In the early days of the automobile, hundreds of people laboured in their shops and sheds, trying to come up with the perfect design to replace the horse. Most of them are long-forgotten, but Ron Foss of Burlington, Ont. is working to ensure that one is them is remembered.
His grandfather, George Foote Foss, built a horseless carriage called the Fossmobile that appears to be the first gasoline-powered car made in Canada. “There’s no other evidence to suggest otherwise,” Foss said. “I’ve relied on historians that came before me who labelled it as such, and my grandfather’s writing said he had seen nothing prior to this.”
Foss, 65, lives in Burlington, Ont. Working with restoration shop Legendary Motorcar Company in Halton Hills, Ont., Foss is recreating his grandfather’s car as a tribute. If the original Fossmobile still exists, no one knows where it is. Someone from Edmundston, New Brunswick told Foss he’d seen it in the early 1960s, but “our research indicated it wasn’t the Fossmobile,” Foss said.
George Foote Foss was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec on September 30, 1876. He apprenticed at an electrical company there, assembling instruments and winding electric motors, and then worked at a similar job in Massachusetts.
He returned to Sherbrooke and, at the age of 19, opened his own shop for machining, blacksmithing, and bicycle repair. In his spare time, he built model steam engines, and made an electric motor to power his boat.
Not many people brought their bicycles in during the winter, and business was slow. Foss began working on his car in the winter of 1896, and completed it the following spring.
He wasn’t the first to build a car, of course. The vehicle most historians consider to be the first Canadian car, a four-wheeler built in 1867 by Henry Seth Taylor, ran on steam. In 1886, Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, working independently of each other in Germany, produced what were considered the first practical gasoline cars. Three years before the Fossmobile, a Toronto company created Canada’s first electric car. And Henry Ford test-drove his Quadricycle some six months before George Foss started working on his.
Petroleum was the chosen fuel, Foss said, because his grandfather had ridden in electric cars in Boston, and had experience with his boat motor, and wanted something with more range than battery power. He also built his engine from scratch. “He had a blast furnace in his machine shop so he could cast it, and we know he used Scientific American (magazine) to get ideas of how combustion engines were made.”
Foss has a budget of $30,000 for the car, which he’s trying to cover with fundraising. What makes it a tough project is that there are no blueprints or drawings of the original car. Foss is relying on family photos, George Foss’s papers and correspondence, and memories of the stories he heard as a child during frequent visits to his grandfather.
Craftsmen at Legendary are building the car through a painstaking process called reverse re-engineering, using the photographs. “You take what you know,” Foss said. “If there’s a particular measurement you can determine, you start with it, and scale with it to the next connecting part.”
No one’s sure exactly what George Foss used as a chassis, which might have come from a horse-drawn carriage. It was chain-driven, and steered with a tiller. The design of the original engine also remains a mystery. Most automakers left their engines exposed, which gave them extra cooling. For reasons unknown, George Foss shrouded his with a cowling, and there are no known photographs of what’s under that cover.
The cover will be the last piece made for the car. A vital measurement for it can only be made once the body is on its chassis, and the bottom of the cowling can be lined up with the centre of the front hub.
Foss also has a vintage catalogue from the Neustadt-Perry Company, a car and parts manufacturer from the turn of the century, to reference the types of components the Fossmobile might have had.
The restorers aren’t fabricating entirely from scratch. During an Internet search, Foss came across someone in Florida who had an old engine he was trying to identify. Foss bought it last January, and sent the man photos of the Fossmobile. “He sent me a note saying, ‘By the way, I have this period chassis if you want it,’ and two weeks later said he had a body,” Foss said. The man donated both to the project. The engine has no manufacturer’s marking on it, but DeDion allowed some American manufacturers to make “no-name” replicas of its engines, and Foss suspects that’s what this one is.
The chassis, which was damaged by fire sometime in the past, appears to be from a Locomobile. “The tiller will be one of the tricky pieces to remake, because we don’t have an original to work from. There was a tiller on the Locomobile, but it was badly damaged in the fire and not reusable. We have pictures and drawings of what those tillers looked like back in those timeframes.”
The wooden body remains unidentified, but Foss is pretty sure it’s earlier than 1900. It’s since been restored by a wood craftsman, who has to create an ornate chair to resemble the one on the Fossmobile (which, Foss said, looked like his grandfather had taken a chair out of his mother’s living room, cut off the legs, and screwed it on).
George Foss only built one car. “He was twenty years old, and I don’t think he had the foresight and vision to see the automobile would become the future,” Foss said. “And he didn’t like or want debt, and didn’t have any his entire life. He was offered financing from local bankers to produce more than one, and he turned it down.”
He was also given an opportunity to invest in the new company Henry Ford was setting up, but passed on it. “He didn’t like Ford’s quadricycle, and he didn’t like Henry Ford as a person. We all said to him, ‘If you’d done something with this, we might have had a different life.’ But he was a very simple guy, kept things as simple as possible. I never once saw him unhappy, or want something that somebody else had.”
And yet, after building and then apparently giving up on his Fossmobile, George Foss became a car salesman. He moved to Montreal in 1902, and became the exclusive distributor in that city for the Crestmobile, built in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Foss has seen two Crestmobiles in museums, and their design is close enough to the Fossmobile that he suspects his grandfather gave away his trade secrets, intentionally or otherwise, on one of his previous trips to the state. One museum is delving into its records to see if there’s any indication he had a hand in the car’s development.
Like so many early cars, the Crestmobile was short-lived, closing its doors in 1905. While he’s proud of what his grandfather achieved, Foss doesn’t think the Fossmobile would have done much better. “Given my grandfather’s business savvy and his approach to life, I don’t believe that if he’d gone into production, it would have lasted very long. I have no feeling that he could have pre-empted or replaced Ford as a product.”
After the Crestmobile, George Foss opened another machine shop in 1912; during the First World War, it made parts for the war effort. But the business was badly hurt by the Great Depression, and he was forced into early retirement. He died at the age of 92 in Chateauguay, Quebec on November 23, 1968, and was buried in Sherbrooke.
In 1993, the city of Sherbrooke erected a stone monument honoring the Fossmobile, on the Magog River not far from the site of his bicycle shop. Even that is in danger of potentially being forgotten. It will be removed and put into storage next year during construction for a new bridge, and Foss isn’t sure when or where it will be relocated.
The Fossmobile is expected to be “something recognizable” by this fall. Foss would love to see it run, although he admits that might not happen, given that sufficiently rebuilding the ancient engine to power the car may be beyond the budget.
Rather than keep it for himself, he’s having it built so it can be displayed in a museum for everyone to see. He’s currently talking to the Canadian Automotive Museum in Oshawa, Ont. (which owns a significant collection of Canadian-only cars), and to the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa (which owns the Henry Seth Taylor steam car) as possibilities.
“I want to get the story retold, which it hasn’t been since the early 1960s,” Foss said. “I remember as a boy, sitting on his knee, him telling me how it scared the horses, it got stuck in the mud, children were petrified. He loved to tell stories about his workshop and building the car.
“If he could do it back then with nothing at all, then with technology, re-engineering and talented craftsmen, we should be able to reproduce it. I think Canadians should be proud of it.”