The Plymouth cars of Franklin D. Roosevelt (and Eleanor)
It was a little over sixty years ago that FDR passed away at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia [at the time of writing]. His had been a presidency surrounded by turmoil. The former Governor of New York state was inaugurated in the middle of the worst depression the world had even seen, - and by the time of his death the world would be engulfed in the dying gasps of the worst war the world had ever seen.
To many, F.D.R. was a saviour; others would not treat him so kindly — but love him or hate him, he left an indelible mark on this nation and the world.
There is perhaps no presidency that has been so thoroughly documented as that of the second Roosevelt to hold this nation’s highest office. Yet, surprisingly, some items seem to have slipped through the cracks. One such item is the Plymouth PA Phaeton that was kept at the Little White House in Georgia.
There is no record of when the President purchased the car, how much was paid for the car, or where it was purchased — or even if it was purchased new or used!
Afflicted with polio in his youth, FDR preferred open cars and loved to drive at break neck speeds through the country side, at times eluding the Secret Service guards that constantly surrounded him. The cars he owned had to be specially modified, as he had no use of his legs, and the PA Phaeton was no exception.
According to the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York, the PA was fitted with hand controls supplied by the Stone Controls company of Summit, New Jersey; the manufacturer of the controls had been a patient at Warm Springs himself, yet credit for the control mechanism was given by the Stone Company to a Mr. M. Mcintyre in a 1937 letter they sent to the administrator of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.
It is unknown if President Roosevelt took delivery of the car in his home state of New York, or if the car was acquired in Georgia. The earliest known photo — and the photo most everyone is familiar with, that of the phaeton sitting in front of the Little White House with Roosevelt at the wheel — was taken on November 29, 1933 (see top of this page). But there are other photos of the car.
In cronological order, next is a 1934 photograph (below) taken at the University of Georgia in Athens. According to David Butler this photo hangs in the Georgia History Room of the University Library. The photo was taken on the occasion of President Roosevelt’s address to the Senior class at the University, where FDR received his honorary PhD. One can easily see the crowds hanging on the car and a close examination reveals his wife Eleanor in the back seat.
Photograph number three shows the President at the wheel, with three unidentified persons in the car. This photo appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and was taken at Warm Springs on November 22, 1935. While this photo has been cropped to show only the car, the original photo shows a group of wheel chair bound children in the background. The occasion for the photo was for a crippled children's organization.
The fourth and final photograph was again taken at Warm Springs, March 23, 1937 with the President again sitting at the wheel. This was one of the President's favorite ways of giving a news conference — he would sit behind the wheel while news reporters gathered around the open car. One can only imagine the condition the Phaeton must have been in from having so many people constantly crawling over it!
Roosevelt did own other Chrysler products; during his first campaign for office in 1910, he rented a Maxwell, which he promptly nicknamed “The Red Peril.” He owned a 1932 DeSoto, and Eleanor took delivery of a new 1933 PD Plymouth convertible in July of 1933. It has been claimed the 1932 PB Plymouth-Brewster bodied Town Car now on display in the Imperial Palace Collection in Las Vegas belonged to the Roosevelts, but there has been no proof to substantiate that claim. The FDR Library at Hyde Park claims to have no record of the car.
The PB shown here still has the original interior (the jump seats are folded out of the way and are not visible in the photo). It had belonged to Eleanor Roosevelt. The car was built by Brewster, a famous old custom body house from Long Island City, New York. The car was sold to an unknown buyer about a year ago for a sum in excess of $35,000 — not a bad price for an old Plymouth! (The Town Car photo is supplied courtesy Leo Gephart, of Englewood, Ohio. Mr. Gephart is well known in classic car circles and has owned many rare and exotic automobiles.)
What became of the PA Phaeton remains a mystery. The Roosevelt Library writes that they don't know what happened to the car. Although the Plymouth seems to have disappeared, there is still the possibility it might still exist, hidden away for the last 47 years from the prying eyes of the public.
Additions: Jim Benjaminson added that Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. ran Roosevelt Motors in New York City, distributing Fiat and Jaguar; and attached this copy of a letter.