Two levers on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s car may have influenced the history of the world. The levers enabled FDR, whose legs had been paralyzed by polio, to drive his car with hand controls.
In his book, “Driving for FDR,” Stefan J. Lonce wrote, “If FDR had not been able to drive, he would not have run for governor of New York in 1928: His Republican opponent attacked him as a ‘cripple,’ and being able to drive enabled FDR to prove, through photographs, that he was capable of being governor. If FDR had not been elected governor in 1928, then he would not have been elected president in 1932, and he would not have been able to rearm America!”
A polio attack in August 1921 left FDR unable to use his legs. From that time until his death in 1945, every day was a physical struggle. He was unable to get out of bed without assistance. He spent seven years of extreme effort attempting to learn to walk again, to no avail. He was unable to stand without cumbersome metal leg braces and found it necessary to lean on someone in order to move.
Driving was the only activity he could engage in with complete independence. Driving, smoking and talking simultaneously were relaxing for FDR. A widely circulated photograph in the late 1930s showed him seated at the wheel of a 1936 Ford Phaeton with his signature cigarette holder at a jaunty angle. The car, equipped with hand controls, is on display in the library of the Hyde Park estate.
In those days, during the run up to World War II, the family — wife, Eleanor, mother Sarah Delano Roosevelt and children, James, Franklin Jr., Elliot and John — would pile into the Phaeton with the top down and drive around, stopping to talk to people along the way or to picnic in the woods.
He delighted in showing visitors around Hyde Park in the car, but it provided some tense moments for some of his passengers. While attending the famous Hyde Park Hot Dog Picnic in July of 1939, King George and Queen Elizabeth took a drive with the president. The queen found the experience “exhilarating but frightening. There were times when I thought we could go right off the road and tumble down the hills.”
Prime Minister Winston Churchill also went driving with FDR, but he was a bit uneasy when Roosevelt would drive close to the edges of the precipices over the Hudson. He admitted offering a silent prayer for the efficiency of the special controls. Churchill found driving with FDR an “efficient way” to hold a meeting to discuss what to do next during the war.
Information about the modified cars is confusing. Although Lonce attributes FDR’s election as governor of New York in 1928 to photographs of him at the wheel of an automobile, there is no immediately available information about cars he was using at that period. When he first entered politics in 1910, he rented a 1909 Maxwell which he referred to as the “red devil,” and motor vehicle records show he owned a Desoto in 1932, but the first information about a car with hand controls relates to a 1932 Plymouth PA Phaeton, that was kept at the Summer White House in Warm Springs, Ga. Pictures show it was used until 1937.
It apparently was replaced by a 1938 Ford convertible that is on display at the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.
Roosevelt is reported to have had a hand in designing the special controls, although according to the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, N.Y., the Plymouth PA was fitted with hand controls supplied by the Stone Controls company of Summit, N.J. — the manufacturer of the controls had been a patient at Warm Springs himself. However, a 1937 letter from the Stone Company to the administrator of the Warm Springs Foundation gives credit for the control mechanism to a Mr. M. Mcintyre. The display with the 1938 car at Warm Springs indicates that Roosevelt himself designed the controls and the Foundation brace shop made them for him.
The 1936 Phaeton used to entertain Churchill and British royalty was maintained and used at the Hyde Park estate, where it is now on display.
The hand controls are relatively simple. The technicians copied designs for the special controls from devices Henry Ford had used on his Model T and early Model A cars. On the Model T, the handbrake lever on the driver’s left was connected directly to the linkage that operated the brake shoes in the hubs of the rear wheels and an attached cam moved a cam follower that released the clutch.
One of the hand control levers on the Roosevelt cars protrudes from the floor on the driver’s left and controls both the clutch and brake. Pushed forward halfway, it releases the clutch. Pushed all the way forward, it applies the brakes. The other, mounted on the right side of the steering column below the steering wheel controls the throttle. A similar lever in much the same position served as the “gas” lever (accelerator) on the earlier T and A Models.
Murvin Perry of Johnson City is a retired journalism professor.comments powered by Disqus