by Jim Benjaminson,
for the Plymouth Bulletin
By 1931, the drafty, open touring car was almost a memory. The comfort and convenience of enclosed sedans and coupes were simply too enticing for buyers. Still, a few people preferred the open airiness of this body style. Among them was the newly-elected President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As a presidential limousine, the lowly four-cylinder Plymouth seems an unlikely choice by a head of state yet presidential duties were bestowed on just such a car by the new president. If any Plymouth can be considered famous, it has to be the car owned and driven by FDR. Yet very little is known about the car.
For starters, the car was not part of the White House fleet, but it saw service at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. This was the health resort visited on a regular basis by the man whose legs had been paralyzed by polio. The FDR Library in Roosevelt’s home of Hyde Park, New York, cannot supply any information about the vehicle—when or where it was acquired...or what became of it.
We have been able to piece together some facts about the car. We do know the car was in service as early as 1933. The most famous photograph of the car—shown parked alongside the Little White House with the President behind the wheel—was taken on November 29,1933, by World Wide Photos.
L. M. Weinberg, described as a “Warm Springs Newspaper Man,” wrote about the car in the October, 1934, issue of Motor magazine stating “no major repairs have been needed on the President’s car since it was purchased several years ago.” This statement indicates that the car had been around for some time.
Ralph Hardy, manager of the Foundation Service Station at Warm Springs, stated that the gray phaeton got a thorough going over “every 700 miles.” Each time the president wanted to use the car, Hardy would inspect the brakes, battery, starter and other vital parts and make sure each tire carried 33 pounds of pressure.
President Roosevelt, according to Hardy, “was not particularly fussy about his car, just wants it to be in normally good condition. The President always drives with the top down; he likes to drive in an open car and the top is never up except in bad weather.”
As were many of the cars at the Warm Springs resort, the Plymouth was equipped with hand controls so the President could drive it himself. The hand controls for the car were supplied by Stone Controls of Summit, New Jersey. Mr. Stone, also a former patient at Warm Springs, gave credit for the design of the mechanism to Marvin W. Mclntyre. FDR himself had approved installation of the controls in the car. Although Roosevelt’s visits to Warm Springs were confined to just a few trips a year, the PA Phaeton saw daily use at the health resort, being driven an average of 35 miles per day by the Foundation’s director.
Roosevelt’s PA phaeton was probably one of the first cars to carry a personalized license plate. Gov. Eugene Talmadge of Georgia issued an order that the President be issued license plates bearing the letter “R.”
FDR was photographed many times in the car. On November 33,1935, he was pictured at the wheel of the car with a group of crippled children in the background (a Saturday Evening Post photo) and on March 23, 1937, surrounded by newsmen as FDR gave a press conference (United Press International photo).
There are actually two different poses of the most famous photo. The more familiar one shows Roosevelt behind the wheel and the car’s top lowered into a crumpled mess. He is wearing a hat in this photo. The second photo is of nearly the same scene but the top had been folded more neatly and the angle of the photo is more from the front and the President is bareheaded. We don’t have any further information on the hatless photo nor the actual date the photo was taken.
At least one color photograph of the car with the President exits, a tinted version of the “hatless” photo. It shows the car having a tan/beige body color with black fenders, aprons and moldings, which may be the actual color of the car or simply the artist’s choice of colors.
The PA phaeton remained at the Little White House until sometime in 1938, when it was traded to a dealer in Hogansville, Georgia, for a 1938 Ford convertible sedan (a car which is still on display at the Little White House. According to reports, the unnamed dealer drove the car until he “wore it out” and then junked it. Another report claims that the car had been wrapped around a tree by several young boys, but this report has not been confirmed.
Franklin Roosevelt’s PA phaeton was one of just 528 such cars built in 1931-32. Rare then...rarer today. As of the time of the writing of this article, just six PA phaetons are known to exist. Four are in the United States and two are overseas. Luckily we have been able to gather photos of all three cars for your viewing enjoyment.
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