End of an era

by Harry Rudolfs

OSHAWA, Ont. — When General Motors announced on Nov. 26 that it was shutting down the last Oshawa, Ont., assembly plant at the end of 2019, most of us were gobsmacked.

GM has been an integral part of that community for more than 100 years. About 2,500 jobs will be lost, and they won’t be coming back. But Dean Mackie, president of Mackie Transportation in Oshawa, admits he wasn’t completely taken aback.

“We were not totally surprised to hear of the closure and it still is concerning,” he said. “GM accounts for approximately 20% of our current revenue. But we had already been looking at new work to replace the GM automotive work when it expires. General Motors has been a large part of our company’s business for over 50 years, but we have diversified.”

He even suggests the plant closure may be a boon of sorts, freeing up some capacity and creating some new opportunities.

“We are confident that this GM business will be replaced as soon as the plant closes. Other customers have expressed interest in our company doing more for them,” he reasoned.

The business can be replaced, but will be missed. The company’s patriarch, 84-year-old Ross Mackie, recalls going into GM to solicit some work for Mackie the Mover in the mid-1950s.

“I think I was in my 20s. Merle, my dad, had gone to them trying to get some business moving their executives and families but hadn’t had any luck. He told me to go out and buy a suit and see what I could do,” he recalled.

The new suit must have worked. Mackie managed to get a meeting with the traffic manager and a few other department heads. “Then I got called back for two or three meetings,” he said. “After that, things started happening.”

That was the start of symbiotic relationship between the two companies. Besides getting the household moving work from the executive transfers, Mackie soon became a preferred carrier for coast-to-coast car shows and prototype deliveries. Ross even recalls picking up the first robot in Detroit and delivering it to the south assembly plant. Next came Mackie Automotive. It was born after the carrier was chosen by GM to set up international sub-assembly plants that spread across two continents. Eventually there would be 10 of these plants located in Canada, the U.S., England, and Germany, employing 2,000 people worldwide.

But Ross’s connection with GM is more intimate than that. The 1948 “Maple Leaf” GMC single axle tractor in his antique truck collection used to belong to GM Canada founder Robert Sam (RS) McLaughlin. The truck was driven by McLaughlin’s personal chauffer, Clarence Lowry, who used it to haul his boss’s racing horses around Ontario and south to Kentucky.

According to Ross, Lowry always felt the unit was under-powered, even though a salesman had convinced them it was adequate enough to pull the horse wagon. McLaughlin cryptically replied, “What does a truck salesman know about driving truck anyway?”

“The truck was originally meant to go to Smith Transport, and there were six of them parked up at the Ritson Road facility where RS and Clarence went to pick it up,” said Ross.

“Nothing too fancy, six-cylinder gas engine, vacuum-assisted hydraulic brakes.”

The little tractor had been through several incarnations before Ross tracked it down, working for a time at a ready-mix plant and eventually becoming transformed and indentured as a tow truck to Charlie Foote Towing.

“My father freaked out when I brought it home. ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I told him I was going to restore it. These days, I take it out a couple of times a year and drive it around the farm,” he said.

Ross recalls another occasion when he interacted closely with the McLaughlin family. Mackie Moving had been storing a 1908 McLaughlin Buick at his facility when he got the call from General Motors that McLaughlin’s daughter, Isabel, was having a garden party in Toronto and would like to borrow the Buick for the afternoon.

Besides being a McLaughlin heiress, Isabel was also a highly-regarded modernist painter. Ross reckons that he delivered the sedan somewhere in Rosedale where she was hosting a bit of a wine and cheese party for some of her elderly friends.

“She was probably in her 80s at the time and quite frail. She was really nice to me and wished she could sit behind the wheel,” recalls Ross. “I said that I would carry her and that’s what I did. I still get emotional thinking about it. Stew Low, manager of corporate communications, came over and told me I shouldn’t have done that, she might have been injured. But I told him I know how to handle valuable things.”

Ross says he was devastated when he heard GM was closing its doors, but understands that Oshawa is no longer as dependent as it once was on the auto giant. Production will cease after 2019 but the company is keeping its head office in the east end of Oshawa, where it currently resides beside Hwy. 401 and Lake Ontario. GM also announced it will be hiring 250 high-tech workers in the Greater Toronto Area to augment its research into autonomous vehicles.

Dean Mackie thinks there is a bright side to the situation. “It may open up hiring of other drivers who were previously employed in some capacity working for GM,” he said. And that’s not to mention the laid-off auto workers who may be looking for a new career in trucking.

“Hopefully there will be other GM opportunities that exist in transportation,” said Dean. “They have been a fantastic customer. We have to thank GM for all they have done for our family and company. They will be missed.”

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