Taft used his 1909 steam car to support automakers. Reagan’s ’62 Jeep was a favorite on trips to his ranch.
The open top, steam-driven limousine that took the White House from the horse-and-buggy era into the automobile age is among two vehicles that are being displayed this month at the National Mall in the second “Cars at the Capital” collection.
The vehicles will be displayed in glass “jewel boxes” to protect them from the elements before they return to the museums that usually house them.
The Willys CJ-6 Jeep was Nancy Reagan’s 1963 Christmas gift to her husband. Reagan kept it for decades as his career progressed from actor to governor of California and president. The Jeep features in many of the photos taken when President Reagan returned to Rancho del Cielo, his ranch near Santa Barbara. Pictures of Reagan using the Jeep to clear brush, and driving the Jeep accompanied by his dogs are among the iconic images of his presidency.The White Steam Car is the only survivor of four cars the Ohio-born president used to accelerate the White House into the automotive era. There had been cars in presidential service before Taft, but he moved the White House permanently into the automotive age when he converted the White House stables into a garage and filled it with four cars.
“He loved driving it,” retired Secret Service agent John R. Barletta recalls. “He did a lot with this Jeep. I never remember it breaking down.”
The president relished the chance to drive himself around the ranch. The Jeep was originally utility green, but the California National Guard painted it red with white pinstripes as a going-away present before the end of Reagan’s two terms as governor.
“It served him well for years. It was his trusted companion,” said Andrew Coffin, director of the Reagan Ranch, which is now owned by the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group. The Jeep is part of the Ranch collection of Reagan memorabilia.
Taft threw his considerable weight behind the infant U.S. auto industry when he rode in the 40-horsepower White Model M for his inauguration in 1909.Taft’s White was used for more formal functions around Washington. It was the first presidential limousine, replacing the horse-drawn carriages that had served every president from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt, Taft’s predecessor.
“William Howard Taft brought this car into the White House, and because of that act, the automobile industry, American political culture, road building and the whole economy… changed to be the way it is today,” said Michael L. Bromley, author of “Taft and the First Motoring Presidency.”
Taft loved cars. The open-topped Model M could hit 60 m.p.h. Taft frequently encouraged his driver to use that speed to get a little time away from the public and Secret Service, or to impress or intimidate a recalcitrant member of Congress. He was an unapologetic early supporter of the auto industry.
Automobile registrations in Washington skyrocketed after Taft started using the White. He made a point of using cars on trips around the rest of the country to popularize the automobile.
“President Taft’s vehicle of choice during his presidency, (it) echoes the love affair Americans have long had with their cars, and provides unique insight into the social impact they have on our way of life,” said museum president Ellen Spear.Taft’s steamer is part of the auto collection at the Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich, Mass.
The steam-driven car built by White Motor Co., which was based in Taft’s home state of Ohio, was much quieter than gasoline vehicles and had served well in the U.S. Army, all factors that contributed to Taft’s choice.
President Taft’s White Steam Car and President Reagan’s Jeep CJ-6 are the 9th and 10th vehicles, respectively, to be documented in and entered in the National Historic Vehicle Register and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Historic American Engineering Record. The documentation for all vehicles on the register is archived heritage in the Library of Congress.
Contact Mark Phelan: 313-222-6731 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan.