As the presidential race enters the hotly contested home stretch an interesting but unimportant thought came to mind. What automobiles have the presidents favored? Bill Clinton talked with fondness for his Ford Mustang. President Wilson favored the Pierce-Arrow. George Bush has his Ford truck. But what other automobiles have presidents cherished or had fond memories of since Teddy Roosevelt became the first to take the wheel in a White steamer? Does anyone remember Richard Nixon’s favorite car? What about Truman? In the months to come I will post updates on this topic and supply pictures when available. Perhaps you can help with this endeavor in presidential trivia. If you have information on the presidents and their cars or have photos or know where I can find photos drop a comment.
UPDATE: December 1, 2007 I posted this question on several message boards and must say the response has been quite interesting. http://www.aaca.org/ From this link for the Antique Automobile Club of America go to the forum section on the right side, then to general discussion and look for the topic about cars of the presidents. There are some very interesting photos as well as stories about these cars. http://www.chevytalk.org/fusionbb/index.php? In this forum the discussion has been taking place in the section labled Dee Dee’s Drive In. Here too there have been some interesting posts.
If the modern American concept of front wheel drive vehicles were to have a cornerstone it would be J. Walter Christie. His revolutionary racing cars built between 1904 and 1908 were to serve as inspiration for a latter generation of American innovators such as Harry Miller and Cornelius van Ranst whose work in turn served as the foundation for the modern generation of front wheel drive automobiles. Numerous European companies, such as Latil of France in 1898, had featured this configuration prior so the concept was not exactly new when Christie introduced his first vehicle. What were new were his approach and his practical application that resulted in patents issued in the United States, Russia, and Austria and in numerous other European countries. In an effort to prove the validity and soundness of his theories, he turned to the racing circuit. The initial version, a vehicle he tested on Ormond Beach in Florida in January of 1904, represented a dramatic departure from current automotive technology. Mounted transversely was a four-cylinder 30 horsepower engine with the crankshaft serving as the front axle. Flywheels coupled to the crank ends by leather-faced clutches and telescoping universal joints drove the front wheels. The success in testing as well as in limited racing inspired the creation of numerous improved models. Most notable was a 1907, 19,881 cc V-4 version which was the first American vehicle ever entered in a French Grand Prix. The year previous increasing notoriety prompted construction of a 2300 pound touring car prototype with a 50 horsepower four cylinder engine, on a 100-inch wheelbase but it was determined that the resources of Christie and his company, Direct Action Motor Company, should be focused on racing. Another deviation from racing came in 1909 with the construction of an overhead valve four-cylinder prototype model rated at 18 horsepower. This and two additional models were designed and tested as taxis in New York City but once again racing was given priority and this project was still born. Unfortunately, racing failed to provide the revenue required for experimentation as well as production. Christie resolved this with the development, patent, and production of a tractor unit for conversion of horse drawn fire equipment to self propelled. In 1912, the Front Drive Motor Company was formed for production of these units and the Christie front wheel drive vehicles soon became just another forgotten chapter from the formative years of the American auto industry. An interesting footnote to the Christie taxi chapter has to do with another stillborn effort to produce a similar taxi. With talent such as Herb Snow, an engineer on the Cord L-29 project, and the extensive experience of Checker in the specialized construction of vehicles for use as taxis the experimental Model D produced in 1945 and tested extensively in the Racine, Wisconsin should have been a success. Even with positive results from these tests and plans for fourteen different body configurations, the company abruptly dropped the program in an effort to focus its limited resources on the production of a new, conventional powered taxi. The next stage in the evolution of American built front wheel drive vehicles came from the creative genius of Harry Miller. However, before construction of the revolutionary Miller 122 racer in 1924, he had established a lengthy and enviable record of innovation in automotive related technologies. In 1909, shortly before his 34th birthday, he received a patent for an improved carburetor. The sale of the subsequent carburetor company and its assets funded additional experimentation. In 1913, he established the Master Carburetor Company and was soon dominating the field of supplying carburetors designed specifically for use in racing. The development of similar equipment designed for aeronautical and marine use, lightweight pistons for high performance use, intake manifolds and the formation of the Harry A Miller Manufacturing Company machine shop followed. In 1915, Miller added engine design and construction to his repertoire. Construction of complete chassis followed and by 1920, Miller was the premier builder of racecars in America. Attesting to his dominance in this field are the statistics; the Indianapolis 500 starting field of 1923 was 46 percent Miller built vehicles and by 1925, it was 73 percent. As impressive as the Miller creations were it was the front wheel drive model 122 of 1924 that stood the automotive world on its ear. Removal of the driveline through the cockpit allowed for seat placement nine inches lower than contemporary racers. Reduced radiator height furthered the low rakish appearance. As with all Miller’s the car was more than just streamlined style. The series 122 and the 91 that followed, in rear as well as front-wheel drive configuration, established numerous records including 180.9 miles per hour on a closed course in 1930. For those serious about winning a Miller was the only option – if one could afford it. In 1927, the price for a Miller rear wheel drive was $10000 dollars, front wheel drive was an additional $5000 dollars. The success of the Miller and the subsequent publicity sparked frenzy in the research and development of front-wheel drive among numerous manufacturers and innovators. It also resulted in a barrage of requests for a Miller built passenger car. In the summer of 1923 announcement was made that plans for such a vehicle had been initiated. Following was another announcement stating, “…there will be no production this year as Miller will devote all his time to racing.” Miller addressed the subject again in 1928. In collaboration with Leo Goossen and Fred Offenhauser, he began initial design work on a spectacular automobile. The resultant convertible speedster featured four-wheel drive, a specially designed 310-c.i.d. V8 engine and sporty styling that exuded speed. Upon completion Phillip Chancellor, a wealthy Santa Barbara sportsman who had commissioned the car for an undisclosed amount took delivery. The second speedster built to order for William Burden, a U.S. diplomat, featured a modified version of the Miller front-wheel drive used in his racecars. Under the hood was a supercharged 303-c.i.d. V16 engine. However, there was an inherent flaw in that the steering that functioned well on the left leaning turns of the track proved difficult in open road and city driving conditions. Miller refocused his attention to what he did best – build cars that went very fast on the track. However, other manufacturers saw merit in the idea of producing a front wheel driven automobile built on the principles established by Christie and Miller. E.L. Cord had built an empire by seizing upon new ideas as well as fresh ways to market old ones. His intuitive sense of timing for a product coupled with the boldness of a high stakes gambler often elevated good products, such as the Auburn Automobile Company, Duesenberg, Incorporated, and Stinson Aviation, to the status of legend. In the early months of 1927, he initiated development of a practical front-wheel drive system based upon Miller patents and designs utilizing the resources of Auburn. As consultants for the project Harry Miller himself, as well as Cornelius van Ranst, another leading engineer in the development of racing and other high performance machines, was hired. Initial work was in the Miller shops in Los Angeles but as construction of a viable prototype neared completion, there was a transfer to the Duesenberg facility in Indianapolis, Indiana. The first version, test driven by Cord himself, suffered from fatal frame twisting which sprung the doors. The creation of the industries first “X” frame designed by Herb Snow rectified this flaw. Testing of the improved model with hand built body included a high-speed run from Auburn, Indiana to Beverly Hills, California. Cord continued his hands on approach to the project by driving the vehicle on one leg of the trip and evaluating the copious notes compiled at its completion. On September 1, 1929 the all-new Cord L-29, designed to sell in the price niche just above the high end Auburn as direct competition for Cadillac and Packard made its debut. As with the Miller racers, the front-wheel drive configuration allowed for a lower stance than competitive models. As a result the production Cords were low slung and stylish but when coupled with custom coach work such as that of the coupe built by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and displayed at the prestigious Concours d’ Elegance of Monaco the L-29 became rolling sculpture. However, Cord was not the only front-wheel drive American built automobile to debut in 1929. Through a complicated and at times comedic series of events, the Moon Company of St. Louis introduced the Ruxton that year. The Ruxton was the brainchild of William Muller, an experimental engineer at the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company. With approval from management, Muller initiated construction and testing of a prototype. The result was a beautiful automobile that featured a custom-built body designed by Joseph Ledwinka and a Studebaker built six-cylinder engine. Archie Andrews, a swashbuckling entrepreneurial type who held several board directorships including one at Budd and another at Hupp Motor Car Corporation, took great interest in the project and tried to sell Hupp on the idea of producing the revolutionary vehicle. When negotiations for production collapsed, Andrews founded New Era Motors, Inc. to produce the car himself. In quick succession Andrews provided Muller with the resources to build a production prototype utilizing a Continental built, 100 horsepower straight eight engine and began searching for a manufacturer to license for production. Peerless, Gardner, and Marmon all declined. In November of 1929, Moon announced it would soon begin production of the stylish, front-wheel drive Ruxton. What might have been can only be guessed as production never progressed further than hit and miss, the result more of corporate intrigue than actual deficiencies in the vehicle. In a deft move, Andrews had gained controlling interest in Moon in exchange for the Ruxton design and patent rights and appointed Muller as president. During the same period, Andrews negotiated a complicated deal with the Kissel brothers of Hartford, Wisconsin, for the production of transmissions and final drive assemblies. Meanwhile the questionable take over of Moon and its subsequent control had reached the courts in a series of suits and countersuits. By late November of 1930, as a result, Moon, Kissel and the Ruxton were no more. With production designed to accentuate the front differential, a relatively strong dealer network, stability of management and dependable performance provided by a Lycoming (another Cord company) 298.6 c.i.d, 125 horsepower, eight cylinder engine the Cord overshadowed the Ruxton in all aspects. A personal friendship between Walter Murphy of the prestigious Walter Murphy Company and E.L. Cord that resulted in outstanding custom versions further ensured the Cord would enjoy world wide recognition as a fine automobile. A variety of sketches, plans and even the construction of numerous prototypes, including a V12 version, provide clear indication the company was optimistic for the future of the Cord. However, the harsh economic conditions of the Great Depression were not conducive to the sale of a vehicle with a base price of $2395 or one that needed service by qualified technicians to be kept in prime operating condition. In December of 1931, the final 157 vehicles rolled from the factory as 1932 models. Four years later as the E.L. Cord empire was beginning to stumble a new generation of Cord was introduced – the legendary “coffin nose” 810 and 812. The original concept had been to bolster Auburn sales by introducing a “baby Duesenberg.” As planning progressed, the decision to give the new automobile a lower stance by resurrecting and improving the earlier Cord front-wheel drive system was made. The timeless styling of Gordon Buehrig, a Lycoming built 125 horsepower V8 and electric assist shifting placed the car years ahead of the competition. Even today, almost seventy years since the last one rolled from the factory, the Cord is one of the most recognizable automobiles in American automotive history. From its inception, the second generation Cord was doomed. Once the styling and mechanics of the vehicle were agreed upon only fifteen weeks remained available to build vehicles for the November 1936 automobile shows. While the initial Cord had undergone extensive testing before production the new generation 810 and, for 1937, 812 series were rushed with the result being numerous bugs and kinks, most notably in the rather complicated electric solenoid shifting mechanisms. In turn, this spawned rumors of unreliability. The introduction of a super charger option for the Lycoming V8 in 1937 boosted performance through an increase in horsepower to 170 but did little to alleviate persistent rumors or increase sales. However, the greatest obstacle was the once mighty Cord automotive empire was now moribund. On August 7, 1937, after cessation of Auburn and Duesenberg production the final Cord rolled from the factory. However, unlike many orphans the final generation of Cord proved to be timeless. With the demise of the Cord, the concept of front-wheel drive would languish for decades in the American auto industry. Today we have come full circle and under the hood of most American built passenger cars as well as the replacement for the station wagon, the mini van, can be found the ghost of the Cord, of the Miller and of the Christie.
In search of a suitable cover shot for my forthcoming title, Backroads of Route 66, my wife and I topped off the tank in the old Adventurer and headed west on the pre 1953 aligment of Route 66. The destination on this delightful November afternoon was historic Cool Springs on the eastern slope of the Black Mountains. The traffic was light, the weather warm, and the company excellent, as is always the case when you are traveling with your best friend. As an added plus this is my old stomping grounds, the hills where I was introduced to the awe inspiring wonders of the desert in the summer of 1966. Since the last road trip I have given the Adventurer a top to bottom inspection, set everything under the hood to factory specs, and added a littel Marvel Mystery Oil. For this run I chose higher octane fuel. I have resigned myself to poor fuel economy with the old truck. On this trip we averaged just over 12 miles per gallon. This is really the only fault I can find with it. The styling is quirky and though I often joke about that, it is what gives it personality. Though the station at Cool Springs has been recreated, attention to detail has captured the essence of the original. To a large degree this is the result of the location with a backdrop of classic western scenes at every turn.
Today self serve and the mini mart is the order of the day. However, just a few short years ago the corner station was more than a place to fuel the car and grab a cold soda. We trusted the man behind the star and when we were far from home, the flying red horse was a welcome sight. Unless a clean restroom was needed, we never left our place beyond the wheel and yet we were assured the fluids were topped off and the air pressure in the tires, including the spare, was correct. In addition, when we pulled away we had clear view of the road ahead. The full service station, like the two-lane highway, the tail fin, and the Edsel, is a thing of the past. However, even for those who fondly remember the sound of the bell, the smell of new tires on a hot summer evening, white uniformed attendants, and those calendars with pin up girls the origins of the service station is largely another forgotten chapter in the history of our love affair with the automobile. Early explorers of the Allegheny Mountains of what is now Pennsylvania made note of numerous springs and streams that had surfaces covered with a thick, slick substance. They also noted the Indians believed these waters to have curative powers and that when ignited these waters would burn intently. With the development of the area, the American entrepreneurial found a lucrative use for these “rock oil” springs. In the 1840’s Samuel Kier built upon the claims of the native people, bottled the foul smelling liquid and pedaled is a cure for bronchitis and consumption with the recommendation that three teaspoonfuls per day was necessary. However, Kier was also eager to capitalize on the other properties of this rock oil. Numerous mill owners in the area had skimmed the oil from the surface for use as a lubricant and in lamps. Nevertheless, the impurities made it a hit or miss proposition until Kier developed a process for distilling it. The success of Kier’s business prompted others to follow suit. E.L. Drake decided that purposely drilling for the oil would be more productive than skimming water from the waste ponds from wells or streams. His first endeavors near Titusville exceeded his wildest expectations. The huge profits realized from this first well, twenty-five barrels a day, at $18 per barrel from a $3,000 investment, prompted others to try their hand and the rush was on. Soon farming the rocky soil was abandoned as well after well was sunk. Medicinal usage soon was abandoned, as the product was refined into kerosene of which a one-gallon jug sold for more than a barrel of crude oil. However, the refining process created another problem; waste disposal as a barrel of crude produced three percent kerosene and forty percent pure waste, a substance known as gasoline. In the years to follow engines were developed that would burn this waste product but almost as many burned kerosene. With the advent of the horseless carriage, these engines were adapted to this application but the majority of manufacturers preferred steam or electricity. As a 1903 advertisement for the Jaxon noted, “Steam is reliable and easily understood.” As a result, the consumer who opted for a gasoline-powered automobile would be akin to one purchasing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle today. Gasoline was available only at bulk depots usually attached to refineries or on occasion by special order in glass one-quart jars through the local general store. Gasoline at bulk depots was stored in cylindrical steel drums atop a platform. The motorist or an employee of the station would, by gravity fill a five-gallon can with unfiltered gasoline that in turn was poured into the vehicle with the use of a funnel and cloth to strain impurities. Some luxury car manufacturers offered as an option a removable strainer in the neck of the tank. Storage and the dispensing of fuel in this manner when coupled with spilled fuel and gasoline soaked rags was a serious danger. As a result, many municipalities restricted bulk stations to the extreme fringes of the community. Incredibly in spite of these shortcomings, the sale of gasoline powered automobiles escalated dramatically and by 1903, the number of vehicles sold in the United States exceeded 8,000. To keep pace with the corresponding demand wholesalers began selling pre-filled one-gallon containers to general stores, livery stables, bicycle shops, and even drug stores. Ironically, horse drawn tank trucks or open delivery wagons were the primary means of delivery. In 1905, Harry Grenner and Clem Laessig of St. Louis formed the Automobile Gasoline Company, a simplistic prototype for early service stations. To large metal tanks similar to those at bulk depots was attached a long hose with filter, a valve, and measuring gauge. Promoted as the first gasoline station it was located near the railroad for ease of fuel acquisition for the company. Within twenty-four months in addition to the main station, the duo was operating forty smaller stations throughout the area. In retrospect, the formation of the Automobile Gasoline Company seems to be one of those ideas that are so painfully obvious it is hard to believe no one thought of it before 1905. The brilliance of Harry Grenner and Clem Laessig’s concept spread faster than flames through a dried Christmas tree and soon similar operations were opening throughout the United States. With the concept of a standardized operation where motorists could find the same quality of fuel and level of service at numerous locations Standard Oil of California (Socal) took it to the next level. In addition to refueling, these stations featured displays of motor oil, tires, and similar items, which in turn boosted potential profit. However, one key component was still missing – the gas pump. Sylvanus Bowser is truly one of the unsung heroes from the pioneering period of the American auto industry. In 1885, he developed, perfected, and patented a device to pump kerosene. From these humble foundational beginnings, the S.F. Bowser & Company began a leader in the development and production of petroleum industry related products. In 1905, the company introduced a highly refined version of the original pump. The Bowser Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump utilized a metal tank enclosed in a weather resistant wooden storage cabinet and featured a revolutionary pumping unit with predetermined quantity stop and vent for release of potentially explosive fumes. As there was virtually no regulation in regards to the operation of a filling station the Bowser units were soon sprouting from street corners and sidewalks throughout the country. The proliferation of the Bowser pumps was so wide spread for years to come all gasoline pumps regardless of manufacturer were referred to as Bowser’s. Necessity may be the mother of all invention. For John Tokheim, owner of a small hardware store in Thor, Iowa, necessity was the well spring from which world changing ideas sprang. It began with an idea for an improved well pump. This in turn led to a better way of pumping kerosene for retail sale. Moreover, this in turn led to a pump designed specifically for the pumping and sale of gasoline. In the spring of 1906, the Tokheim Dome Oil Pump was ready to serve the customers who stopped by his store for gasoline. His pump was ingenious – a combination visible and cylinder measuring unit with mechanical counter geared to the amount of fluid in the cylinder that allowed for the reading of total gallons pumped. The unit built of hollow tubing and cast iron with all moving parts being rust proofed or made of brass. The entire pump, attached to a heavy cast iron stand, was finished in either red or black enamel with gold trim. By 1910 what was once a waste by product in the refining of kerosene, gasoline, was the number one selling petroleum product in the world. To a large degree, this was the result of oil companies increased attempts at ensuring quality through standardized outlets and the introduction of a practical electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac that proved to be the death knell for steam as well as electric cars. In 1914, Standard Oil of California issued a booklet of guidelines for prospective station operators. Additionally they were also acquiring existing businesses in prime locations. The next evolutionary step in the development of the gas pump came from the shops of Gilbert & Barker. The T-8 introduced in late 1913 operated in similar manner to the Tokheim pump but featured a dial indicator reading the number of gallons and an etched glass globe with the name of the oil company or station on top. However, there was a key flaw in all these pumps, which left the consumer at the mercy of station operators. With rudimentary mechanical skills, it was possible to “tweak” the measuring of gasoline in the station owner’s favor. Spearheading the development of pumps that ensured honest operation that in turn boosted consumer confidence in a particular brand was Tokheim with its 290 Hi-way Hand-operated Pump. This pump featured an improved plunger design that allowed fourteen strokes to fill the visible ten-gallon glass cylinder on top that was marked in one-gallon increments. In the suction line beneath the pump, an internal filter removed contaminants as well as water. Now the stage was set and the props were in place for the modern era of the gas station with white uniformed attendants, gleaming rest rooms, and promotional items to ensure customer as well as brand loyalty.
There are numerous keys to success in business with intelligence, instinct, timing, and perseverance topping the list. However, there is another that is, perhaps, even more important – the ability to recognize the pinnacle of success thus avoiding the long fall on the other side. David Buick had the former but lacked the latter. When the Alex Manufacturing Company of Detroit went bankrupt in 1882, the shop supervisor, Buick, sensed opportunity. With a partner, William Sherwood, David Buick took control of the company reorganized it as Buick & Sherwood and soon a record number of cast iron toilet bowls were rolling from the factory. His intelligence ensured the success of the company. Between 1881 and 1889, Buick received thirteen patents on a variety of plumbing related items including valves and even a lawn sprinkler. However, his crowning achievement was the development of a revolutionary process to affix porcelain to cast iron thus creating the cast iron bathtub. The timing was perfect for his venture. Beginning in about 1890 a rapid urbanization of America began in earnest and with it came an explosion of indoor plumbing. Though profits were climbing with the passing of each year Buick became convinced that greater fortunes awaited in the fledging automotive industry. In 1899, he convinced Sherwood to sell the company and then used his share of that sale to form Buick Auto-Vim & Power Company for the production of gasoline engines. Within two years, the company had begun to show a shadow of a profit. With these profits and a highly advanced valve in head engine, he reorganized the company as the Buick Manufacturing Company in 1902. The engine generated interest as well as orders. However, production delays and Buick’s insistence on refining the vehicle had nearly exhausted all financial reserves and assets of the company by the late summer of 1903. Only one creditor offered what appeared to be a way out, Benjamin Briscoe the sheet metal tycoon of Detroit. In a complex stock transaction Buick signed over eighty percent of the company to Briscoe with the stipulation that once his debt was paid the company would be returned to his control. Until that time, Briscoe would make no effort to collect on the outstanding debt. The marriage of convenience was short lived and in the fall of 1903 Briscoe found a way to recoup losses by selling his share of Buick with the same restrictions and stipulations to the owners of Flint Wagon Works who were chomping at the bit to get involved with automobile production. David Buick essentially was now an indentured servant to the company that bore his name. For the Flint Wagon Works it soon became apparent that an automobile manufacturing company was an expensive proposition so Buick, the company, with Buick, the man, in tow was sold to William Durant of Durant & Dort, the second largest manufacturer of wagons and carriages in the country. Buick was given a token position as company secretary, one share of stock and a seat on the board of directors. Within sixty days of assuming the helm, Durant had raised the capital stock of Buick from $75,000 to $1.5 million. Almost as rapidly Durant established a state of the art manufacturing center and initiated a franchise system for the extensive dealer network that had been marketing his carriages. Before Durant assumed control of the company, less than fifty Buicks had been built. By the end of 1906, two years after the acquisition by Durant, more than 2,000 cars had been sold and the company was building 250 a week. David Buick, in 1908, left the company and his trademarked name with a mere $100,000, the same amount that he had sold his plumbing business for in 1899. The money did not last him long; another automotive company, a carburetor manufacturing company, Florida real estate, and dry oil wells left him broke in just five years. When he died in March of 1929, he was employed at the information desk of the Detroit School of Trades and his assets consisted of two suits, one pair of shoes, and a box of pictures. Durant’s fall was even more tragic as his was from even greater heights. On September 1, 1908, he used Buick assets to form a new company – General Motors. Two months later, he bought the Olds Motor Works. In rapid succession, he added Oakland and Cadillac. By the end of 1913, he had added 13 different automobile companies and almost a dozen auto parts companies to the GM stable. He had also overextended the company to such a point he needed more than $12 million to stay solvent. The banks that had financed his ventures panicked and agreed to rescue GM only if Durant would step aside. The next seventeen years were a blur of Durant activities. He partnered with a Swiss born race car driver named Louis Chevrolet, formed a new automotive company, regained control of GM, lost control of GM and formed a smaller version of GM named Durant. In 1933, Durant filed for bankruptcy listing $914,000 in debts and $250 worth of assets that included his clothes. Less than a year later a reporter located Durant, he was washing dishes and sweeping floors in a food market with corner hamburger restaurant in a converted former Durant showroom. Durant had leased the building and lived in an apartment above. Shortly before his death in 1944, he had expanded his holdings – he added a bowling alley to building. photo courtesy of General Motors – click to enlarge