Skip to main content

George Foote Foss (1876-1968) and the "Fossmobile"

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

medium_foss.1.jpgApart from Henry Seth Taylor, who built Canada's first steam-powered horseless carriage in 1867, another Eastern Townships man who deserves mention as an early carmaker is George Foote Foss. Born in 1876, Foss was a prosperous mechanic, blacksmith, and bicycle repairman from Sherbrooke. Like Taylor before him, he was also an ingenious tinkerer. In 1897, he built and demonstrated Canada's first gasoline-powered automobile.

MODEL TRAINS AND MOTOR BOATS
When he wasn't working on a piece of machinery or repairing a bicycle for a customer, Foss passed his time building model train locomotives from scratch. After casting all of the intricate brass and aluminum parts himself, he would enjoy the models for a while. Then he would get bored with them and turn to some other project, like building an electric motor (one of the first outboard motors) for his boat or an engine for his steam-powered yacht.

TRIP TO BOSTON
It was in 1896, during a trip to Boston to buy a lathe for his expanding machine shop, that Foss saw his first automobiles. These cars, electrically-driven broughams, were rented out at the Cyclorama building for $4.00 an hour. Foss gladly paid the fee. Unfortunately, after a ride of only half an hour, the batteries died. As Foss, himself, put it in his memoir (written in 1954), "I experienced the same old trouble I had with my electric boat." Returning to Sherbrooke, Foss decided to build an automobile. He hoped that his would be better: it would run on gasoline and would not depend on a battery that needed constant recharging.

Gas-powered cars had been known for several years by the time Foss started work on his. German Karl Benz had manufactured a three-wheeled model in 1885. The following year, Gottlieb Daimler had produced a four-wheeled version. The first gas-powered car in the United States was produced in 1893 by brothers Charles and Frank Duryea, bicycle makers by trade. The Duryeas were the first in North America to sell their cars, and by 1896, they had built thirteen. The days of mass-production, however, were still a long way off, and Henry Ford had yet to make his mark.

medium_foss.2.jpgCANADA'S FIRST GAS-POWERED CAR
Back in Sherbrooke, George Foote Foss worked diligently throughout the winter. The following spring, he completed his automobile, the first of its kind to be built in Canada. A four-horsepower single-cylinder car that could travel up to 15 m.p.h.
(24 km per hour) and climb any of Sherbrooke's steep hills, the "Fossmobile," as it was later dubbed, was different from what had been produced to that point.

While other designers had placed their engines beneath the seat, Foss's was housed at the front of the car. This made maintenance much easier and produced considerably less upward vibration through the seat. The gears were also mounted directly on the steering column, another innovation that was far ahead of its time. According to the modest Foss, the little car "worked fine," and was "a great convenience in my business."

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
Foss never tried to market or mass-produce his car. In fact, he turned down an offer from William Farwell, president of the Eastern Townships Bank, who offered to finance a production line. Foss told Farwell that he would "think about it." Apparently he did not, which, he later admitted, was his "first big mistake." In 1900, Foss made what would prove to be another mistake. He met Henry Ford who offered him a chance to invest in a new company he was trying to establish. Foss turned him down, as well. There was "something about him," he later wrote, that led Foss to believe that Ford would be "hard to get along with." He also felt, at the time, that his own car was superior to Ford's. Shortly after their encounter, Ford founded the Ford Motor Company.

In Sherbrooke, Foss, who later became an automobile salesman, had the opportunity to drive a Ford for himself. As a dealer, he got to test drive all the various models that came onto the market. The Ford, he admitted, was the "most reliable and satisfactory little car" to be found anywhere at that time. In 1908, Henry Ford made history when he launched his revolutionary Model T.

Back in Sherbrooke, Foss sold his car for $75. He never built another one. He died in 1968.

Reference:
George Foote Foss, Recollections of Sherbrooke - The True Story of a Small Town Boy, 1954.

POSTSCRIPT:
The following is an excerpt from the Stanstead Journal, June 9, 1904:

“Mr. George Foss of Sherbrooke has been the guest of Mr. A. C. Cowles during the past few days.
Mr. Foss arrived at Derby Line, Saturday, coming through from Boston, with an automobile. He
accomplished the journey without mishap until he reached the Sivright place when the “auto”
was disabled by the breaking of one [of] the axels.”