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Where William Howard Taft's Steam-Powered Car Calls Home

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WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT
William Howard Taft is pictured in his robes as Chief Justice of the United States, February 5, 1930. He served in the post from 1921 to 1930. Taft served as the 27th U.S. President, 1909-1913. (AP Photo) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SANDWICH -- It was Presidents Day in 1909 and William Howard Taft was watching television at the White House.

Another car commercial came on.

"Come on down!" said the pitchman. "What's it going to take to put you in this 1909 White Steam Car today?

Of course there was no Presidents Day back then and no TV either.

But President Taft loved cars and he may have been the guy that got the whole Presidents Day/car sale thing going.

One of his beloved autos calls Cape Cod home.

"He was the first president to be officially transported by automobile as opposed to horse-drawn carriage," said Jennifer Madden, director of collections and exhibitions at Heritage Museums & Gardens.

For more than 40 years, Taft's White steam car has been in the collection of vehicles displayed at the J.K. Lilly III Automobile Museum.

A cheerful and gregarious man, Taft was a big auto enthusiast even before he helmed the country for four years starting in 1909.

"When he became president, one of the first things he did was get some money to buy a fleet of automobiles and this car was one of them," Madden said. "But, of course, while he was president, he had a chauffeur to drive him."

In addition to the White steamer, the 27th U.S. president also acquired two Pierce-Arrow limousines, according to the White House Historical Association. At the time, nobody was able to tell whether gasoline, steam or electrical power was going to corner the car market, Madden said.

"Steam had its advantages because it was familiar to people -- people knew it from locomotives and steam-powered factories," she said. "It was safe, it was quiet, water was available everywhere."

But the drawbacks could cause road rage these days. The mechanically complicated vehicles took 10 to 40 minutes to warm up, for example. "You're basically waiting for water to boil, like cooking pasta," Madden said, adding that it wasn't long before gasoline-powered vehicles were the favorite.

Taft apparently liked that the White steamer helped him hide from the paparazzi.

"The $4,000 Steamer became a favorite of the camera-shy president when he discovered he could conceal himself from pesky press photographers with a carefully timed burst of steam," according to a 1993 article in Popular Mechanics magazine.

It is unclear whether Taft's steamer made the road trip to Provincetown in 1910, when the president dedicated the 252-foot-tall Pilgrim Monument. "Road conditions at the time were not great," said Madden.

The public can see Taft's White steamer when the museum opens for the season April 19. ___

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