No, that glowing box on the Mall does not contain a massive Hot Wheels car

This article was originally published in the Washington Post by John Kelly on April 22, 2016


The best parking spot in Washington is currently occupied by the 1962 Willys Jeep that Ronald Reagan used to drive all over his California ranch. The open-topped Jeep — painted a dull red with white pinstriping and sporting the dents and scrapes of honest toil — sits smack dab on the Mall, between the National Gallery and the Air and Space Museum.

It’s encased in a glass box that glows softly at night. It’s like Mao’s crystal coffin but for an automotive relic beloved by the Gipper.

“This is a representative of who he was: hardworking,” Diane Parker, director of operations at the Historic Vehicle Association (HVA), told me Thursday morning as we dodged arcs of water erupting from the Mall’s sprinkler system.

The Jeep is on display to mark its induction into the National Historic Vehicle Register, a program of the Gaithersburg, Md.-based HVA that aims to celebrate America’s automotive heritage. The car — truck? — was a gift in 1963 from Nancy Reagan to her husband. It proved the perfect vehicle for clearing brush, which is what Western politicians do in their spare time.

The Jeep lives at the Reagans’ Santa Barbara ranch, which is now owned by the Young America’s Foundation. This is the first time it has been out of California since Nancy bought it. Diane said the Jeep is currently “decommissioned.”

Which means?

“It doesn’t run,” she said.


When it did run, it was said to be Reagan’s favorite vehicle, preferred over the blue 1983 Jeep Scrambler that he also drove on the ranch, even ferrying Mikhail Gorbachev around in it.

A car is a window into a person’s soul, and maybe even more so when it comes to politicians, who trade in symbolism. One of the best pieces the Onion ever did was about a shirtless Joe Biden washing his 1981 Trans Am in the White House driveway — the T-top model, naturally.

The Jeep — descended from the famed World War II military vehicle — would seem to suit Reagan. It’s hard to imagine him clearing brush with a Land Rover, the British royal family’s mount of choice, or an El Camino, chariot of the dirtballs. He’d have looked even weirder behind the wheel of a VW Bug or a wimpy Peugeot.

And yet wrap your head around this: Reagan also had a 1978 Subaru Brat, that weird little import with buckets seats welded to the truck bed.

Probably the safest transportational choice for any president or presidential candidate is a Mustang, the quintessential modern American car. When he was governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton had a blue 1967 Ford Mustang convertible. It used to be on loan to the Museum of Automobiles in Morrilton, Ark., but when I called to check on it, they told me Clinton had taken it back and given it to his nephew.

Not all Mustangs are created equal, of course. In the summer of 1987, I came across a classified ad in The Post for Gary Hart’s Mustang. It had been raffled off in a fundraiser to help pay campaign debts. The winner was a D.C. lawyer named Paul who hoped the Mustang’s interesting provenance — own the car driven by the presidential candidate brought low by scandal! — would bring a payoff beyond the Blue Book value.

I don’t know if Paul ever sold it, but if he did, he probably didn’t get much. It was a 1975 Mustang II, the lamest Mustang ever made.

Courtesy of the HVA_49

Reagan’s Willys Jeep CJ-6 was preceded in the glowing jewel box on the Mall by another car with presidential connections: William Howard Taft’s 1909 White steam car, trucked down from the Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, Mass.

Presidential cars are scattered about. You can see LBJ’s floating Amphicar at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Stonewall, Tex. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Va., has Wilson’s 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine.

Meanwhile, over at Mount Vernon. . . . Well, they don’t have George Washington’s car. They don’t have his actual horse, either. But they do have the closest thing: a taxidermied animal representing , the massive gray horse the president rode. Call it the Mustang of the 18th century.

Reagan’s Willys Jeep will be on display till Tuesday, when that primo parking space will be open, but not for you.