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Canadian Auto Top Co., Canadian Top & Body Corp. Ltd.
Canadian Auto Top Co.; Tillsonburg, Ontario 1910-1913; Canadian Top & Body Ltd., 1913-1947; Canadian Top & Body Division, Chatco Steel Products, Ltd., 1947-1957; Tilbury, Ontario; H.R. Olsen / Olsen Technology Inc. 1960-present; Wallaceburg, Ontario, Canada
Associated Firms
Gotfredson Corp., Hayes Mfg. Co.

Almost entirely unknown south of the border, the Canadian Top & Body Co. was Canada's largest domestically-owned production automobile body builder whose customers included Durant, Essex, Ford, Gotfredson, Gray-Dort, Hudson, Terraplane and Willys-Overland. They manufactured small numbers of travel trailers for Grand Rapids, Michigan's Hayes Mfg. Co. and during the Second World War constructed thousands of cabs and truck bodies for Chevrolet and Ford CMP* truck chassis.

(*CMP refers to Canadian Military Pattern vehicles, a class of Canadian-built military trucks built to British Army specifications for use by members of the British Commonwealth, of which Canada was the largest member.)

(Our subject was unrelated to two other Canadian Auto Top Co.'s located in Winnipeg and Montreal.)

The political career of Canadian Top & Body's longtime president, Edmond George Odette (b. May 22, 1884 – d. March 31, 1939), was far better-known then his business career as he served as a Liberal party member of the Canadian House of Commons, and Mayor of Tilbury.

Edmond George Odette was born in Windsor, Essex County, Ontario, Canada on May 22, 1884 to Daniel B. and Annie (Irving) Odette, who were married in Windsor on October 24, 1882. His French-Canadian father, (christened March 3, 1848-d. April 22, 1910) was the unsuccessful N. Essex County candidate for House of Commons in 1896 and also served as the first treasurer of the city of Windsor. To the blessed union were born 5 children: Edmond George Odette (b. May 22, 1884); Louis Lawrence Odette (b.November 26, 1886); twin boys Thomas Charles and Joseph Alexander Odette (b.December 8, 1888), and an unnamed stillborn sister (b. February 20, 1891).

After a public education in the schools of Windsor, Edmond George Odette attended and graduated from Assomption College in nearby Sandwich.

On January 1, 1905 he was united in marriage to Beatrice E. Hobson, daughter of Thomas Hobson of Leamington, Ontario. To the blessed union was born one daughter, Genevieve, who later married Curtis G. Dunham of Detroit, Michigan, and Puce, Ontario. The 1910 US Census list the family as residents of Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan.

Odette's business career prior to taking over Canadian Top & Body Ltd. is unknown at this time as is most of the firm's early history - his involvement with Canadian Top & Body can only be traced back to the late teens, just before the start of his successful political career. Its predecessor, the Canadian Auto Top Co., was established sometime during 1910 in Tillsonburg, Oxford County, Ontario, a small city located 30 miles southeast of London, Ontario near the northern shore of Lake Erie.

In 'Cars of Canada' historians Hugh Durnford & Glenn Baechler mention Canadian Top & Body was founded in "Tilbury by a Jackson, Michigan, parent" but provide no further mention of the firm, nor the identity of its Jackson, Michigan parent. As the location is incorrect (should be Tillsonburg – they didn't move to Tilbury until 1913) and the identity of the Jackson, Michigan parent is not mentioned, I will rely on more concrete evidence, the first of which is short biography that appeared in 'Canadian Progress', an overview of Canadian manufacturing published in 1928 for the Canadian Gazette:

"Canadian Top & Body Corporation

"A branch of the accessories trade that has shown wonderful progress is the manufacture of tops and bodies. For many reasons, chiefly climatic, most of the cars in Canada are closed bodies, so that comparatively few tops are made.

"A typical firm in this branch is the Canadian Top and Body Corporation, Ltd., of Tilbury, Ontario, who commenced business in 1910 with a capital of only $10,000. Starting with ten hands in a factory 100 by 69 feet, and doing a business of $30,000 the first year, they now turn out 100 complete motor car bodies a day in factories of 160,000 square feet, employing 400 hands."

A small item found in the September 15, 1913 issue of Iron Age gives the initial location of the firm as Tillsonburg:

"The Canadian Auto Top Company, Tillsonburg, Ont., has completed plans for a factory building which it will erect at a cost of about $25,000."

An identical item appeared in the October 1913 issue of Mill Supplies:

"The Canadian Auto Top Co., Tillsonburg, Ontario, has completed plans for a factory building which it will erect at a cost of about $25,000."

Within the month the proposed location of the firm's new factory had changed from Tillsonburg to Tilbury, Essex County, Ontario, which was located 110 miles due west. Located just 40 miles east of Windsor, Tilbury resides midway between the southeastern shore of Lake St. Clair and the northern shore of Lake Erie. The October 16, 1913 issue of Iron Age reflecting the proposed location of the new plant:

"The Canadian Auto Top Company, Tilbury, Ont., contemplates the erection of a $20,000 plant."

A later listing in the Tilbury City Directory confirms 1910 as the year they entered business:

"Canadian Top & Body Corporation Ltd. TILBURY, ONTARIO Manufacturers of STEEL MOTOR CAR BODIES Since 1910"

Aside from Gray-Dort the firm's early customers remain unknown, but it's more than likely that they, like everyone else in the region, were producing materials destined for use at Ford Motor Co. Ltd.'s Walkerville and Toronto assembly plants.

In 1904 Gordon MacGregor, then proprietor of the Walkerville Wagon Works, acquired a license to build Fords in Canada, creating the Ford Motor Co. of Canada in which its American partner held 51% interest. The rapid success of the Model T quickly outstripped the Walkerville factory's capacity which was expanded in 1911 and again in 1913.

Canadian Top & Body also built coachwork for the Canadian Willys-Overland Co. into 1926 when Willys-Overland Canada built their own body plant. During the early 20s Canadian Top & Body purchased their 37 Mill Street West assembly plant from the receiver of the Grove Motor Company, a short-lived Tilbury auto manufacturer.

During the early 1920s the accomplishments of its chief executive overshadowed what little news was coming out of the Canadian Top & Body plant. Odette served as vice-president of the Golf Ball Corporation of Canada, vice-president of the Canadian Deepwaterways and Power Association and a director of Northward Mines Ltd.

From 1920 to 1923 he served as mayor of Tilbury and in 1924 became Tilbury's Reeve (City Council president). In 1925 Odette was defeated in his bid to become East Essex County's representative in Canada's House of Commons, but in the following year, he prevailed, defeating the Conservative incumbent, Raymond Ducharme Morand.

A Liberal Party member, Odette served in the House of Commons from 1926 until 1930 when he was defeated by his former opponent, Morand.

In addition to automobile tops and production automobile bodies, the firm produced truck cabs, taxicab bodies and motor bus coachwork for Walkerville, Ontario's Gotfredson Corp. who offered Gotfredson taxicabs and motor coaches from 1924-1929. Its predecessor, Gotfredson-Joyce, also utilized its bodies on its trucks and motor coaches.

For verification we turn to a first-hand source, Nelson R. Brownyer (b.July 10, 1900-d.Feb. 4, 1995), Gotfredson's chief engineer (1921-1925) who described his interactions with Canadian Top & Body Co.'s proprietor to Toronto-based transport historian Rolland Lewis Jerry (b.1924-d.2002) for a 1977 article on Gotfredson that appeared in Old Cars:

"The outfit was headed by a chap named Odette, and he later built many bus and coach bodies for the Walkerville plant", he says. "The same firm also supplied Canadian Gotfredson with its distinctive truck cabs."

Things were so busy that additional manufacturing capacity was required, a 1926 issue of Iron Trade Review reporting on the construction of a 1-story 80' by 344' addition:

"ONT.— F. C. Nicholson is preparing plans and will have charge of construction of factory addition for the Canadian Top & Body Co. The building will be 80 x 344 feet, reinforced concrete and brick."

One confirmed Ford Motor Co. of Canada project was the construction of the 1932 Deluxe 3-window coupe, one of the most popular hot rod bodies of all time. Production of the 23,411 bodies known to have been built was distributed between Canadian Top & Body and Murray Corp. in Detroit.

In 1932 Hudson contracted with Canadian Top & Body to have them assemble both Hudson and Essex automobiles for the domestic Canadian and British export markets. When the Essex was supplanted by the Terraplane, it too was manufactured at Canadian Top & Body's Tilbury facility into 1938, the Hudson into 1941.

Canadian Top and body produced all-steel travel trailers for Hayes Trailers, a division of the Hayes Body Corp., 580 Seventh St., Grand Rapids, Michigan, from 1931 into 1941. The trailers played a part in the 1936 election when the Democratic party purchased 50 units to serve as mobile campaign centers for the Roosevelt-Garner (Franklin Delano Roosevelt - John Nance Garner) ticket.

A display ad for the Hayes trailer included in the May 1937 issue of Travel Trailer includes the following text at the bottom of the advertisement:

"Built in Canada by Canadian Top & Body Corp., Ltd., Tilbury, Ontario. HAYES BUSINESS & PASSENGER TRAILERS - HAYES C.I.T. PAY-OUT-OF-INCOME PLAN"

Following Edmond George Odette's passing on March 31, 1939, his younger brother, Louis L. Odette* (b. 1886-d.1961), took over the day-to-day management of the firm.

(*Louis' two sons, Edmond George Odette, born on January 1, 1926 (named after his uncle), and Louis Lawrence (Bud) Odette, born on October 26, 1922 (named after his father), would grow up to become two of Ontario's leading businessmen and philanthropists. They were the founders of one of Ontario’s most lucrative construction operations, Eastern Construction Limited, starting the company in 1951. Under their direction and leadership, Eastern Construction built such monumental projects as Toronto’s CBC Broadcasting Centre and Roy Thomson Hall. Much of their earnings have gone to supporting the University of Windsor's Odette School of Business.)

The manufacture of automobiles for the Hudson Motor Car Company of Canada continued under Louis L. Odette's management into early 1941 when the plant retooled to devote 100% of its manufacturing facilities and work force to the War effort.

The May 23, 1940 issue of the Tilbury Times reported that the company had been awarded a contract to produce mechanical transports for the Royal Canadian Army. Constructed using CMP* chassis supplied by both Ford and Chevrolet of Canada, Canadian Top & Body also supplied the cabs and service bodies found on the distinctive CMP military vehicles which remain sought-after today by military vehicle collectors.

(*CMP refers to Canadian Military Pattern vehicles, a class of Canadian-built military trucks built to British Army specifications for use by members of the British Commonwealth, of which Canada was the largest member.)

Cargo bodies for Ford F15A (4x2 CMP) trucks are known to have been built by the firm and it's believed they also supplied the same item to CMP's built by Chevrolet. Other military contracts followed, including the manufacture of munitions and anti-submarine projectiles.

After the war, Hudson was reluctant to re-establish assembly in the Dominion because of stiff taxes imposed on new automobile purchasers by Ottawa. Canadian Top & Body's president, Louis L. Odette, elected to withdraw from business in 1947, selling the plant and assets to Chatco Steel Products, Ltd., of Chatham, Ontario.

At the time Chatco's management included G. H. Sellers, president; M. E. Ashton, vice-president and general manager; and Roy Brown, operations manager.

From 1947 to 1949 Chatco used the plant to manufacture various white goods and stamped steel products, resuming automobile assembly operations for Hudson in early 1950.

In 1951 A. V. Roe Canada, Ltd., announced jointly with Chatco that the latter firm would begin producing major components for the RCAF's CF-100 long-range jet fighter. The AVRO CF-100 'Canuck', the only Canadian-designed fighter to enter mass production, was built into 1955 and served with RCAF/CAF, Belgian, NATO and NORAD forces into 1981.

Chatco's automobile production contracts ended in December of 1954 when Hudson merged with Nash Motors of Canada Ltd. to form American Motors (Canada) Ltd., transferring all Canadian automobile operations to Nash's Toronto-based facilities.

Originally built in 1921, Chatco's 37 Mill St. W. plant was taken over by W.H. Olsen Mfg., a manufacturer of heating equipment and truck bodies, following Chatco's September 23, 1957 bankruptcy. Olsen used it to produce furnaces as Duomatic Olsen until it closed the facility in 1987. Tilbury Warehousing, its current owner, acquired the facility in 1988.

Although they now manufacture furnaces and boilers in a modern Wallaceburg, Ontario facility, Olsen Technology Inc., (recently acquired by E.C.R. International), continues to pay homage to their Tilbury ancestry as follows (from their website):

"Olsen Technology Inc. has been a leading manufacturer since 1910, when its predecessor, the Canadian Top and Body Corporation began producing horse-drawn carriages for a growing market. The popularity of the automobile led to expanded manufacturing capabilities and a growing company. Soon, several wartime contracts for the Department of National Defense established Olsen as a top quality steel manufacturer."

©2012 Mark Theobald -







Pierre G. Normandin, A. Léopold Normandin - The Canadian Parliamentary Guide, pub. 1929

David Roberts - In the Shadow of Detroit: Gordon M. McGregor, Ford of Canada, and Motoropolis, pub. 2006

Hugh Durnford & Glenn Baechler - Cars of Canada., pub. 1973

Thomas Skinner – Canadian Progress, pub. 1928

William H. & Nancy K. Young - The Great Depression in America, pub. 2007

David G. Rehor - 1932 Ford Judging and Restoration Standards, pub. 1981

Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark - Standard Catalog of American Cars: 1805-1942

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