America’s Presidents and their sensational cars

Although the purveyors of cars and mattresses would have you believe otherwise, there’s no such thing as Presidents’ Day, at least not at the national level. Since the 19th century, the federal holiday has always been dedicated to the chief among America’s Founding Fathers: George Washington. But because most people consider the holiday a celebration of all presidents, we’ll take a look at some of the interesting cars presidents have owned in modern times.

From Washington’s time to today, Americans have paid close attention to presidents’ personal vehicles, whether it was the first president’s cream-colored coach, President Franklin Pierce’s two-wheeled chaise, President Ulysses Grant’s custom-designed carriage, or President Chester A. Arthur’s luxurious green landau. That fixation only became more intense in the 20th century, when America began its long love affair with the automobile. William Howard Taft, who took office in 1909, was the first president to use an automobile in an official capacity. Since then, several noteworthy cars have appeared in the lives of the Oval Office’s inhabitants.

Taft: Modern times call for modern wheels

Taft, the physically largest president in American history, was also the first to upgrade the White House fleet from horse drawn carriages to motor vehicles. The first one was a steam-powered White Model M touring car, which has since been fully restored and is on display at the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts. According to the Henry Ford Museum, he also purchased two Pierce Arrows and a 1909 Baker electric runabout. In 1912, he replaced the 1909 Baker with a new Baker Electric Victoria, which was used by his first lady, Helen, as well as by Edith Wilson, Florence Harding and Grace Coolidge. The car still resides at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Wilson: A limo for the home front

According the the Historic Vehicle Association, Woodrow Wilson was the first president to own a private automobile—a 1919 Pierce Arrow Series 51 limousine that was originally government-owned. When Wilson returned from France after negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the car was waiting for him at the dock in New York for his trip back to Washington, D.C. When he left office in 1921, his friends purchased the car from the White House fleet and presented it to him as a gift. Wilson’s widow, Edith, gave the car to the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation after his death in 1924. Since restored by the foundation, the Pierce Arrow is in running condition and can be seen at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, in Staunton, Virginia.

Hoover: Riding above the storm

Herbert Hoover’s 1932 Cadillac 452-B V-16 Imperial Limousine
Herbert Hoover’s 1932 Cadillac 452-B V-16 Imperial Limousine Bonhams

We now know that the Great Depression wasn’t president Herbert Hoover’s fault. He was blamed for it at the time, though, and the 1932 Cadillac 452-B V-16 Imperial limousine he used during his last year in office—one of only 49 built—probably didn’t help his public perception. Unlike other presidential limos, Hoover’s was never part of the official White House fleet—he purchased the car himself and took it with him when he left office in 1933. According to Bonhams, which sold the car in 2007 for just under $88,000, the former president sold it to his friend Gordon Hickman Garland, who had served in the California state assembly and later as the director of the state’s department of motor vehicles. Garland’s wife kept the car for years after his death, and when it was sold the car was still in original condition.

Roosevelt: No walking, no problem

Crippled by polio at age 29, in 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt still enjoyed driving cars that had been modified with hand controls. Because he couldn’t walk without the use of leg braces and crutches, Roosevelt liked driving and riding in open-topped cars that allowed him to talk to the press and public up close and personal. In addition to his state limousines, FDR kept cars at his private residences, too. At his health retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia.—known as the Little White House—FDR drove a 1931 Plymouth PA Phaeton outfitted with a custom cigarette holder that would light and dispense the president’s smokes at the touch of a button. At his Hyde Park, New York, estate, FDR drove a 1936 Ford Phaeton equipped with hand controls designed and built by a Poughkeepsie, New York,mechanic named Fred Relyea. The Ford is displayed at the Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Truman: Turns up his nose at a Tudor

Harry S. Truman's 1972 Chrysler Newport
Harry S. Truman’s 1972 Chrysler Newport NPS photos

When World War II ended in 1945, the last American automobiles to roll off assembly lines before production was shifted to ships, planes, tanks and ammunition had been built in in February 1942. With victory came renewed passenger vehicle production, and the Ford Motor Company gifted its first postwar car—a white 1946 Ford SuperDeLuxe Tudor sedan—to President Harry S. Truman. But the president never drove the car, then or after his presidency. A longtime Chrysler man, Truman and his wife, Bess, bought a new Chrysler New Yorker when he finished his term in 1953. Freed from the duties of the presidency, the Trumans embarked upon a 2500-mile road trip in the car, traveling to the East Coast from their home in Independence, Missouri. They traded the ’53 New Yorker for a new model of the same in 1955, but the ‘53 resurfaced in 2011 when it was found in the barn of a Kansas car hoarder. Truman bought his last car— a 1972 Chrysler Newport—only six months before his death. That car, which bears the plate 5745, to commemorate May 7, 1945—V-E day—is maintained by the National Park Service at the Trumans’ home.

Johnson: Lookout for that lake!

President Lyndon B. Johnson was a car guy, and liked driving around his Stonewall, Texas ranch to relax. Joseph A. Califano, Jr., LBJ’s top domestic aide, recalled being the butt of a practical joke in the president’s Amphicar. LBJ hadn’t told his passengers that the car was a boat, too when he drove it down a hill toward a lake, exclaiming that the brakes wouldn’t work. “The car splashed into the water; I started to get out,” Califano told the National Park Service later. “Just then the car leveled and I realized we were in an Amphicar. The president laughed.” In addition to a 1915 American LaFrance Type 12 fire truck, LBJ also kept a Lincoln Continental convertible at the ranch, which he liked to use for cruising around the property in the blazing summer heat. Califano, who usually rode in the front seat with the president, says LBJ would drink scotch and soda from a styrofoam cup as he drove, extending his arm out the window to rattle the ice cubes when he wanted the Secret Service agents following him to freshen up his drink.

Nixon: It’s only an Oldsmobile

Richard M. Nixon wasn’t even president yet when the hint of scandal first clouded his name. Still a U.S. senator who had been picked as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate for the 1952 election, allegations were made that Nixon had used campaign contribution money for personal expenses. In the now-famous “Checkers” speech, he pleaded his innocence directly to the American public on television. “I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car,” he told viewers, rattling off a long list of modest assets and quotidian debts. The car faded into the background of history, but the campaign contribution scandal came back to haunt Nixon in the 1970s, when Watergate broke. But by then, he had moved on from dowdy Oldsmobiles to presidential limos.

Reagan: The secret Subaru

Like several presidents before and since, Ronald Reagan liked to get in touch with his brush cuttin’ roots at his 688-acre ranch. Located in the mountains west of Santa Barbara, California, Reagan’s Western White House was also home to an unlikely automobile: a 1978 Subaru Brat. Richard V. Allen, the Gipper’s first national security adviser, had contacts at Fuji Heavy Industries—Subaru’s parent company—who said they were having trouble destroying the new Brat prototypes at Subaru’s proving ground in the American desert. So he recommended a friend with a ranch who could help them test one. Thus Reagan became a Subaru owner. When he ran for president in 1980, it was a time when Japanese automakers—who had introduced thrifty, reliable cars at a time when Detroit was offering up much thirstier fare—were putting a huge dent in American manufacturers’ sales numbers. As the buy-American Republican candidate, it wouldn’t do for the public to know about Reagan’s little red Subie. (Besides, he had a Jeep to drive for the brush-cuttin’ photo ops.) Somehow, the secret never got out, and the car—which has since been restored by Subaru—eventually made its way back the ranch after spending a few years with other owners.

Clinton: Mustang Sally rides again

It was Bill Clinton’s brother, Roger, who received the green six-cylinder 1967 Ford Mustang convertible as a gift from their stepfather, Jeff Dwire, in 1972. But the future Arkansas governor and U.S. president bought it a few years later. When he was campaigning for president in 1992, he and Hillary drove the car to his 46th birthday dressed in period-correct clothes. Two years later, it showed up at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Clinton attended a Mustang meet-up there. He had left the car in Arkansas when he and Hillary moved to Washington, D.C. Of course, in the long, deep wake of JFK’s assassination, no U.S. president has been allowed to drive more than a few feet, if ever, and now even former presidents are denied the privilege. Like many presidents, Clinton has been quoted as saying that driving was one of the things he missed most about private life.

W. Bush: Cuttin’ brush

George W. Bush's 2009 F-150 King Ranch 4x4
George W. Bush’s 2009 F-150 King Ranch 4×4 Barrett-Jackson

During his presidency, George W. Bush was well-known for taking retreats to his ranch in Crawford, Texas. While he was there, he could often be found entertaining foreign dignitaries, strategizing with “Brother” Karl Rove or just cuttin’ brush. Although he tended to drive a stripped-down F-250 work truck while he was president, he bought a fancy F-150 King Ranch 4×4 SuperCrew for use on the ranch in 2009, just after he left office. Early last year, W. autographed the dash and sent it to Barrett-Jackson, where it sold for $300,000 to raise money for charity.

Obama: It’s not easy being green

2005 Chrysler 300C once leased by Barack Obama
2005 Chrysler 300C once leased by Barack Obama

Back when he was a U.S. Senator and could still get behind the wheel of his own car, Barack Obama drove a leased 2005 Chrysler 300C. But as with Reagan before him, Obama had to distance himself from a car that had the potential of becoming a political albatross as he set his sights on the presidency. He swapped it out for a 2009 Ford Escape hybrid with a lot more green cred than the V-8-powered sedan. Obama ditched the Escape, too, when he became president, and it was lumped into the anonymous pool of so many other schlubby vehicles. The 300C resurfaced on eBay in 2012, for the ludicrous price of $1 million. The seller, a self-proclaimed Reagan conservative who said she was only in it for the money, didn’t manage to unload it at that price. For his part, the newest former president, who had said he would buy a Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid when he left office, hasn’t been heard from on the subject.

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