Harry Smith, founder of Smith Transport said: “We had to be handy with tools in those days. The roads were narrow, and if they were pavement, then the asphalt was always breaking up…We look back now and say how rough it was, but it wasn’t rough back then. At least it didn’t seem like it at the time.
Indisputably what was Canada’s largest and most recognizable trucking firm was also once the biggest in the British Commonwealth. In its heyday in the 1950s, the distinctive blue Smith transports would pass points on Highwy 2 between Toronto and Montreal every 10 minutes. Long before Environment Canada was providing hourly regional weather reports, morning man Wally Crouter, on CFRB radio in Toronto would rely on Smith drivers across the province for up-to-date weather conditions and traffic reports during the 50s and 60s.
Facts are getting thin on Smith operations as the waves of history disappear into the ocean behind us. Few of the original drivers are around anymore, and finding out more about the company requires some digging and archive-hunting. Here’s what I do know (although I’d love to have confirmation or any more info). Smith Transport was started in Montreal in the 1920s by the original patriarch Sam who had a scrap metal business. By 1926 it was hauling general freight as a full-fledged motor carrier. The jury is our whether he had three or four sons, but the main trucking brains were Harry’s, who evidently ran the operation out of Buffalo, New York, while a couple of other brothers (Bruce, Phillip?) ran the operations in Toronto and Montreal respectively. Ross Mackie, who, incidently owns a 1948 GMC that was made for Smith Tspt. (still got the original Diamond Goodyear tires on it, rotten but still holding air), assures me that Smith had a terminal in Oshawa long before they moved to Commissioners Street in Toronto.
Smith’s tendrils extended as far as they could in those days. They ran Toronto to Winnipeg and couldn’t really go any farther west–the TranCanada wasn’t completed until the mid-60s and truck traffic to the west coast went through the States. The main corridor was Toronto-Montreal, but its US division supplied NewYork State and NYC. Smith’s eastern subsidiary, Fletcher Tspt. covered the Maritimes.
Former Truck News contributor Ken Hellawell (and the man who taught me to double clutch about 40 years ago) used to work for Smith Transport on the highway spare board out of Toronto 1953-57. They had 40 dedicated Toronto-Montreal drivers, with the same number in Montreal heading the other way. In those days they were given 11 hours to get to Montreal on the “Old Road” (Hwy 2 in the days before the 401. Those drivers did the trip in B 61 Macks, and the quickest ones could make it in 9 hours. “Sure it was only two lanes but they were paved and the towns and suburbs weren’t built up. Once you got out of the city it was farms and mostly open road,” says Ken.
The terminal on Commissioners Street had a lunch room and some cots upstairs where drivers could sleep. This was the same case in other terminals like Belleville and Kingston. Smith drivers were thought of as highliners but they weren’t necessarily the spiffiest. Ken tells me dress was pretty casual. On the other hand, Kingsway drivers were always immaculate, expected to have clean uniforms and polished shoes when they reported for work.
As as boy, Ross Mackie lived in a house on King Street in Oshawa. “All the trucks went by the house on the Old Road. I’d get so excited that my mother couldn’t hold me down. I remember Smith, and Motorways, they used to run Ottawa, and Direct Winters. And when my dad took me with him to Toronto I couldn’t believe the trucks. Our company was just small and it was great to see all that equipment.” Even legendary trucker Highway Hank Stroud, deceased several years now, got tired of gypsying and went to work for Smith for awhile.
Mackie recalls the Gardiner diesels that Smith installed in its Internationals, probably KB8s and 10s. Diesels were rare in those days and he doesn’t think they worked out that well. It’s parcel of Canadians’ trust of anything from the home country as the Gardiners were made in England. Later on other companies embraced Leyland Trucks and still later Rolls Royce engines with mixed results.
William Diesel Gypsy Weatherstone (check out his website, an impressive compendium of stories and photos from back in the day) learned how to drive truck underage from him step-father Roy Sr., also a driver for Smith Transport. In the early 60s, Roy Sr, was one of the first Highland Tspt drivers, a new division that had been just started at CP Express, along with three other brokers.
Evidently, in stories I’ve heard, old Harry Smith was a wheeler and dealer, bringing up a lot of old equipment from the US and playing permit tag with some of the units. CP had its eye on Smith for sometime. They were miles ahead of CN getting into the trucking business and into piggy backs, and by 1957 they had closed a deal to buy Smith, including 2,500 pieces of rolling stock. But the deal didn’t include a bunch of new Mack tractors that they thought the were getting. The number varies in different accounts, but several dozen new trucks went instead to Montreal were they were registered to one of the brothers, leaving CP executives with their mouths hanging open.
All that’s left of Smith are the modellers, I suppose. Particularly Wayne Marshall of Guelph, Ont., who got into model trucks when he was recreating the mid-1950s with his HO-scale railroading buddies. “The more you study that era, the more you wish you had of been around in that time. I know the seats were hard and conditions were tough, but they sure had some interesting equipment.”
Marshall is what you call a prototype modeller. He’ll buy an HO scale trailer, for instance, and modify it to meet Canadian standards adding components or slight subtleties. Did you know that both Fruehauf and Trailmobile both had Canadian and American companies that competed against each other?
Wayne does his modelling mostly from photos so he’s particularly interested in finding a 32 foot trailer with the Smith logo on the side from 1958-63. Wayne had modelled other trucking companies from that era, Husband, Hoar, Direct Winters, the old InterCity trucks. The process involves making decals from the logos and printing them up on decal paper. He’s still looking for the Overland logo with the big flying “O” and some other trucking logos. Me, I’d like to collect a few stories from some of the Smith people. Anybody still out there?
Model by Wayne Marshall.
From the Bill Weatherstone Collection
“The 2 drivers on the Right Photo are with Smith Transport in Northern Ontario, Canada. The standard process of changing a flat tire when you carried spares. Any other driver passing by always stopped and helped. If you had used up any spares, the procedure then was to carry a couple broken spring leaves to use as tire irons. You would have to break down the flat, remove the tire and tube, and then remount the rim back on the wheel and carry on to the next town or terminal singled out. That was part of the drivers job.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs