This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune by Larry Printz on April 22, 2016
If President William Howard Taft, the rotund 27th president of the United States, is remembered, it’s usually for his girth rather than being the only president to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. But he also was an early automobile enthusiast and, after a fight with Congress, spent $12,000 on the first White House automotive fleet.
Taft’s choice for the first presidential state car, a steam-powered 1909 White Model M, was replaced Wednesday by President Ronald Reagan’s 1962 Kaiser Jeep CJ-6 as part of the Historic Vehicle Association’s Cars at the Capital exhibition in Washington. The vehicle is being displayed through April 26 in a protective glass box on the National Mall between the National Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art.
Founded in 2009, the Historic Vehicle Association is a private-public partnership between the association, the Department of the Interior and the Library of Congress. Much like the National Register of Historic Places recognizes, documents and preserves historically important places, the HVA does the same for vehicles.
The organization placed the vehicle in front of the National Air and Space Museum for a reason.
“This is the most visited museum on the planet,” said Mark Gessler, the group’s president. “Four-hundred people wake up every day focusing on America’s aviation and aerospace heritage and sharing it with the public every day. By contrast, at the Smithsonian, there is one guy doing automobiles. So the object of this is where does the automobile, which has touched every aspect of American life for the last century, fit into the national heritage agenda.”
The criteria for being on the National Historic Vehicle Register and the Library of Congress includes an association with an important event, association with an important person in automotive or American history, design or construction importance, or information value, such as being the sole surviving example of a marque.
That includes vehicles like the White, a seven-seat touring car built by the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, Taft’s home state. The company produced its first car, powered by steam, in 1899. At the time, steam cars captured 40 percent of the market. By the time Taft’s car was built, they accounted for 2 percent as more convenient powerplants were more widely available.
“Taft was a speed demon and the reason he has this car is that it was the fastest thing on the road. He even got a speeding ticket in Newberry, Mass.; it was national news,” Gessler said.
For the record, Taft’s Model M produces 40 horsepower and cost the government $3,000. It has a 20-gallon tank that holds kerosene or gasoline, an 18-gallon water tank and a 150-mile range. It took 10 minutes to warm up and produce steam. Like many cars of the time, the steering wheel is on the right hand side and features drum brakes on the rear wheels, but none on the front. The car’s throttle is located on the steering wheel rather than the floor.
In addition to the White Model M, The White House also purchased two Pierce-Arrow limousines and a Baker Electric. A remainder of the budget was used to convert the White House stables to garages and pay a chauffeur. The White is the only car from the original fleet to survive and is on loan from the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, Mass., founded by J.K. Lilly of pharmaceutical fame.
White would go on to concentrate solely on trucks after World War I. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1979 and its assets were bought by truck manufacturer Volvo the following year.
The 1962 Kaiser Jeep CJ-6 that took the White’s place on the National Mall this week was purchased as a used car in 1963 by Nancy Reagan as a Christmas gift for her husband. Reagan used it for chores on their ranch, Rancho del Cielo. Originally painted what else? utility green, the California National Guard had it repainted red with white pinstripes as a going-away gift to Reagan as his time as governor of California was ending.
Reagan loved the vehicle, using it not only for chores around the ranch, but to drive visitors around the grounds, much to wife Nancy’s embarrassment.
The vehicle is currently owned by the Young Americas Foundation, which purchased Reagan’s ranch in 1998. The property, preserved as the family left it, is used as a teaching tool. That includes the Jeep, which sports faded paint, a dent in the right rear corner, and a hole in the rear seat where a horse nibbled at the seat cover.
“When he was at the ranch, he didn’t need anything shiny or fancy, he just needed something that would get the job done,” said Spencer Brown, program officer for digital media at Young Americas. “When they see the Jeep, people think, ‘the president, the leader of the free world used this?’ Of course he didn’t need anything else. It was a great workhorse for him and I think people come to understand his humility.”
Of course, the Jeep’s birth is well-known, having been born in July 1940, when the United States military put out word that it was looking for a new “light reconnaissance vehicle.” Created by American Bantam of Butler, Pa., the Jeep was refined and built by Willys-Overland and Ford during World War II. When hostilities ended, Willys manufactured Jeeps until being bought out by Kaiser-Frazer in 1953, followed by American Motors in 1969, Chrysler in 1987 and Fiat in 2009. As you may have noticed, Jeep has a habit of outlasting its corporate owners.
But what Gessler hopes is that the Historic Vehicle Association will endure to preserve America’s automotive history for future generations, a National Register of Historic Places for the automobile.
For Gessler, the aim is simple. “This isn’t just a hobby; it’s heritage.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Larry Printz is automotive editor writer and editor in Burlington, Vt. Readers may send him email at [email protected].