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Bill Vance: Manic GT a valiant attempt to start and operate a Canadian car company

Of the many millions of automobiles built in Canada most were produced by subsidiaries of the big established foreign manufacturers, everyone from General Motors to Volvo.
The Manic GT ultimately failed as an attempt to manufacture a Canadian car. BILL VANCE

Of the many millions of automobiles built in Canada most were produced by subsidiaries of the big established foreign manufacturers, everyone from General Motors to Volvo. Others were American designs made my Canadian companies such as Gray Dort in Chatham. One rare example of an all-Canadian car was the Russell produced in Toronto from 1905 to 1915.

In the more modern era there was another brave Canadian attempt called the Manic GT (named after Quebec’s Manicuagan River). It was built in Quebec in 1970 and 1971, the brainchild of a young (born in 1938) Montrealer named Jacques About.

In the late 1960s About was a public relations officer with Renault Canada when Renault asked him to study the feasibility of importing the sporty Renault Alpine into Canada.

The Alpine was a specialized sports/competition car based on Renault components and made by an independent company that would be absorbed by Renault in 1974. Alpines were sold through Renault dealers in Europe.

Although About’s survey results were positive Renault chose not to import the Alpine. But the idea of building and selling a sporty car began stirring in About’s own mind. Very encouraged by what his market study had revealed, he left Renault to produce the type of car that had been identified.

After building a version of the French GRAC under licence, a venture that garnered some good publicity, About was confident enough to establish Les Automobile Manic Inc. in 1968.

He obtained a 60,000 square foot (5,575 sq. metre) factory in Grandby and began a mission to build the Manic GT two-seater sports coupe.

The enthusiastic and persuasive Mr. About proved so adept at fund-raising he was able to attract the backing of heavyweights like Bombardier (snowmobiles), Steinberg (groceries), and the Governments of Canada and Quebec. He raised capitalization of $1.5 million.

Design and production planning for the new car began in Granby. While the GRAC had been a racing car, the Manic GT was not intended for competition; it was to be a small, stylish affordable two passenger touring car offering good performance and low fuel consumption.

Being familiar with Renault components and the Renault company facilitated About’s ability to make a deal to use the platform and running gear of the rear engine Renault 10 sedan. Its mechanical credentials were repectable, including four-wheel independent suspension via coil springs, rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel disc brakes.

The Renault engine was a sturdy, 1,289 cc, overhead valve four with five main bearings. It came in three stages of tune: 65, 80 and 105 horsepower and power reached the rear wheels through a standard four-speed or optional five-speed manual transmission.

The fibreglass-bodied Manic that emerged was a small car with a wheelbase of 2,280 mm (89.75 in.), length of 4,127 mm (162.5 in.) and height of just 114 mm (45 in.). Its sleek silhouette made it one of the lowest production cars produced.

The Manic weighed a feathery 658 kg (1,450 lb), and this combined with its good aerodynamics paid off in performance and economy. A company brochure claimed top speeds of 169, 193 and 217 km/h (105, 120 and 135 mph) respectively for the three engines.

If the 217 (135) figure was correct it would have been one of the faster cars of its era. Fuel economy was claimed to be 35 to 42 mpg (8.1 to 6.7 L/100 km).

The coupe’s styling was typical of contemporary small two-seaters. The front end was rather shovel-nosed in appearance and the rear engine meant no grille was necessary. The general appearance of the Manic GT was not unlike some kit cars then on the market, although such a suggestion would no doubt have mortified Mr. About.

The company introduced the Manic GT at the 1969 Montreal auto Show with a $3,400 price tag, the same neighbourhood as the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro. This put it up against some stiff competition.

Not surprisingly for a new company, financial problems soon surfaced. The company was, therefore, reorganized into Les Automobiles Manic (1970) Ltee.

Unfortunately, a component supply problem also developed. According to the book “Canadian Cars, 1946-1984” by Perry Zavitz, Renault’s supply of parts to Manic was unreliable and slow. To keep production going Manic management sometimes even resorted to scrounging parts from Renault dealers.

It was all too much for the fledgling enterprise, and in spite of reportedly having a solid order book it could not continue production. The Granby plant closed in May, 1971 after producing of only 160 Manic GTs, far below the planned first year output of 1,300.

Another valiant attempt to start and operate a successful Canadian car company had failed. Fortunately some Manic GTs have been preserved, including one in the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.