27 July 2016

Seal of Approval

When William Howard Taft assumed the presidency in 1909, he wasted little time moving the office into the 20th century. The previous year had seen several major advancements within the fledgling automotive industry that caused its profile to begin rising exponentially: In February 1908, two Americans piloting a Thomas Flyer won the New York to Paris Race, the first around-the-world automobile competition, while by September, Henry Ford had begun producing his Model T.

Taft’s predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, refused to embrace the technology of the day, including the use of a car. By the time he took office, Taft was quick to change all that.

Taft selected George H. Robinson, a civilian employee in the Quartermasters Corps, to become the first presidential chauffeur. Driving since 1899, Robinson gamely shuttled the president about at speeds his advisors cautioned against. In his four years of driving Taft, however, Robinson never had an accident.

With his position established, an order from Taft to acquire four automobiles and a $12,000 budget, Robinson purchased two Pierce-Arrows, a Baker electric and, most importantly, this 40-horsepower, seven-passenger 1909 White Model M steam car. The White would become Taft’s ride of choice, not only for the speeds it afforded, but for the clouds of steam it generated — a useful function to shield the president from prying press photographers.

The White Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was founded by Thomas White in 1900 as the White Sewing Machine Company, and the firm eventually moved into automotive manufacturing at the urging of White’s son, Rollin.

The acquisition proved beneficial for both Taft and the White Company. By having a president embrace the automobile, its appeal as viable transportation increased nationwide. For the White Company, the presidential seal of approval proved to be a fine marketing tag. When asked about any special features for the chief executive’s car, the younger White remarked, “…When we are making a car for the President of the United States, there is no way in which we can make it better than the car which you, or anyone else, can purchase from us.”

With Robinson behind the wheel, the White Model M shuttled Taft all around the city, and the White proved to be reliable and safe transportation. While campaigning for re-election in 1912, Taft traveled throughout the U.S. in it. The car was even ferried up the Mississippi and transported by rail.

Taft lost the election, but he would go on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to date the only man to have held both offices. Although history often regards him as a bit of a lackluster president, Taft was an influential and essential contributor to the rapid expansion of our automobile culture. At the turning point of automobility in the United States, Taft demonstrated to the nation — and to policy leaders and politicians who looked at cars with great disdain — that automobiles were an acceptable means of transportation. His early adoption of them helped to usher in the democratization of transport for the people.

His 1909 White Model M Steam Car would change hands several times in the following years. In 1969, collector George H. Waterman, Jr. sold the White to Josiah K. Lilly III, who had it fully restored, and by July 1970, the White was on display at the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts, where it remains today.

Due to its historical significance, it became the ninth vehicle to be listed on the National Historic Vehicle Register and was included in a special exhibition on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the Historic Vehicle Association’s “Cars at the Capital” event in April 2016.

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