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Sarnia’s first automobiles were built by hand

Published on

Phil Egan
Most people when they think of the first cars they think of the early 20th century.
They might be surprised to learn that by 1869, the automobile had already claimed its first fatality. That August, Mary Ward of Ireland was thrown from a vehicle and under its wheels as it rounded a bend. The experimental steam car in which she was riding was built by her cousin, the 3rd Earl of Rosse.
By that time, a man named Seth Taylor had already built the first Canadian automobile. The Ford Motor Company of Canada was established in 1904, and by 1913 it was estimated there were 50,000 automobiles in Canada.
The first automobile to appear in Sarnia was hand-made, the creation of an incredibly inventive and intriguing individual named Thomas Doherty.
Doherty had begun experimenting with a three-wheeled vehicle in the late nineteenth century but wasn’t happy with its lack of power. In the year 1900 Doherty began constructing Sarnia’s first automobile, primarily from bicycle parts. That same year he had his red, gas-powered two-seater barrelling down Sarnia’s rugged patchwork roads.
Banned from driving on Plank Road because its racket caused horses to bolt, Doherty’s auto was described by a judge as “noisy and dangerous.”
Doherty became the first president of the Sarnia Automobile Club, but he was already famous as the president of the Doherty Manufacturing Company in Sarnia’s south end.
Acclaimed mayor of Sarnia in 1916, Thomas Doherty became the first to die in office the following year.
The second automobile to appear on Sarnia’s streets was built and owned by a man named Sam Hitchcock.
Hitchcock was reputed to have operated Sarnia’s first taxi. In 1910, with his partner William T. Richardson, he would open Sarnia Garage from which, according to its website, Lambton Ford Lincoln ultimately grew.
Hitchcock built his eight-seat automobile in 1905 from parts scrounged from various components that he purchased about town. The radiator, adorned with his license number, 649, was bought in Detroit together with a few other parts.
Hitchcock made a business of ferrying parties out to the beach, and took trips out of town to interesting sites in the area. Later, he would journey to cities around southern Ontario, offering rides for 50 cents. The 1905 auto was sold in 1908 for $100.
A photo exists of Hitchcock sitting in front of the old Chapman House hotel in Sarnia’s Market Square a couple of years later in a second version of his taxi.
Hitchcock would go on to have a long career selling cars in Sarnia.

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