Loonie turns 25 years old

Canada's gold-coloured $1 coin, nicknamed the loonie, was first minted 25 years ago today.

Iconic coin was only created after dies for original design were lost

The loon design has taken a back seat to a number of commemorative one-dollar coins introduced since the original loonie came out. This "loonie" introduced last fall honours the centennial of the founding of the Dominion Parks Branch in 1911. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Canada's gold-coloured $1 coin, nicknamed the loonie for the waterfowl emblazoned on one side, was first minted 25 years ago.

The shiny new 11-sided-edge coin, was introduced on June 30, 1987 as a cost-saving measure and quickly had a fan following.

It was a hit with tourists and vending-machine operators, who predicted higher profits with more people carrying coins instead of paper. It was decidedly less popular, however, with some business operators who complained about the heavier haul to the bank.

Collectors admired its design by Ontario wildlife artist Robert-Ralph Carmichael, whose initials appear near the bird's beak.

Before the introduction of the loonie, Canadians used green and white paper one-dollar bills. The bills wore out quickly: most only lasted between nine and 12 months. Canada also had a large, silver-coloured dollar coin, but it was seldom used by anyone other than coin collectors.

Wasn't originally intended

By switching from a bill to a coin that would last much longer, the government calculated it could save taxpayers $175 million to $250 million over 20 years.

Initially, the loonie design was not meant to be. The federal government authorized its design only after the original master dies were lost in transit to the Winnipeg Mint from Ottawa in November 1986. That design depicted a voyageur, similar to what was on the previous silver-coloured dollar coin.

Carmichael, who lives in Echo Bay near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., said the original loon concept was actually a second-place contender years earlier.

Lighter loonies, toonies

The new loonie weighs 6.27 grams, versus the seven-gram old loonie. The toonie now weighs 6.92 grams, versus the 7.3-gram old toonie.

The Winnipeg Mint distributed 80 million loonies coast to coast in June 1987. Since then, 1.5 billion loonies — made of 91.5 percent nickel and 8.5 percent aureate bronze for its plating — have been minted.

The last Canadian $1 bills rolled off the presses in 1989 to make room for the loonie, a move that left many Canadians no choice but to embrace the coin. A bimetallic $2 coin — nicknamed the toonie — followed in 1996.

But it's the loonie that remains most iconic among Canadian coins in wide circulation. Its name is the one most often used in any reference to the Canadian currency in reports on how the Canadian dollar's rise and fall is affecting trade, manufacturing and travel.

In the spring of 2012, the metal composition changed from nickel alloy to multi-plated steel, so the coins now are more than half a gram lighter and cheaper to produce. A lighter version of the toonie was also introduced.

With that move, there's an added cost to business operators and cities as vending machines and parking meters make the switch.