Automobile Manufacturers

Rex Bartlett, carmaker, 1917

Barlett 1914 

At one time, Stratford had a place in the early days of the thriving automobile manufacturing business. Reginald Cleveland (Rex) Bartlett, an imaginative Stratford engineer, successfully designed, built, and marketed several of his inventions. One of those was, for a time, a revolutionary automobile, a car with air suspension and four-wheel brakes.

Most cars had two-wheel brakes only, and they were mechanical; there was no power assist. The pressure applied in braking depended on the pressure a driver could apply to the brake pedal. Having had personal experience, I can tell you it could be a bit scary at times. If you were going a little too fast, and had to make a panic stop for some reason, it could be interesting. I experienced that situation at Huron Street and Forman Avenue, and had to jump a curb with the car. I followed that with driving across someone's front lawn and back onto the road

Rex Bartlett's car was tested in public in 1913 in front of the Royal Alexandria Theatre in Toronto. The four-wheel brake system worked so well that when the car was brought to an abrupt stop in front of the theatre, 26 other cars behind it that were part of "the parade," ran into each other. American car manufacturers, concerned about competition from the Bartlett car, are said to have offered Rex a million dollars for his invention, but he turned them down.

Instead, he opened the Canadian Bartlett Automobile Co. Ltd. in Toronto. In its first two years, the company built 100 vehicles. With need to increase his output, in 1916 Bartlett bought a partially finished furniture factory at 212 Norfolk St. in Stratford. The site is now home to Rover's Ranch Dog Daycare and Boarding.

In 1916, 200 more cars were built in the Stratford plant. As well, the output included a few Bartlett trucks, which were built on the automobile chassis. But it all came to an abrupt end in 1917. The world was at war, and many of the U. S. manufacturers that Mr. Bartlett relied upon for machined parts for his cars, had all their civilian contracts cancelled by the U. S. government so they they could manufacturing war materials.

Bartlett (1891-1987) was forced to declare bankruptcy and close down his operations. In total, 600 Bartlett cars were produced. I don't know if any of these still exist. As recently as the 1980s, a 1917 Bartlett was in the collection of Gordon E. Smith in Ottawa. 

* An additional note: Rex's son, Edward Morley Bartlett (1927-1997), operated a riding stable in the former car plant on Norfolk Street, and also, in the late 1960s, he had a restaurant in the same building. According to Vernon's Stratford City Directory, Rex lived at 169 Norfolk St., an address that is now part of a an apartment   building complex. Source: Text and pictures Brian Wendy Reis . . . FB

The Brooks' Steamer, "the gentle giant of motion"

Developed by an American financier and based largely on an American model, the Brooks Steamer was built in Stratford, Ont., from 1923 to 1929. 

This was an unusual venture. By the 1920s, the era of the steam-powered automobile, which was never very popular at the best of times, was drawing to a close.

That reality didn’t deter the smooth-talking, personable Buffalo, N. Y., promoter Oland J. Brooks. He plunged into the steam-car business in 1923, though subsequent events suggest he was more interested in building his personal fortune that he was in building cars. Oland moved to Toronto in 1920 to set up a finance company.

Stratford-Perth Archives

By the early 1920s, gasoline-powered vehicles were much more common than those powered by steam. Regardless, Brooks bought a defunct threshing machine factory in Stratford, Ont., retro-fitted it, and in 1923 established Brooks Steam Motors Ltd.  Brooks was a shrewd money man; Stratford assumed "a $50,000 mortgage on a $55,000 building." 

For Brooks, Stratford was a wise choice because it was at the intersection of three railways, which would merge and become the Canadian National Railways. It was, therefore, a major maintenance centre for steam engines, and had an excellent pool of workers skilled in steam locomotion.

The Brooks' Steamer, produced only as a sedan, had a standard wood frame. But its body was made of a leather-like fabric called Meritas, which consisted of wire, canvas and artificial leather. Meritas was produced in Walkerville, Ont., home of the Ford Motor Co.'s Model T factory. The Brooks' steam car, though easier to drive once it was moving, took a long time to get started and then could reach a maximum speed of only 56 km/h (35 mph). Compared to the similarly priced, gas-powered Cadillac, which could reach a speed of 80 km/h (50 mph) or more, the Brooks Steamer was a hard sell.

Rick Thistle Painting

Brooks Steamer  at Stratford-Perth Museum

Dubbed the "Gentle Giant of Motion," the Brooks sold for the gigantically uncompetitive price of $3,885 or about the same as a Pierce-Arrow. That explains why, along with its lack of performance and operational complexity, there were few takers. To showcase his cars, Brooks established taxi companies in Stratford and Toronto using his steamers. 

As the business began to fail, Brooks misled his investors by reporting inflated production figures; in reality, the company built only 18 cars in 1926. When it went into receivership in 1929, Brooks Steam Motors Ltd. had assembled only 180 vehicles and its investors had lost close to $4,000,000. Brooks disappeared with "millions of dollars unaccounted for" and, after the mid-1930s, there was nothing heard of him and his "beautiful second wife and playboy son" until a death notice appeared in a Florida newspaper in 1961. Avalon Fabrics (later Collins and Aikman Ltd.) took over the Brooks plant at 494-500 Ontario St., but the building was eventually torn down and on the site now is a luxury hotel, The Bruce, on the corner of Ontario Street and Park View Drive. 

In 2014, the Stratford Perth Museum acquired a long sought-after artifact from Stratford’s brief heyday as a Canadian auto manufacturing centre. The museum's general manager, John Kastner, said it took seven years and fundraising for $50,000 to buy a 1926 Brooks Steamer. “It is a complete car, and fully restored," he said, "But no, it does not run," For anyone interested in a Brooks that does run, Kastner suggested Jay Leno. “He has one, and it runs.” Sources: Haggerty MediaMotoring Memories: Brooks Steamer, 1924 - 1926 -; Brooks Steamer | Designed by Canadians | In Search of the Canadian Car 

 * For more information on the Brooks Steamer see Flashback article: Brooks Steamer Stock Certificate  SPA

Footnote: Vince Gratton noted that the first job for a future Stratford mayor, Clarence H. (Dutch) Meier, was at the Brooks factory. His role included driving new cars to the train yard and helping to load them for shipment. (see C. H. Meier Street). 

  *  See video Below

Stratford-Perth Archives

A Brooks Steamer returns home 

Thanks to the efforts of the Perth County Historical Foundation the opportunity to buy one of the last surviving Brooks vehicles became a reality for Stratford back in 2005. The 1926 Brooks was a complete non operating example and one of only eight known to exist worldwide. Owned by a car collecting group in Orillia Ontario it was bought by them as its wood and faux covered body was manufacture in Orillia. These bodies were covered with “Meritas” an artificial leather stiffened with    wire mesh. Deemed surplus by the car group they were happy to sell it off to the Foundation. 

A price of $43,000. was agreed on and with a non-refundable deposit it was ours. Once trailered back home it became a big volunteer effort to raise the balance of the money needed to honour the deal and it would be 2014 before the deal was honored. The car was hauled to numerous vehicle events and other venues where it would be welcomed. Many of the Foundation members volunteered their time and local business their expertise and money to help with fund raising. In 2014 the Foundations Board made the decision to gift the Brooks over to the new Stratford-Perth Museum for permanent display.  Source: Vince Gratton