Fascinating Automobiles of Early 1900s
Before we begin, let me set the record straight. I have never studied the history of the combustion engine, nor the automobile industry, but I do consider myself a historian. Along with the research for my books, I’ve learned many interesting facts that concern the motor vehicle history in the Victoria area.
It appears that the first car to arrive in Victoria was owned and driven by Dr. E. C. Hart. In 1903, this car had the fantastic record of covering the 5 miles from his home on Cadboro Bay Road to Macaulay Point in 17 minutes. The second car arrived in 1903. Mr. A. E. Todd’s steam engine car was made by a sewing machine company in the USA. This, of course, made repair shops a necessity and the first was Victoria Garage, owned by Messrs. Seppell and Troup.
The forerunner of the modern taxi cab arrived with a vehicle known as the station hack in 1910 and the first regular bus ran from the city up Haultain Street. Back then, the bus was called a jitney. Victoria’s oldest bus company was C and C and we could say they are still in business after all these years, having changed hands many times until finally being incorporated into the modern Vancouver Island Coach Line in 1969.
The first motor vehicle office was on Langley Street, on the ground floor of the Law Court Building, at the Provincial Police Office. No test or plates were necessary; you provided your own. A simple fee was required to register as the owner. They gave you a list of rules: “Drive on the left” “Speed Limit in the city is 6 mph/25 mph on the highway. What highway? There were only pothole strewn, muddy tracks beyond the city limits!
Up to 1913, number plates were made of anything that happened to be handy: tin, wood or even heavy cloth, and they only needed to be displayed on the rear of the vehicle. The first manufactured plates were made of leather with aluminum numbers screwed onto them. These were made by Atkinson’s Garage on View Street. By 1914, they were made of tin with a porcelain face; in 1915, they were tin with painted numbers, then quickly graduating to the numbers being impressed into the tin as we have today.
Speed limit signs were painted on sailcloth and nailed to electric poles around the city; enforcement was by policemen on foot or bicycle (fat chance they had of catching a speeder!)
There were many amusing incidents involving the new form of transport. Leaving the factory with almost smooth tires would result in a smooth ride they presumed, but we all know the difficulty smooth tires have in snow or ice. They won’t go. Well, they solved that little problem in Victoria by hitching a team of horses to their cars and I used it as a scene in one of my books.
Mrs. R. P. Rithet owned our first electric car in 1910. She had the reputation of being a lady who took little or no notice of traffic signs, horses, or pedestrians, and left in her wake a scene of frustrated policemen and total chaos. Oh yes, times were lively when the motor car was merely a toy for the rich.
Over the years, from the beginning of WW1 in 1914, cars became more and more prominent, horses having faded almost into obscurity. Rules and more rules were added to the driving regulations, and still the authorities created situations of chaos. On the 15th of July 1920, British Columbia changed from driving on the left to the right, that is all except Vancouver Island. Here, driving remained on the left until the 31st of December 1921—a wonderful recipe for trouble.
Let’s move on in time. Now, think of the thousands of cars on the roads. The one thing I haven’t told you is when the first driving test was inaugurated. Up to this time, anyone who could afford one could buy a driving license; there was no test of driving skills, no questionnaire on the rules of the road until when? I can only tell you that Mr. Arthur Cook was the first driving examiner in British Columbia in 1939. Unbelievable, but true .
J. Robert Whittle is a local, bestselling author of two historical series: Victoria Chronicles, 2 novels set in 1900-1918 Victoria, BC, and the 4-book Lizzie Series, set in London, England.