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Memories of George Wilson

July 14, 2023

Fenelon Fair Parade in Front of George Wilson Chevrolet Oldsmobile, 1989

With Marilynn & Rob Wilson, Judi & Bob Adamson, Andy McNab, Harry Livingston, Joe Willems and Wayne Hutchinson

“When I was fifteen years old, I was skating with my friend at the Riverdale Terrace,” Marilynn recalls. “It was a big outdoor rink beside the Bloor Viaduct. Then this fellow came up to me, and asked if I could teach him how to skate. Then I noticed that he was wearing a Toronto Marlies jacket, and I knew what a con he was—he was only pretending that he didn’t know how to skate. I guess he thought that I didn’t know anything about hockey. But maybe that was part of why he liked me because I also liked hockey. The day I met him at Riverdale Terrace was the luckiest day of my life.” After going together for five years, George said that they should get married because he had a lot of money invested in gas driving across the city, back and forth between their houses. Marilynn married George when they were both 20, and they were a couple for 5 days short of 51 years.

Though they lived at opposite ends of the city, Marilynn soon became good friends with George. He was a goalie for the Junior ‘A’ Marlies, and like many young boys dreamed of one day playing for the Leafs. He played the drums in a drum and bugle corps band, for parades and drill competitions. His first job was as a runner for a stock exchange company. “He always liked cars,” Marilynn recalls, and he had grown up in a car family. His father was also named George and was a service manager at Addison Cadillac. The friend Marilynn met at the skating rink was actually George Wilson III, who decided to take his apprenticeship at the business where his father worked.

When George was about 22 years old, he leased a Sunoco gas station at Keele and Finch. Shortly after he purchased it, Sun Oil took decided that the stations should be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. By then, George was a licenced mechanic, having worked at Addison Cadillac, he hoped one day to have a car dealership of his own, and he really admired Corvettes and Cadillacs, so he put his name in with partner Brian Lorimer to become a franchised GM dealer. He was given the choice of a community in Northern Ontario or Fenelon Falls, and he chose to come the Kawarthas because George’s family already had a cottage at Bobcaygeon.

Fenelon Falls already had a GM dealership, owned by Joe Hannan. Earlier on, Aub Lyons had operated a Dodge De Soto dealership on the island (built on a 99-year lease from the Federal Government), then had been forced to close when Parks Canada decided to not to renew the lease. A Ford dealership on the north side of the bridge had operated since the early days of the automobile. At about the same time that Aub Lyon bought the garage, Bert Rettie took over the old Brooks Hotel and converted it into a Chevrolet dealership, that also sold White Rose Gas. In 1957, Joe Hannan acquired the business and converted it into an Esso, and operated it until he retired in 1975. When George and Brian acquired the franchise, George had to borrow $3000 from his dad to be able to fill up the gas tank. It was not long before he removed the pumps, saying his business was cars, not gasoline. Shortly thereafter they paved over the gravel in front of the garage.   

Initially, Brian looked after sales and George ran the service department. But after Brian moved on in 1980, George looked after selling cars too. Though he had started out as a mechanic, for George, being a car dealer came naturally. He loved cars, loved to talk about them, for many years had proudly driven a 1964 Corvette. His father was excited to see his son grow up to have a dealership of his own. “He really enjoyed watching people drive away in their new car…. GM made really good cars in the 1960s and 1970s,” Rob explains. The company had a great reputation, and there were a lot of people in the area who were looking to buy a GM vehicle. George soon developed his own reputation, for caring for his customers. Though he was quiet and shy by nature, “He always treated customers the way he would want to be treated,” Marilynn explains. “He was often helping people out for nothing.”

“He was always businesslike, and his prices were always reasonable,” Wayne Hutchison says. “He had a good crew working that often had your car fixed in no time at all. One time Mary Baker, (my wife) Alison and I were headed to a municipal convention in Stratford. Just when we were about to leave on Saturday morning, I noticed that we had a flat tire. I called the garage, but George was not there, so I called his house and sure enough, he came right over and fixed it for me. He had a new tire to put on the car, and off we went, on time, to the convention. That was the kind of person he was, that when someone needed help he would be there for them, even it if was his day off.”

Though George wasn’t by nature gregarious, before long a lot of people would stop by at the garage to visit. “He had quite a sense of humour,” Wayne says. “You had to know when he was pulling your leg. He could be quite serious, and really on the ball one moment, and the next he would be telling you a tale about what a great golfer he was, but you would know he wasn’t as great as he said he was. He liked to tell larger than life stories.”

Before long, friends were dropping by at George Wilson’s to chat each day. When the shop first opened, the office had yet to be built, and George and Brian would be there greeting visitors at the long counter. George followed the Toronto Argonauts and, of course, the Toronto Maple Leafs. In later years, one of his friends persuaded him to take an interest in the Dallas Cowboys. A lot of the conversations were about sports, both local and professional. A few times, while alumnus Frank Stukus was operating a hockey camp, some of the Argos stopped by the dealership.

“One night when Brian Glennie and some of his teammates from the Toronto Maple were visiting a cottage a Sturgeon Point, they got into the wobbly pop,” Rob remembers. “Brian had often said that he was going to buy the business and call it Usher Motors, and he decided it would be funny to paint ‘Almost Usher Motors’ across the front of the building. The cops caught him doing it, but Dad wouldn’t press charges, because they were his #1 team. He thought it was quite comical and really enjoyed having the Toronto Maple Leafs here to repaint the front of the building.”

When George was not at the dealership, he liked to golf at Sturgeon Point, where he was a member for at least 20 years. He did not travel often, but when he was away he would often take a golfing vacation—Bermuda, Florida, Costa Rica, or Pennsylvania. If he could drive on the vacation, he took pleasure in taking his corvette. “If he came in grumpy on Monday, it would be because Mom beat him at golf,” Rob remarks.

He enjoyed boating and snowmobiling. His sledding group would meet at Dixie Lee each Sunday and often made an all-day trip to Haliburton. He was a memorable first baseman in a six team over-35 baseball league, organized between Fenelon Falls and Bobcaygeon. George’s father and uncle loved horses and would give riding lessons. They worked at a stable down on the Don Valley. George’s friend owned the Newmarket Stud. George bought a mare in foal, to be a riding horse at their farm near Cameron. “We used to horseback ride, and they became pets,” Rob recalls. George was very generous about sponsoring local sports teams, or just about anything that was for kids. For many years, the Fenelon Falls Minor Baseball teams had GW as their logo for George Wilson.

One day, Bob Adamson approached George to see if he would consider joining the Rotary Club. “He was never someone who would stand up in front of people and talk,” Rob observes. “But he enjoyed helping at out events. Whether it was Ride for Sight, the Rotary Exchange Weekend, or Bingo in Lindsay, when a lot of people would say, ‘I can’t make it tonight,’ there was that same group of volunteers who would be there to make sure it all came together.” One of Rotary’s most popular events was Hamburger day, organized by Jim Sackston. The annual barbeque was hosted on the Trent-Severn’s laneway (located beside Stokes on Trent/Lil Wee Quilt Shop) that once descended down to the lower wharf. “He was always happy to help out by flipping hamburgers, or helping us with the annual golf tournament.” In the 1990s, Rotary was hard at work raising money to build a new community centre, which would later be built on Veteran’s Way.

“George knew what he wanted to achieve, and he was very organized,” Bob Adamson observes. “He was very businesslike, and he didn’t come out of his shell often. He was very quiet—until there was something that needed to be discussed, then he would say what needed to be said.” He served as President of the Rotary Club from July 1994 to 1995.

When George and his pals weren’t talking about sports or the community, they really enjoyed talking about cars. “In the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of people were into muscle cars like Chevelles and Malibus. George was really excited about Corvettes and the Oldsmobile 442 Hurst.” This distinctive car, had a Rocket V8 engine that could rival a corvette, plus a dual gate shifter that was both an automatic transmission and manual ratcheting shifter designed for a drag racer. “He sold a few of them, and when one guy came up to pick up the Oldsmobile 442 Hurst, in a snowstorm wearing coveralls that he used for work in the barn. I remember Dad saying ‘You can’t get in that car like that!’”

In 1979 Donny Fitzpatrick traded in a blue El Camino SS and George decided to keep it at the dealership. “We had it into the 1990s, and I drove it back and forth to college,” Rob recalls. George would use it as his shop vehicle, and it proved handy to deliver parts. It was a memorable vehicle for many of his customers, when someone needed a ride while their car was being fixed, George was happy to lend it out.

It was always an exciting day at George Wilson’s when the new cars would arrive for season in September. “Each year we would get 3 or 4 new models,” Marilynn says. “We used to hide them upstairs—there was a ramp up to the top floor. GM had a policy that we couldn’t show people the new cars until a specific date. When the day came, we would bring down the new cars, have all the new pamphlets out. We would serve coffee and donuts, as people came in to see the new models.” (The second storey had to be removed in the 1990s.)

George had a lot of faithful, repeat customers. At its peak, the dealership was selling 100-110 cars a year, and practically all of them returned to have their vehicles serviced there. “The thing that killed a lot of sales,” Rob explains, “was when they dropped Oldsmobile. Then a lot of people went for Buick instead. When he started out, GM made a good product, he would say ‘GM was always a class act.’ It was a respected car manufacturer, but as the years went on, things started slipping. Then in 2009 the company went into receivership, and they started dropping dealers. After that we just sold used cars.”

A lot of George’s customers were sad to see what was happening to the company. “George was upset when GM pulled the dealership out from under him,” Wayne observes. “He really knew his cars and was very devoted to helping his customers. GM lost me as a customer when they pulled it out from him.” It seemed that by the late 1990s, the company was more interested in the appearance of the dealerships, than the products they were selling. “They wanted every dealership to look the same, to have the same colour furniture,” Rob says. “They called it the Image 2000. All it did was bankrupt dealers everywhere. Could you see a farmer coming in with his manure covered boots?” George struggled with the direction the company was taking, as a lot of his faithful customers found it hard to believe how quickly the company had fallen.

When George started out as a car dealer, he spent a lot of time as a mechanic working on cars. “A car from the 1960s was simple,” Rob explains. “Back then, if you saw a mechanic sitting at your car with the manual, it meant it was time to find a new mechanic. Now if you don’t have a manual, I don’t want you working on a car. Back then you could fix most things with a hammer, screwdriver or wrench. A lot of it was intuitive, and by doing it 10,000 times you would get the hang of it. Today there is a lot of specialized equipment, and a mechanic really diagnoses the problem.”

“Back in the day, most cars worked very similarly,” Rob continues. “Any mechanic could look at a car and know how to fix it. Now with all the electronics they have become quite complicated. Back then the tires were a bias ply, and the rubber did not last like they do now. The cars were narrower, but they were large, and rectangular in shape. They had all vinyl seats. Air conditioning was just coming out, prior to that, there was add-on air conditioning, which was mounted under the dash with vents and controls—the compressor was mounted under the hood. Some of the cars had manual vents, with cable-operated defroster vents. Later they switched to vacuum vents, and now they are electronic. When George was starting out, the body was probably about 95% steel. Over the time that he owned the dealership, cars got smaller, with smaller engines, and switched to front wheel drive. Carburation was phased out in favour of fuel injection. Back then, there were not as many auto parts—there were 5 oil filters that between them would fit everything on the highway, today we stock over 100 and that’s not all of them.”

As his father had done years before at Addison Cadillac, Rob came of age working alongside his father at the garage. In the early years, they were working together as mechanics, but as the years passed, George slowly faded out of the mechanic work—though he kept his licence to the end. He thought it was important to instill a strong work ethic in Rob—“Get to work!”—but, the work of being a car dealer came to involve ever more paperwork, as it became more stressful. “It used to be a lot of fun,” Rob notes. At every step along the way, there are more forms that need to be filled out. When George started out in 1976, Bill Fontaine was an apprentice and Kirk Norris was a mechanic—both remained with the company for many years.

Long before George Wilson and Brian Lorimer purchased the business in 1975, Marilynn had been doing the accounting for her husband’s businesses. Over the years she has been painter, floor washer, window washer, but she has found, “I enjoy accounting. If I’m out ten cents, I have to find it.” Sixty years after she started, she still faithfully does the accounting, writing in her ledger with a fine pen, and using an adding machine to total it up. As her husband was not a fan of how complicated cars became once computers were introduced, Marilynn happily does her accounting using the same methods that have worked since the 1960s.

Marilynn and George were in many ways a great couple. “If anything bad happened I would laugh,” she remembers. “He would say, ‘That’s not funny!,” and I would look at him out of the corner of my eye, and I could see a smirk. I enjoyed golfing together, but I would not tell him that I had beat him. I still remember the first kiss that he gave me. He was the best thing that happened to me. … He was serious, grounded, very practical. He was generous and a very good man.”

To the end, George went to work every day. “When he was diagnosed with cancer, he didn’t let it stop him,” Bob recounts. “Being George, he was not going to go through any of the cancer treatments. When George made up his mind, that was the way that it was going to be.” He sincerely enjoyed the time that he spent at the car dealership “and he came to work right up until his last day,” Rob remembers. George Wilson passed away on April 18, 2011 at age 72.

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you:

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