The White House's First Car

Updated July 24, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The Question:

Who was the president when the White House got its first car?

The Answer:

For the answer to this question, we turned to Michael L. Bromley, author of William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency, 1909-1913. He graciously provided the following information:

In November of 1899, William McKinley became the first president to ride in an automobile, a Locomobile steam carriage driven by its inventor, F.O. Stanley, at Washington, D.C. McKinley is known to have taken at least two more auto rides, one in Patterson, New Jersey, in April, 1900, and another in July of 1901 at his home at Canton, Ohio.

In August of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt took the first public automobile ride by a president during a parade at Hartford, Connecticut, in a Columbia electric car. In 1907, the Secret Service began to use two White steamers borrowed from the Army to shuttle visitors to and from the railroad station near his Oyster Bay, New York, home where he resided for the summers. While there was no official appropriation for this use, when Roosevelt used the cars on occasion, he became the first president to ride in a U.S. Government automobile. Overall, Roosevelt made known his preference for horses, and he always used horse and carriage for state purposes.

In January of 1909, legislation was entered into Congress on behalf of president-elect William Howard Taft for the appropriation of official White House automobiles. After some discussion and initial rejection of the funding by the Senate, that February the Congress authorized $12,000 for the purpose. Taft arranged for the purchase of a 40-horsepower White steam touring car and a 48-horsepower six-cylinder Pierce-Arrow limousine, both of which he tested prior to his inauguration. Although he rode in a horse-drawn carriage to and from his March 4, 1909 inauguration, he took the first official ride by a President in a White House automobile that evening in the Pierce-Arrow limousine to and from the inaugural ball. Taft's enthusiasm for the technology, especially in contrast to Roosevelt's known distaste for it, changed the political culture of automobile and brought about a national craze for the machines.

For more information on the presidents, visit our Biographies of the Presidents.

-The Editors

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