History Hits: William H. Taft—A Need for Speed
Becoming President of the United States would seem to be a ticket into the history books, and yet many are forgotten by all but the most learned of historical scholars. As an example, try to think about any fact regarding the presidency of men like Millard Fillmore, Martin Van Buren, or William H. Taft. While you would be lucky to even recognize the first two as American Presidents, William H. Taft is sometimes remembered by the unfortunate—and potentially false—story regarding a certain bathtub and its small dimensions. These unremembered Presidents are a shame, and to rectify this, and in honor of this week’s election (Go vote on Tuesday!), this weeks ‘History Hits’ focuses on one of them: The already mentioned 27th President of the United States, William H. Taft. While not normally associated with car culture, Taft was the first President to use an official motor vehicle, and went to great lengths to cement the relationship between the White House and automobiles.
These efforts began before he entered office officially, as in late 1908, an act was passed by Congress at the urging of Taft, ensuring a budget of $12,000 to go towards obtaining motor vehicles for the use of the White House. With adjustment to modern values, this is about $350,000, which is a staggeringly small amount, particularly compared with the current expenditure on presidential ground transportation: $15,800,765. Taft used this money to good effect, hiring a chauffeur, converting the stables into a garage, and purchasing three cars. Not only did Taft place great trust in his chauffeur, allowing him a large amount of influence in picking the cars, he fully committed to ridding the White House of its equine residents by installing a large gasoline tank where the feed storage had been. The three cars purchased represented with their diversity, the early nature of automotive engineering, the challenges vehicles faced, and the experimentation which was undertaken by car designers. These were the gasoline powered 1909 Pierce Arrow Model 36 Brougham, the Baker Electric 1909 Model, and the steam powered 1909 White Model M Steamer.
Despite ensuring the use of an automobile during his term, Taft nonetheless bowed to tradition, and made use of a horse drawn carriage for his inauguration. After this event, however, William H. Taft and his wife both made great use of the cars, which will be detailed individually below.
1909 Pierce Arrow Model 36 Brougham: Did somebody say Ham?
While today Presidents and Vice-Presidents are not allowed behind the wheel of any vehicle, William H. Taft made sure to test drive each of the cars before approving their purchase. Being a big man—those bathtub stories did not come from nowhere—at 350lbs and 6’2”, it would make sense that large cars would be ideal for him. Seating 7, and featuring a massive 11.7L 6-cylinder engine, the Pierce Arrow Model 36 Brougham proved to come up to his standards, although the high model cost—almost $4,000—prevented even the White House from outright purchasing one. President Taft leased the Brougham, starting a trend that following Presidents would respect, with Pierce Arrows being leased by the White House until the death of the company in 1935.
It would develop that President Taft preferred the Model M detailed below, and so the Pierce Arrow became the first state limousine primarily for the First Lady’s use. The Brougham featured a special paint job as described by the Washington Post in its edition on March 7th, 1909, “the main color of which[Brougham] is blue, with the door panels a rich russet and a single narrow stripe of the same color following the lines of the molding. . . . Naturally a facsimile of the great seal of the United States is emblazoned on the doors of the car”. While dignitaries and high-ranking officials of state would also make use of it, the Pierce Arrow was almost primarily used by Mrs. Taft, and rarely by President Taft, although with the paint job detailed above, the car was surely fit for a king.
The Pierce Arrow was liked/employed so much that a second was leased shortly after the first. Featuring the more powerful version of the 6-cylinder engine all Pierce Arrows had—featuring 60bhp in this iteration—and the Landaulette body style, the second Pierce must have been equally appreciated. A quick note on what terms like ‘Brougham’ and ‘Landaulette’ actually mean. Both terms are holdovers from the days of coach-building. While coach-building could refer to building bodies for cars, this is in the sense of literally building stage coaches. A Brougham body style features an enclosed passenger compartment, with an open—although not necessarily uncovered—driving position. A Landaulette body style is a limousine which features a convertible roof. A Landau is the same concept but on a coupe body style. In both such cars the roof was often not retractable, and more likely removable. All of these models were meant to be operated by a chauffeur, as not only were drivers exposed to elements, but without starting motors, not only was hand-cranking an engine to life a tedious 15-minute procedure, but also a dangerous one which could result in severely broken fingers, hands, and wrists.
1909 White Model M Steamer: Paparazzi no More
If President Taft needed a reason to be remembered, then people only need to hear the following story. One of the three original cars purchased by the Taft administration was the 1909 White Model M Steamer. This steam car quickly became the Presidents favorite, featuring 40bhp, 7 seats, and a special presidential paint theme. Detailed in the same Washington Post article above, “The United States coat of arms is artistically painted on each of the doors and the color scheme is a harmonious blend of subdued greens”. As the Model M is the only surviving verified example of a Taft presidential car, the paint job can be seen in restored condition below:
While no doubt a stunner, the real reason the steam car became a favorite of President Taft’s is the party trick he developed while driving: The camera-shy President could blast steam in the path of “pesky photographers” and their lenses as he called them. No need to look further for proof that the good ol’ days were in fact better than now. Imagine President Barack Obama rolling coal right in the path of following paparazzi outside the White House, and you can get the general impression Taft must have left on the public. If Theo Roosevelt can get remembered for being brash, then why does Taft get saddled with getting stuck in a bathtub, when he has such a story in his arsenal? History is not fair.
Interesting side note: the official maker of the Model M is the White Sewing Machine Company, as the son of the CEO of WSMC wanted to make cars, and his father helped him start.
1909 Baker Electric: William Hipster Taft
While electric cars may be all the rage in recent years thanks to a Mr. Musk, they date back to the very beginning of automotive development. When the choices were having a gasoline motor—with its hand-crank start and oiled lubrication—a steam motor, or an electric motor, it is easy to see why the electric car was still viable. Not only were ranges often similar due to the lack of fueling stations and poor road conditions, an electric motor did not have to be hand-cranked to start. Not only did this make it popular among ladies—Mrs. Taft included—it made it the ideal runabout car. While a trip in the gasoline Pierce Arrow required calling the chauffeur 15 minutes ahead, and the Model M required building a fire, one simply had to start the Baker Electric. For a short trip, nothing could compare.
The Taft’s appreciated their Baker electric so much, that they purchased the 1909 model from the White House for their personal use, and had the White House purchase a new 1912 Victoria model. This Victoria model featured the same 1.75bhp motor—resulting in a top speed of a searing 14mph— as the previous 1909 model, with a more open-air design to enjoy the 14mph breeze. This same Victoria model would continue in use among the next four first ladies, before being retired.
William H. Taft may or may not have gotten stuck in a bathtub. At the end of the day, it does not matter whether it is true, because that is the fact that history has chosen to remember. For a president who brought the automobile into the White House, and did so with such style and experimentation, this is a loss to history, and that of car culture in particular. Hopefully with more writing such as this, Taft’s reputation can be saved (although probably not, because getting stuck in a bathtub is funny).
I would like to thank much of my knowledge coming from the real, definitive book on Taft’s cars, William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency, 1909-1913 written by Michael L. Bromley, as well as the Popular Mechanics article in the January 1993 edition by David W. Freeman Cars of the Presidents. If you liked the article don’t forget to let me know and share it with your friends!
Stephen Hyden View All
I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.
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