50 Years Ago, Tim Horton Lost His Life Driving a Pantera

Hamilton Spectator/The Globe and Mail

Fifty years ago today, on February 21, 1974, National Hockey League star Tim Horton was killed when he lost control of his DeTomaso Pantera and crashed in St. Catharines, Ontario. His death sent shockwaves through the sports world, particularly in Canada, where he was hockey royalty. Thirty years passed before details of Horton’s autopsy were released and the public learned exactly what happened to Horton. Today, most remember the Hockey Hall of Famer as the namesake of a massive doughnut café empire, which he founded with a business partner 10 years before his death. 


It was the summer of 1972, and Miles Gilbert “Tim” Horton was considering retirement. Again. After more than two decades in the National Hockey League, mostly with the Toronto Maple Leafs, his 42-year-old body had taken more than its share of abuse. The star defenseman was also so nearsighted that he joked he might not see a puck quickly enough to avoid taking a shot to the head.

Horton had been “quitting” since 1969, and he had once again planned to retire after 1970–71, but thanks to a former teammate, Red Kelly, who was then coaching in Pittsburgh, he was persuaded to join the Penguins for the 1971–72 season. That decision didn’t end well, as a broken ankle and shoulder separation limited him to only 44 games. So Horton was back in a familiar situation, wondering if it was time to hang up his skates and devote all of his time and energy to his budding doughnut business.

Joyce Horton in early 1960s
Tim Hortons

Then the Buffalo Sabres came calling. Former Leafs’ general manager Punch Imlach, at that point GM of the Sabres, desperately needed some star power—a grizzled veteran who could help shepherd a young team—and the four-time Stanley Cup champion filled the bill. Buffalo owners Seymour and Northrup Knox made Horton a deal he couldn’t refuse: $100,000 for the 1972–73 season, a nearly unheard-of salary at the time (well over $700K today). It was a successful partnership for both sides; Buffalo made the playoffs for the first time, and Horton was named the team’s MVP.

Horton made it clear afterward, however, that he was done. Imlach would have nothing of it. He offered Horton $150,000. Horton agreed to come back again if he was also given a DeTomaso Pantera—the radically styled, Italian-built coupe powered by a Ford V-8—as a signing bonus. Horton received the Pantera from Gateway Lincoln Mercury (at a cost of about $17,000) and the deal was done. Horton often drove the white Pantera the 100-mile route on Queen Elizabeth Way (the QEW), back and forth from Buffalo to his home in suburban Toronto.

Midway through the 1973–74 season, the Sabres were struggling to find the same success as the previous year. On February 20, 1974, the team traveled to Toronto to play Horton’s former club at the famed Maple Leaf Gardens. Instead of riding on the bus with his Buffalo teammates, Horton drove his Pantera.

Although the 5-foot-9, 210-pound Horton was known for his toughness—Detroit Red Wings superstar Gordie Howe once called him “the strongest guy in hockey”—he was unable to finish playing in the Sabres’ 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs. During practice the day before, Horton had taken a puck to the jaw (perhaps fulfilling his earlier prediction regarding his eyesight), which left his face swollen and bruised. Regardless, he wanted to play in Toronto, since his friends and family would be in attendance, including his wife Lori and their four children. Early in the third period, however, the pain became too much for Horton to bear.

Tim Horton Sabres Defend Their Net Against The Leafs
Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

Afterward, Imlach chatted with the all-star while the rest of the Sabres boarded the bus. Imlach said Horton felt that he’d let the team down.

“He was hurting too bad[ly] to play a regular shift in the third period. We faded without him and lost …,” Imlach said, according to Bleacher Report. “After the game, he and I took a little walk up Church Street and had what was our last talk. He was down in the dumps because he didn’t like to miss a shift, and he felt he had cost us the game. I got on the bus with the team [and] Tim drove the cursed car back to Buffalo. He didn’t make it.”

The “cursed car” was Horton’s 1972 Pantera. As everyone knew, Horton liked to drive it aggressively and fast.

1972 DeTomaso Pantera white rear
Wiki Commons/Valder137

According to the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, Horton left Maple Leaf Gardens and met with his business partner, Ron Joyce, at the Tim Donut company office in Oakville, about 23 miles southwest of Toronto. “Tim was sitting in our office, his coat on, an ice pack wrapped around his jaw, his driver’s gloves on,” Joyce recalled in Open Ice: The Tim Horton Story, a 1994 biography by Douglas Hunter. “He was sitting in the dark with his feet up on the table, with a vodka and soda in his hand.”

Joyce later claimed that his friend didn’t consume enough at the time to get drunk. Others thought differently. At approximately 3:00 a.m. on February 21, Horton called his wife and his brother, Gerry. Lori Horton wrote in her 1997 book, In Loving Memory: A Tribute to Tim Horton, that “Gerry recognized Tim had been drinking, and he tried to convince him to stay where he was.”

The Ottawa Citizen wrote that there were conflicting accounts about whether Horton planned to drive to Joyce’s home in nearby Burlington to spend the night or continue to Buffalo. Ultimately, he chose to drive.

According to Open Ice, Joyce saw Horton take a handful of painkillers before he sped off in the Pantera, reaching an estimated speed of about 175 kilometers per hour (110 mph) on the QEW. The Ottawa Citizen reported that a motorist near Burlington alerted police to “a sports car driving dangerously fast.” When Horton roared into St. Catharines around 4:30 a.m., a police officer was waiting in his cruiser, but Ontario Provincial Police Constable Mike Gula said he couldn’t keep up with the Pantera.

Tim Hortons Crash Wreckage OPP Impound
Ontario Provincial Police

“I saw him go by and took off after him, but I never caught him,” Gula later told the media. “As far as I’m concerned, he didn’t know he was being chased. I was doing over 100, but I lost sight; I never got close. A few minutes later I came [upon] the accident scene.”

Horton, who was not wearing a seatbelt, had been thrown from the vehicle. Gula found him in the grass median of the divided highway. He was still wearing the brown checker top coat, yellow sports coat, yellow shirt, brown pants, and brown boots that he was wearing when he left Maple Leaf Gardens that night.

Horton, 44, was declared dead on arrival at St. Catharines General Hospital at 4:50 a.m. Police found the phone number of his coach, Joe Crozier, inside his wallet, so Crozier was the first to learn the news.

“When they called me to come down and identify the body, I couldn’t believe that this could ever take place,’’ Crozier recalled. “When I lost Tim Horton, damn it, I lost my heart.’’

So did Imlach, who never forgave himself for agreeing to buy Horton the Pantera.

Tim Horton casket carry
Thousands of hockey fans assembled in Oriole-York Mills United Church to honor Tim Horton. Graham Bezant/Toronto Star/Getty Images

An autopsy, released in 2005 in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Ottawa Citizen, revealed that Horton had died of a broken neck and fractured skull. And although the Citizen wrote that hospital officials claimed at the time that “there were no contributing factors, and that no inquest was required”—perhaps to protect the star’s legacy—documents showed that Horton had a blood-alcohol level well beyond the legal limit and also had prescription drugs in his system.

A broken bottle of Smirnoff vodka was found at the scene, and Horton’s pockets contained five tablets of Dexamyl, a sedative, and two tablets of Dexedrine, a stimulant.

Horton’s Pantera was first transported to Simpson’s Towing Yard in St. Catharine and examined by police (and dozens of curious fans). According to the Ontario Provincial Police report, it was released to Grant Collision in Toronto on March 29, 1974. Salvage price was listed as $500 CAD. Speculation was that the car was destroyed, but the St. Catharines Standard recently reported that the engine, at least, was purchased by race car enthusiast Don Alexander, who converted Horton’s V-8 into a stock car engine and installed it into a 1973 Ford Mach 1 Mustang.

Tim Hortons Crash Wreckage OPP Impound
Ontario Provincial Police

At the time of Horton’s death, there were approximately 40 Tim Hortons restaurants in Canada. Today there are some 5700 locations in 13 countries. According to the CBC, in 1975 Horton’s widow sold her husband’s half of the business to Joyce for $1 million CAD and a Cadillac Eldorado. Lori Horton later sued to get her half back, but her request was denied in court. She died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 2000.

As for Joyce, in 1996 he sold the business to Wendy’s International in a deal worth $400 million CAD. In 2014, Tim Hortons was purchased by Burger King for $12 billion CAD ($11.5 billion USD). Joyce died in 2019.

Fans of Tim Horton lament the fact that he is better known today for donuts and coffee than for hockey. In the years since his autopsy report was released, however, Horton’s passing has also become an unfortunate, tragic example of the dangers of driving under the influence. Forever beloved as an athlete and businessman, his legacy endures, and his death serves as a “where were you when?” moment, especially for Canadian hockey fans.


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    Never knew this story. I just remember hearing about Tim Hortons in Wayne’s World. Al Bundy played a wacked out donut slinger there.

    We have them in our area now and they are not doing well from what I see. Dunkin is lined up and Tims not so much.

    Sad story and he had it made with Donuts if he had just slowed down.

    Weird. Sometime after reading this story, I was watching a YouTube video from DD Speed Shop and they were sporting drinks from a Tim Horton’s. The gremlins in the universe like to play little tricks like that sometimes!
    I wasn’t a hockey fan back in Tim’s day, but anyone who read a sports page (that’s something that was in a thing called a newspaper, for you younger readers) – anyway, it was hard not to have heard about him in his playing days and also about the crash that took him.

    In Wayne’s World, Wayne and Garth and friends hung out at Stan Makita Donuts. Makita was a popular player with the Chicago Blackhawks and played when Tim Horton was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He appeared in the film. Mike Myers was a big Stan Makita fan. Growing up in the Toronto area, Myers would hang out at Tim Horton’s Donuts. There were hardly any (if any) Tim’s in the US so they created Stan Makita’s Donuts for the movie.

    Stan Makita was born in Slovakia but grew up in St. Catharines not far from where Horton had his accident. Mike Myers likely did not randomly pick Stan’s name to be on the donut shop in his movie.

    Just to set the record straight, the name of the donut shop in Wayne’s World is Stan Mikita’s, Mike Myer’s tribute to the legendary Tim Horton’s chain.

    It’s sad tim died and never seen the success of his company. They seem to blame the car tim made some bad choices the worst one was driving.

    I’m from St Catharines and my dad was alive when this happened. The way he spoke of it was like it was a tragic accident, something out of anyone’s control, like he hit a patch of ice or a deer or something. I never even knew he was speeding let alone drunk, on pills, being chased by police. That’s wild.

    Tim was my personal favorite defense man for all of his career and still is. He had his share of problems
    for sure but his Tim Horton’s chain is a massive company today. I wished he had lived to see it,
    Probably most of the younger people today have no idea. One his daughter and Ron Joyce’s son are married and own some Tim Horton’s franchises. I think Tim and Ron would both be happy about that today. If you needed to hear are strong he was ask any of the lads of his time what it was like to get hit by him at the blueline

    I’ve said this for years after watching a few friends die in car wrecks and of drug overdose….

    It’s hard, sometimes impossible for a person to “drive the speed limit” when they’ve lived their entire life at 100 miles an hour..

    Adrenaline is a powerful drug. It comes in the form of extreme sports and driving fast.

    “Faster, Faster.. until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”

    We can all agree driving impaired is just not a good idea.

    I was 13 and lived about a mile from the accident site. It was a terrible tragedy. Yes he made a bad choice that night. As we understood however the police officer picked him up flying down the QEW in Beamsville a few miles outside St. Catharines not in St. Catharines. Where the crash occurred at the Lake St overpass Tim would have reached in a couple of minutes upon entering the city. Rumor was the police set up a road block after the officer in Beamsville radioed ahead and Tim swerved to miss them and hit the cement abutment. Guess we will never know for sure.

    I’ve also heard the road block rumour. As a matter of fact I heard it the morning the crash occurred probably five or six hours after, at work, and we were probably drinking coffee from a nearby store. At that time the road block story was taken as gospel.

    You are partially , correct, the police had some obstruction, because the police report simulation says the body flew out, but the police Picture shows an investigator peeking under a blanket, a sign someone was deceased in the car so the public wouldn’t take pictures of a gory accident! If the body was taken away, no Tarp would be put over the car unless they had something to HIDE!

    I did not know the Pantera part of the story. I have been to a Tim Horton’s in Toronto when I visited years ago.

    I only learned of his hockey career a few years ago, but have been drinking his coffee and eating there since ’69 or so. Always the first stop entering Canada, and the last leaving. Too bad he could not stay retired, but I know how hard that can be.

    Definitely a problem here too. Sentences are being wrapped in the middle of a word, -with no hyphens. It’s VERY distracting and confusing.

    I’m seeing an issue with Safari on iPhone, only effecting the comments section. Words are broken and wrapping to the next line without being hyphenated.

    I wore a #7 Maple Leafs jersey when I was a youngster. By the mid-seventies, I was busy with my studies and the news that Horton had died like this didn’t register with me right away. What a horrible tragedy. Always knew it was a Pantera, and I think of him whenever I see one or hear the name. Every time we drive by the Lake St exit, I say “here’s the Tim Horton Memorial Bridge Abutment.” Black humour. My misconception was that he was Toronto-bound and hit the concrete on the north side.

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