First Cars in Owen Sound arrived just before World War One and the process of buying and driving these early vehicles was entirely different than the process facing drivers and car owners today.
Cars are an important part of our society. We travel by automobile almost everywhere that we can. When it is time to purchase a new car there are many car dealers and models to choose from. However, this was not always the case in the Grey and Bruce region!
In 1911, a Mr. Van Patten opened the first car dealership in Owen Sound. It was a Ford dealership. The next year, 1912, H. H. Bowman purchased the business. Today there are a multitude of makes and models of cars to choose from and the purchase price is in the tens of thousands. But in 1912, the Ford Motor Company offered three models of cars.
The prospective car owner could choose from a "runabout" for $480.00, a "touring car" for $530.00 or the luxurious "town car" for $780.00!
The car buyer of that era was wise to buy his new car as quickly as possible. The Ford Motor Company held strict control over the prices charged by their dealers and they often changed the prices of cars without notice. Auditors were sent out to check the dealers' account books to ensure that there had not been any "wheeling and dealing" with the prices.
Because the automobile was a rather recent invention in 1912, Bowman's job as a first car dealer went far beyond simply selling a car. In many cases Bowman found himself performing the task of a driving instructor as there were no driving schools and drivers were not required to have drivers' licenses.
After the buyer took possession of his new car Mr. Bowman took him to the racetrack on the east hill. Once they arrived at the oval, the new car owner took his place behind the wheel with Bowman sitting beside him. After an explanation of how things worked, they started off around the track.
Over the course of time Bowman developed a unique method of instruction. As they travelled around the race track and the new driver became more comfortable driving his first car, Bowman would climb into the back seat. As the rookie driver improved and gained confidence Bowman would quietly slide out of the car over the back without the driver knowing that he was no longer in the car.
In the early years of the automobile in this area, cars were usually not driven during the winter months. This was due to the fact that most home and business owners shoveled their snow into the streets and even the most proficient drivers were unlikely to be able to negotiate snow drifts that often reached heights of 10 feet!
Therefore, during the winter months, car owners usually took their cars back to dealer for storage. The dealer would remove the battery and drain it, and during the cold months his shop would be busy with mechanics Working to tune up the cars to get them ready for the good driving weather ahead.
Today, it takes about two hours to drive to Toronto from Owen Sound. In the years before the First World War it was an arduous 10-hour journey by car! The best route from Owen Sound to Toronto meandered across southern Ontario through Arthur, Grand Valley, Shelburne and Orangeville. When you left on this sojourn it was wise to ensure that you had a full tank of gas because the first service station that you would encounter was not until you arrived in Shelburne!
The information used in this article came from documents in the Grey County Archives.
A version of this story first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on July 27, 2001.
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