Skip to main content

Henry Seth Taylor (1833-1887) and Canada's First Car

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

medium_seth.jpgHenry Seth Taylor was a natural tinkerer. Born in Stanstead in 1833, he loved to experiment with machines, and during his lifetime he is said to have invented a number of things, including the first sofa-bed and an early "talking machine". Taylor is best known, however, for building Canada's first steam-powered car, which he unveiled at the Stanstead Fair in 1867.

Self-propelled carriages had been around for years by the time Taylor demonstrated his own model to the public. In France, for example, Joseph Cugnot in 1789 had built a heavy three-wheeled vehicle with a boiler in front and a top speed of 5 km per hour. More recently, American Sylvester Roper had built a number of four-wheeled horseless carriages in the early 1860s. His steam cars had been demonstrated at country fairs in different parts of New England. One (probably Roper's, though not credited to him) had even been demonstrated at a travelling circus that arrived in Taylor's home-town in 1864 (making it possibly the first car exhibited in Canada). It was billed in the Stanstead Journal as demonstrating "the wondrous novelty of an ordinary road carriage driven over the common highways without the aid of horses or other draught animals!" This occurred a year before Taylor began work on his own car, and except for the location of the boilers, the two cars were remarkably similar.

medium_buggy.jpgThough not the first of its kind by any means, Taylor's was certainly the first car built in Canada. It was not a success, however. At its debut before a large crowd, it actually broke down, a "contretemps" that, according to the Journal, "detracted somewhat from the interest of the occasion." Undeterred, Taylor tried again the following year, this time without mishap. On a subsequent drive through the village, however, Taylor and his car were involved in what might be described as the first automobile accident in Canadian history. While descending a steep hill, the car began to pick up speed, careened out of control, and crashed at the bottom. Fortunately, Taylor, who had neglected to install brakes, was able to jump off in time. The car was a wreck, and its frustrated builder gave up on it, turning his attention instead to building a steam-powered yacht.

After salvaging its boiler for his new yacht, Taylor scrapped the car in the back of his barn, where it languished until long after his death in 1887. It was nearly a century before it was re-discovered and taken to the United States. Restored (this time with brakes added), it returned to Canada, where it is now the property of the Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. Finally receiving the recognition it deserved, Canada's first car was depicted on a stamp by Canada Post in 1993.