Did the White House Own This Car?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 21, 2014

I once bought a first edition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but it turned out to be the worthless--but visually identical--book club version. We all want to make that big score, like the Picasso bought for a buck at a thrift store. Or the $500 barn-find Ferrari that shone like new when layers of muck were cleaned off.

The '58 Lincoln. Note small Presidential seal on the front license plate. Evidence? (Supplied photo) A reader hopes he's hit paydirt with a 1958 Lincoln Continental that may have been used by Mamie Eisenhower. He reports, “The Presidential seal is on the front plate. I bought it from an estate sale a few years ago and am trying to find any evidence of its history.” He’s heard that the Lincoln was “kept at the farm where Mamie liked to stay and was used for her transportation.” That would be the retreat in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the Eisenhowers recharged their batteries, and lived out their days after JFK became president.
OK, but I couldn’t find any evidence of Mamie Eisenhower being squired around in a 1958 Lincoln, before or after Ike’s Presidency. It’s possible, but the flamboyant fins-and-chrome car seems a bit out of keeping with her low-key style. The one car she definitely owned was an economy minded, bare-bones Plymouth Valiant.
 Mamie Eisenhower: She liked Ike. (White House photo)Mamie was the anti-Jackie; she kept a low profile in the White House, though she left her mark by inviting African-Americans to dinner during the early days of the civil rights movement, and for hating Senator Joseph McCarthy, the red-baiting junior senator from Wisconsin. Rumors that she couldn’t abide Pat Nixon are debunked in her biography.
Michael Bromley is a Presidential transportation historian and the author of a book about William Taft as the first executive who put the White House on wheels. “I couldn’t find any reference to a Lincoln for her,” he told me. “But the government was buying a lot of cars back then, so it’s not impossible.”
Two cars associated with Mamie Eisenhower are still around, and the evidence for them is undeniable.
 This beat-up 1953 Chrysler Imperial limo definitely was Mamie's car. (Steve Magnante photo)Steve Magnante, a specialist in Chrysler products, recently uncovered a 1953 Chrysler Crown Imperial limousine that was one of two delivered to the Eisenhower Administration early in 1953. One went to Ike, and this one definitely went to Mamie. When last seen it was in a Massachusetts collection and was in fairly rough shape with 44,000 miles on the odometer.
This is a car that Bromley knows well. In the Presidential motor pool until 1961, it’s got an upgraded engine, a fancy air-conditioning system, very early disc brakes, and room for seven. The VIN numbers match; Mamie sat on that seat, case closed.
The other car actually belonged to her, and I’ve seen photos of Mamie taking delivery of it. It’s a plain-jane 1962 Plymouth Valiant, and it’s now resident at Mamie’s childhood home in Boone, Iowa.
 Mamie owned one of these--a low-key '62 Valiant economy car. (Plymouth photo)According to Magnante, “Ike was a fan of Chrysler automobiles and owned several in his private life, including 1948, 1950 and 1952 models.” According to this site, Ike "gave a Chrysler to Mamie's uncle." So Mamie’s Valiant and the Chrysler limo make sense, though it’s other evidence that confirms that these two were actually her cars.
Oddly enough, I came across another Lincoln Continental of this rather extroverted style—a 1960 limousine—that also has Presidential aspirations, but not a confirmation. Offered by a Connecticut dealer in Kennedy memorabilia, it was auctioned on the 50th anniversary of the assassination as a JFK motor pool car along with the four-door ’63 convertible that was, undoubtedly, the car Kennedy rode in on his way to the airport in Fort Worth, Texas and that ill-fated flight to Dallas. I drove both cars briefly, just for fun, but didn’t find any Kennedy cufflinks pushed down in the seats.
 The '58 Lincoln is in excellent shape, but Mamie (who died in 1979) isn't around to claim it as hers. (Supplied photo)By the way, Mamie’s mother owned a 1914 Rauch and Lang electric car, which could reach a whopping 19 mph. According to several sources, it was “frequently driven by Dwight D. Eisenhower.” Since it now resides at the Eisenhower Museum in Abilene, Kansas, I’d say it’s authenticity is without doubt.

If you know anything about Mamie Eisenhower owning that '58 Lincoln, let us know. And here's video of that other would-be Presidential Lincoln, a '60 limousine that supposedly squired JFK around:

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