Oshawa, Ontario, Canada - July 1, 2019: General Motors of Canada Company head office in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, the Canadian subsidiary of General Motors.

The Oshawa car Assembly plant was opened in the early 1900s

General Motors Canada has strong roots in Durham Region. The Oshawa Car Assembly plant was opened in the early 1900s by a local company that was known for making carriages. More than a century has passed and yet the company remains a mainstay of the community.

Sometimes we have a hard time remembering that our country has weathered storms equal to the COVID-19 pandemic before. At this point, very few Canadians remember the Great Depression and how it affected the prosperity of entire communities, or just how the World Wars changed the landscape of the economy from coast to coast to coast. We feel like we’re unique in our experience, but the fact is, our grandparents and great-grandparents also endured prolonged turbulence and the periods of transformation that followed.

old photo of a model t ford working at the oshawa gm plant in oshawa

The City of Oshawa is home to a living, breathing example of this, of how the events of the day can lead to change: GM Oshawa.

Believe it or not, GM’s legacy in Oshawa dates back to when carriages were the main mode of transportation. The McLaughlin Carriage Company Limited, founded in 1869, was the largest carriage manufacturer in the British Empire. It wasn’t until 1905 that they became interested in building automobiles under the McLaughlin banner, and two years later, the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was formed. The first cars were McLaughlin models with Buick engines.

McLaughlin-Buick cars were built out of the Oshawa facility until 1915, when the company began producing Chevrolet vehicles for both the Canadian and U.S. markets. In 1918, McLaughlin and Chevrolet merged with General Motors to create General Motors of Canada Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S.-owned General Motors Company.

In the decade that followed, the company grew in leaps and bounds, expanding the facilities, product lines and staff. They altered the landscape of the auto industry with patented innovations like the adjustable seat and brake lights. By 1928, the Oshawa facility was churning out a car a minute. 

But then, in 1929, when the stock market crashed and plunged the country
into an intense recession, GM felt its effects. With car purchases on the decline, the company had no choice but to scale back production. The community felt this hit, as many area families lost their livelihoods. Recovery was long and slow, and only began to show signs of growth in the mid-1930s — just in time for World War II to take hold.

While the Second World War was underway, Oshawa’s GM plant was retooled to produce vehicles for the Allied war effort, as well as aircraft fuselages, machine guns and other equipment for military firearms. The automobile industry in Canada, including General Motors, was instrumental in supporting the troops overseas, but it completely changed the industry across the country.

At the end of World War II, the Oshawa plant ceased wartime production and was rejigged again to go back to producing civilian automobiles, but over the course of the company’s history, military vehicles were still rolled off of assembly lines simultaneously. 

The Oshawa assembly plant witnessed, and adapted to, many other ups and downs in history. Recessions, changes to product demand, current events and other factors impacted the leadership, personnel, operations and more. In June 2009, the company declared bankruptcy, before the federal and provincial governments stepped in
to help. By 2010, the
company was turning
a profit again.

General Motors announced in November 2018 that they would be closing the Oshawa plant as part of their global restructuring plan. This was, of course, unfortunate news for the community, given that GM had been a mainstay of the economy for more than 100 years. What was thought to be the last vehicle produced in the plant was completed in December 2019, and in the months that followed, the facility was retrofitted as a parts manufacturer and auto test track. But, like we’ve all learned during the past two years, nothing is ever really permanent and the Oshawa assembly plant was reopened in November 2021, overhauled to produce the popular Chevrolet line of pickup trucks. 

What’s ahead for GM, and the auto sector in Oshawa, remains to be seen, but to stand back and consider how the company has changed over more than a century is truly a Canadian history lesson, and a case study in flexibility. To think, when you look at a 2022 Chevy Silverado pickup truck, it all started with a carriage in 1869.  

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