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Canadian Car and Foundry

At the start of the 20th Century, Fort William (half of what is now Thunder Bay, the other half being Port Arthur) was a growing port on western Lake Superior, offering inducements to companies to move their manufacturing plants to the city. O 25 October 1909, Canadian Car and Foundry were created by the merger of three railway car manufacturers: Canada Car Company and Dominion Car and Foundry Company of Montreal, and Rhodes Curry Company of Amherst, Nova Scotia. In 1912, Fort William offered the new company cash to build a plant in the city, a proposal to which the company and taxpayers agreed. Construction of the new plant began in October 1912.

During the First World War, Canadian Car and Foundry built railway cars and 12 small minesweepers for the French Navy at its Thunder Bay shops. By 1921, however, production of any sort at Can Car, as it was known locally, had died. Ripe to the possibility of the aviation industry, management began courting aircraft manufacturers in 1935 to bring the idle Thunder Bay plant back into production. By 1936 deals had been reached with Burnelli and Grumman to build aircraft under license. Can Car officially opened again on 3 August 1937.

The first airplanes to be built a Can Car were Grumman G-23 biplanes fighters, known in the United States as the FF-1. Through shady dealings on the part of some arms brokers, 34 of an order for 50 aircraft made their way to Spain to participate on the side of the Republican forces in that country's civil war. The arms embargo against Spain caught up with the other 16 aircraft. The Canadian government bought fourteen of these, being named the "Goblin" in RCAF service. However, the total production line of 52 was soon completed, which meant that Can Car did not have any more work.

Can Car also, in daring move during the Depression, set up its own design shop. It hired Michael Gregor, who had experience with two American firms, as the Chief Engineer. He designed the Gregor FDB-1 biplane fighter, convinced of the superiority of biplanes over monoplanes. Despite the fact that that the FDB-1 did perform well at low altitudes, nobody was interested in the design, even after testing of the single aircraft, manufactured in 1939. High-powered monoplanes were becoming the dominant force at all altitudes.

Can Car's design shop can claim a Canadian and international first. In early 1938, Elsie MacGill was hired (see the separate entry). She began designing the Maple Leaf II trainer, the first aircraft in the world designed by a woman. The first flight of the Maple Leaf II was on 31 October 1939. Again, a Can Car product did not go into production, in part because de Havilland had a two-year lead in producing training aircraft, and because the Maple Leaf was considered too easy to fly. Some examples of the aircraft were produced and sold to Mexico.

What saved Can Car was the need of Great Britain to rearm the Royal Air Force (RAF), believing that a war with Germany was looming. In May 1938 a British Air Mission came to Canada to examine the possibility of building aircraft in Canada. C.D. Howe, the Member of Parliament for Fort William, ensured that the mission visited Can Car. In December 1938 an order for Hawker Hurricanes was announced. The first aircraft began to roll of the assembly line in January 1940, after months of tooling and preparation, with deliveries to Great Britain beginning in April 1940. Can Car went on to build 1451 Hurricanes, for the RAF and RCAF, with about 30 serving in the Battle of Britain. The last Hurricane produced at Can Car, serial number PZ865 now flies with the RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

As the production of the last of the Hurricanes was scheduled to be in May 1943, Can Car was searching for other aircraft to build in Thunder Bay. The answer was the Curtiss-Wright SB2C Helldiver, a large torpedo bomber designed and built for the United States Navy. In May 1942, Can Car received an order for 1000 Helldivers, while Fairchild Aircraft in Montreal received an order for 300. These aircraft were designated the SBW and SBF respectively, although they were identical to the Curtiss-built SB2Cs. After initial production problems, brought about by the more than 53,000 design changes requested by the US Navy, the first aircraft of the 835 built in Fort William flew on 22 July 1943.

Can Car also had aircraft production and overhaul facilities at five sites in and near Montreal and at Amherst, Nova Scotia, all which began production with the Second World War. These plants produced a variety of parts ranging from variable pitch propellers to Avro Anson wings. The plant in Amherst also produced the Avro Anson and then joined the Quebec plants in overhauling and modifying almost 1500 aircraft.

During the war, more than 6800 people were working at Can Car in Thunder Bay in three shifts, with over 4,000 on the production line. Overall, Can Car had 15,000 employees in aircraft production in 1944, and was the biggest aviation manufacturer in Canada.

With the end of the war, production of military aircraft ceased. The company bought the rights to manufacture the Noorduyn Norseman, which it made at the St. Laurent, Quebec plant. Production ceased in 1953 when a group of businessmen bought the rights, the jigs and equipment and started Noorduyn Norseman Aircraft Ltd. The Montreal plant also built the CBY-3 Loadmaster, an aircraft in which the fuselage was designed to provide lift and based on a design by American designer Vincent Burnelli. Only one aircraft was made and despite efforts to garner orders, none were received.

Although the Fort William plant was very successful building busses, management continually sought out new opportunities. With the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Air Training Plan in 1950 the RCAF required new training aircraft. On 6 March 1951, Fort William's Member of Parliament, the Reverend Dan MacIvor, announced the plant had received a contract for 270 North American Harvard's. In January 1953, shortly after the last Harvard rolled off the production line, Can Car received an order for the Beech Mentor - 100 for the Unites States Air Force and 25 for the RCAF. When this order was completed, the plant continued to produce spare parts and conduct repairs into 1956; however, this was the last aircraft manufacturing associated with Can Car.

On 08 June 1955, A.V. Roe Canada offered to purchase Can Car, an offer that was accepted the same day. Despite several changes in ownership, Can Car's facility in Fort William continues to operate, now producing railway cars for Bombardier.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:35:00 ZULU