. I think he would be ecstatic that we actually accomplished this."


Tania Theriault

About the Author: Tania Theriault

Tania is a print and broadcast journalist with over 15 years experience who has recently returned to Canada and is keen to learn all there is to know about Burlington and its welcoming people
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