Is this the most Canadian Car ever?

The Russell car was designed and manufactured entirely in Canada

Published: February 24, 2017, 1:25 AM
Updated: November 21, 2021, 3:18 PM

1914 Russell Knight Model 28 - 1914 Russell Knight Model 28 on display in the Art and the Automobile exhibit organized by the Cobble Beach Concours d'Elegance at the 2017 Canadian International Auto Show, on loan from the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

More than 100 different Canadian auto nameplates have been produced since the inception of the automobile more than a century ago. Only a handful of those survived for any extended period and none remain in production today.

Of those many brands, arguably the most Canadian of them all was the Russell – one of the last of which is the 1914 Model 28 seen here, on display at the 2017 Canadian International Auto Show.

While Russell is a name that may be unfamiliar in the automotive context, chances are you’ve heard of the company that created it – CCM. Yes, that CCM! The one now famous as a producer of sports equipment.

Founded in 1899 as The Canadian Cycle and Motor Company – CCM for short – its mission was to corner the bicycle business in Canada. But early on it recognized that automobiles were the way of the future and began importing and distributing cars built in the U.S. It also built its own versions of a few existing models including a gasoline powered Lozier, a Locomobile steamer, and an electric car called the Ivanhoe.

But success in the auto business didn’t come until 1905 when CCM introduced the Russell – a well-constructed, up-level automobile with advanced features and engineering for the time. It was priced at $1500, about $400 more than a comparable Ford Model C, which had been recently introduced in Canada.

The Russell was named after Thomas Alexander (“Tommy”) Russell, a dynamic young businessman who turned around CCM’s until-then sinking fortunes and spearheaded its automotive program as its general manager.

“Built up to a standard, not down to a price”

The four-passenger Russell Model A featured a front-mounted, horizontally-opposed two-cylinder engine, driving the rear wheels through a three-speed sliding-gear transmission, with a column shifter – cutting edge technology at the time.

Standard equipment included such exotic features as two front oil lamps, a tail lamp, a horn and an odometer to measure distance traveled up to 10,000 miles!

Unlike all its major competitors at the time – the primary of which was Oldsmobile – the Russell and most of its components were designed as well as built in Canada. The car was marketed heavily as being all-Canadian and its cost premium was justified with the slogan, “Built up to a standard, not down to a price.”

There was serious competition on the horizon, however, primarily from the soon-to-arrive Ford Model T, McLaughlin-Buick and Tudhope-McIntyre – all of which made use of American-designed and in most cases American-built engines, as well as other engineering and in some cases significant capital support.

Nevertheless, Russell fared well against these newcomers, expanding its lineup and advancing its technology so that by 1910 it ranked third in sales behind the might of Ford and McLaughlin.

Enter the “Silent Knight”

Russell’s direction took a major change in 1910, when it was decided to forego the high-volume mainstream market and pursue its future as a luxury brand, with potential for greater profits from more moderate production volumes.

Intrinsic in that decision was Tommy Russell’s success in negotiating exclusive Canadian rights to the ”Knight” sleeve-valve engine, which had been adopted by several prestigious European automakers, including the British Daimler marque (subsequently to become part of Jaguar). Indeed, Russell’s goal was to become the “Daimler of the Dominion.”

Invented by an American named Charles Yale Knight, the sleeve valve engine employed two sliding sleeves around the pistons, with openings to enable intake and exhaust functions, rather than conventional poppet valves commonly used for that purpose.

Eliminating that valve action also eliminated much of the noise associated with internal combustion engines – making the “Silent Knight” an ideal choice for luxury cars.

Along with that licensing agreement, Russell also contracted with Daimler to supply its Knight engines for a two-year period – the first time Russells would be powered by engines not built in Canada. But after those two years, the company would take over production of its own variation of that Knight engine back in Toronto.

It seemed an auspicious decision as the Russell became the car of choice for many of Canada’s “well-to-do,” and the automobile company expanded once again. It was so successful, in fact, that CCM changed its name to the Russell Motor Car Company Limited (RMCC).

The beginning of the end

Although it wasn’t the only factor, the decision to build its own Knight sleeve-valve engine played a major role in the Russell’s ultimate demise.

Reliability, which had been a major Russell attribute, became a major issue with its in-house built Knights. Inadequate lubrication of the sleeve valves, for whatever reason, resulted in major failures besmirching the brand’s hard-earned reputation.

A concerted effort to fix the problem succeeded. A University of Toronto professor was contracted to conduct a gruelling 300-hour endurance test to prove the revised engine’s durability, and it did. Then the company offered a $20,000 challenge to any other automaker that could match that achievement. None took up the offer.

The resultant car, the Russell-Knight Model 28 seen here, with the revised engine was a stunning car for its time. Advertised as “the model designed for the future,” it incorporated such features as “silent” chain-drive instead of gears for the engine’s mechanicals, force-feed lubrication, an electric starter motor and full electric lighting, including a lighted speedometer.

But the damage had been done. A combination of Russell’s tattered reputation and the onset of World War I combined to make 2015 the final year of production for the Russell car. Tommy Russell was conscripted by the government to play a major role in Canada’s war effort, when his management of the company bearing his name was most needed.

He did, however, oversee the sale of the company’s automotive assets to the American automaker John North Willys, who initiated production of the Willys Overland at the former RMCC facilities, maintaining a significant investment in that company.

RMCC itself continued in business, making various war materials and subsequently investing in other manufacturing operations. Throughout it all, it maintained the CCM brand, which went on to find success in a whole new field.

That brand is now the surviving remnant of what was, arguably, the most Canadian car ever.

That and a few surviving models, like this one seen in the Art of the Automobile exhibit organized by the Cobble Beach Concours d’ Elegance at the Toronto auto show. It was loaned by and normally resides at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, ON.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Much of the information in this article was found in the book, “Made up to a Standard” – Thomas Alexander Russell and the Russell Motor Car Company, by Jaroslav Petryshyn.]