Starting in the 1890s, the use of motor vehicles in Canada slowly increased. William Still and Frederick Featherstonehaugh designed and built Canada’s first electric car in Toronto while George Foote Foss of Sherbrooke, Que. assembled the country’s first successful gasoline-powered automobile. Along with the growing demand for vehicles came greater need for tires and with it an escalating requirement for rubber. Gutta Percha & Rubber Mfg. Co. of Toronto, which would later become Gutta Percha & Rubber, Limited, pioneered the manufacture of rubber vehicle tires in Canada, declaring themselves the “largest and most successful makers in the Dominion.” The company, which was founded in 1883 in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, made two types of tires: solid rubber and round cushion, which is smooth, solid rubber attached to a round metal band.
By 1910, the company’s product line was so extensive it became an important supplier not only of rubber tires but other vehicle parts such as drive belts, as can be seen by this 1950 advertisement in Chemistry in Canada. It also supplied products to sawmills and pulp mills — which needed belts to run large machinery — and made fire hoses, mats, hockey pucks, rubber stair treads, washers and even footwear and boots. The company had offices in Winnipeg, Montreal and Vancouver as well as Toronto.
The name of the company, Gutta Percha, is derived from the genus name of the Palaquium gutta tree, which produces sap that transforms into a rigid natural latex. While latex rubbers are amorphous in molecular structure, gutta-percha crystallizes, increasing rigidity. Found to be a natural thermoplastic, it was useful for a myriad of domestic and industrial uses, including insulation for underwater telegraph cables. Eventually its popularity led to a collapse in supply.
On the eve of the Second World War in Canada, the rubber industry was prospering due to the number of cars that, typically, contained more than 200 rubber parts The attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 was the catalyst for dramatic change. The Axis powers shut down trade routes between the West and rubber plantations in Asia, jeopardizing the Allied war effort. This accelerated the development of synthetic rubber, a concerted collaboration in Canada between government, industry and academia that would accelerate the development of Sarnia, Ont. into a major petrochemical centre.