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Getting Around: Presidential Wheels

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Today’s post is authored by Constance Carter, head of the science reference section. Connie has written for Inside Adams before- see her posts on Civil War Thanksgiving Foods,  Food Thrift, the Chocolate Chip Cookie, LC Science Tracer Bullets, and her mentor Ruth S. Freitag.

Official shield of the President which has been attached to Mr. Harding's car
Official shield of the President which has been attached to Mr. Harding’s car

Knowing my interest in all things presidential, a colleague recently left a copy of Herbert Ridgeway Collins’s Presidents on Wheels (1971) at my desk. This well-illustrated book contains photographs of the Pung sleigh used by George Washington on Christmas Day 1776, the Phaeton designed by Thomas Jefferson and built at Monticello, a carriage made of wood from the USS Constitution or “old Ironsides” presented to  Andrew Jackson on January 8, 1837, and  Abraham Lincoln’s State Carriage—in which he rode to Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.   The book, which covers the vehicles used by the presidents through Richard M Nixon, contains many historical tidbits of information. Did you know that that first President-elect to ride to his inauguration in an automobile was Warren G. Harding in 1921?  The Packard Twin Six, in which President Harding and President Woodrow Wilson rode, was supplied by the Republican National Committee.

Theodore Roosevelt, who took office on September 12, 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley, happily rode around Washington in a horse-drawn brougham carriage purchased in 1902. When in the city, he never used an automobile, but the Secret Service which was established in 1906, followed Roosevelt’s carriage as it traveled through the District in a 1907 White Steamer automobile.  When Roosevelt traveled throughout the country, he was frequently photographed on horseback or in a carriage , but he was also seen in a variety of automobile models.  Roosevelt’s brougham carriage is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Theodore Roosevelt sitting in an open carriage enroute to the U.S. Capitol on his inauguration day tips his hat to spectators
Theodore Roosevelt sitting in an open carriage enroute to the U.S. Capitol on his inauguration day tips his hat to spectators

Since William Howard Taft, at 332 pounds, might have tested the strength of a pair of horses, it was an opportune moment for the Secret Service to choose the automobile as the President’s official mode of transportation.  The 1911 White Steamer, with its 40 horsepower engine, was one of the last steam cars purchased for the White House.  With the advent of the self-starter, manufacturers started to make automobiles powered by gasoline.  A detailed history of Taft and the automobile can be found in Michael L. Bromley’s William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency (c2003), which features references from the Library’s collections. For the 1913 inaugural ceremonies, President Taft and President-elect Wilson chose to drive from  the White House to the Capitol in an open barouche drawn by four horses rather than an automobile.  To save gasoline during the WWI, Woodrow Wilson used a horse-drawn carriage, known as a Victoria, to go to church or for a pleasure drive.  When he did ride in a White House automobile—an electric or a 1916 Pierce Arrow –Wilson insisted that the driver go no faster than 25 miles per hour.  He also requested the Secret Service to follow him by car rather than on motorcycles—which he found too noisy.   Wilson was the first President to be a member of the American Automobile Association and purchased the Pierce Arrow—his favorite–from the Government upon leaving office.  The car is now housed at the Woodrow Wilson birthplace in Staunton, Virginia.

President Woodrow Wilson Pierce-Arrow that he bought from the Government upon leaving office. Photograph by Carol Highsmith
President Woodrow Wilson Pierce-Arrow that he bought from the Government upon leaving office. Photograph by Carol Highsmith

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during his twelve years in office, 1933-1945, was photographed in a myriad of automobiles, but was partial to a 1939 twelve-cylinder engine Lincoln convertible, modified for his use.  The automobile, nicknamed the “sunshine special,”  gave FDR an  opportunity to drive with the top down in pleasant weather and to be more easily seen by the public.  After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt used  a heavily armored 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan, which according to Andrew Tully in Treasury Agent: The Inside Story  (1958), once belonged to gangster Al Capone.  The “sunshine special” can also be viewed at the Henry Ford Museum.

The Library of Congress has a wealth of material related to presidential transportation that can be found in published works, manuscripts, prints/photographs, newspapers, moving images, and much more.

Comments (3)

  1. Actually, Theodore Roosevelt became president when McKinley died on September 14, 1901, not September 12 as recounted in this post. I remember this historical date because I was born on September 14 many decades later!

  2. Thanks for the wonderful, sweeping overview. I was reminded of an early American Memory collection we assembled in the 1990s, devoted to the prosperous era of Calvin Coolidge ( It included a number of images from the National Photo Company Collection in the Prints and Photographs Division, two of which fit your theme well enough to highlight here: (1) “Presidential automobile, ca. 1924 Lincoln, parked in front of stores, with the chauffeur seated behind the steering wheel” ( and (2, a related matter) “President Coolidge receiving membership in the American Automobile Association” ( Not quite on your topic is another inclusion in the Coolidge-themed collection: a fascinating five-page article titled “Mass Production,” from the 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica and authored by none other than Henry Ford ( Nowadays we would scan with better technology and OCR the text but, nevertheless, here it is.

  3. I am so pleased with the collection. It was the basis of a recent piece I did on presidential transportation for our car club.

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