Dunsmuirs’ luxury car ferried FDR during Victoria visit

Sherry Baird wanted something special to help celebrate the 53-year anniversary of the business she co-owns, Advance Collision Ltd. — and she found it in her uncle’s garage.

The 1936 McLaughlin Buick Roadmaster Phaeton turned heads at the company’s anniversary celebration this week just as it did 78 years ago when it transported U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt around Victoria.

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Baird’s uncle, Allan Botting, said that, at the time of the first visit to the Island by a U.S. president, the luxury black convertible belonged to the Dunsmuirs, one of Victoria’s most prominent families. James Dunsmuir was a lieutenant-governor and a premier of B.C.

“The Dunsmuirs knew the government quite well and the lieutenant governor at the time [Eric Hamber] probably arranged to borrow the car for that one-day purpose,” Botting said.

In photos that appeared with stories in the Daily Colonist and the Victoria Daily Times on Oct. 1, 1937, Hamber is seated next to Roosevelt in the Roadmaster Phaeton.

Three of industrialist James Dunsmuir’s daughters had 1936 McLaughlin Buicks. Elinor Dunsmuir owned the one that ended up with the Bottings, and they named it Elinor in her honour.

Although the Botting family has owned the car for decades, they only recently discovered the link to Roosevelt, after seeing a story about the visit online.

“We looked at the photo and said, ‘Yep. That’s Elinor,’ because we know the three cars and they weren’t exactly the same,” Botting said. “There were only three made and we know it’s Elinor because of the colour and the wheel wells — the sidemounted spares in the fender. Elinor didn’t have those and the other two cars did. So my dad put them in later.”

Allan Botting’s father David acquired the grand old convertible in 1955 from a friend, Victoria businessman Allan Ford, who had bought it from the Dunsmuirs during the Second World War, Allan Botting said.

“He drove it for quite a while and my dad maintained it for him. In 1955, he phoned my dad and said, ‘I can’t drive anymore. You come out and you can drive the car,” Botting said. So his father, who was living in Manitoba, came to Victoria and drove it back in the middle of winter.

David Botting, who will be 100 in October and lives in the Okanagan, worked in aircraft maintenance, but the car was his hobby, his son said. “He drove it for years. It’s been across Canada and through the States. He maintained it and rebuilt it. So, it’s a family heirloom.”

The vehicle still has the original 320-cubic-inch, overhead-valve, straight-8 Buick engine. The transmission is a Studebaker Commander 3-speed manual with overdrive. The car was recently appraised for insurance purposes at $84,000, but given the historical connection, might fetch more.

But Botting, a mechanical engineer who brought the car with him when he retired to Victoria from Calgary three years ago, isn’t interested in selling.

“It’s going to go to my son, Paul. He’s a car nut, too. It’s a disease in the family,” he joked.

“We got it back to Victoria, Vancouver Island – where it belongs. It should stay in a museum here in Victoria, I think, but there is no such appropriate thing, I don’t think.”

The car is an important artifact, said Bruce Davies, curator of Craigdarroch Castle, which was built in the late 1800s by Elinor Dunsmuir’s grandfather Robert.

“From a historical point of view, it is a very important car because of its connection to Hatley Park, a great B.C. family, and it’s a rare car and a Canadian car,” Davies said.

Hatley Park, which is now home to Royal Roads University, includes a “castle” built for Elinor Dunsmuir’s father James. While Elinor had property in Comox, she travelled back and forth often to Hatley. It’s not clear how much she would have used the 1936 car since she died in 1938, Davies said.

There is no place at Craigdarroch Castle to house the old Dunsmuir car, Davies said.

“Hatley Park has more grounds and the car would have been there on the grounds. Of course, there is a museum, but it is in the basement, so I don’t know where they would display it,” he said.

For now, Botting is content to take the vehicle on vintage car club drives. It has also been used in the Victoria Day and Christmas parades. And, this week, he loaned it to his niece for her company’s anniversary celebration.

Baird was cleaning up and waiting for her uncle to pick up the car Friday morning, when she took the opportunity to quietly sit in the back seat where Roosevelt had been eight decades ago.

“It’s a beautiful old car. It looks like a big old black limousine,” Baird said. “I was just in awe.”

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