If you are on this site, you have probably figured out that I have something of a fascination with cars. What probably doesn’t come through, though, is an interest in history that is more than passing. Indeed, my collection of nonfiction books dwarfs the two small shelves of novels at the back of my office. History has always fascinated me for one simple reason: it is why we are where we are.
If you were to assume, then, that cars that have a history are especially fascinating to me, you would be correct.
Strangely enough, it was by way of a very modern device that I found out about Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo. It was a warm April morning and I had just arrived at work and began to check the Twitter feeds I manage for my job. Close to the top of my personal feed was a tweet from @Jalopnik that read “The secret of Harry Truman’s lost 1953 Chrysler” and included a link to this article.
I love stories like that. Someone finds a car in a barn that has sat disused for decades, only to find that it has some serious history behind it. This was one of the coolest things I had read in a while.
But I had work to do. So, I retweeted the original post and went back to my workday.
Several weeks later I was walking through Barnes & Noble and I saw a book on one of the display tables. I think it was the odd off-green color of the cover that got my attention, but it could have been the big black and white photo of Harry Truman behind the wheel that also graces the front of the book.
I stopped to look at it and immediately my mind jumped back to Jalopnik article. That piece was a cool novelty on a boring morning, but here was the whole story of a time when an ex-President and his wife could just get in the car and take a road trip. That trip, the book promised, turned into an adventure. I suddenly needed to read it.
The problem was, I was still half a semester away from finishing my master’s degree and reading of a frivolous nature was just not in the time budget. I promised myself that, if I bought it that day, I would allow myself the reward of a relaxing and fascinating read when the semester had come to a successful conclusion.
When I finally sat down to read it, though, another thought occurred to me. This would be a great way to take my blog in a slightly different direction than my usual car reviews and project updates. I am certainly not a professional book reviewer, but I am a car guy and a bit of an amateur historian – two areas addressed specifically by this book. I think I am uniquely qualified to offer my thoughts.
Hopefully you will enjoy them as much as I enjoyed the story.
When Harry Truman left office, he did so with the dubious distinction of having achieved the lowest approval rating in recorded history. As Algeo points out, though, one would not have known it from the cheering crowds that saw him off in Washington D.C. Or the ones that met him at train stops along the way to his home in Western Missouri. Despite his unpopularity, many still viewed Truman with high respect.
It was a different time, I guess, when you could respect a President on principle even if you didn’t approve of his policies.
It was also a time when the President left office and simply returned home. None of the modern burdens on the ex-President (i.e. constant Secret Service protection) existed then. But then again, neither did a pension.
Yep, the man who had just completed a term as Commander-In-Chief received no compensation once he left office.
As Algeo points out, that had not proved to be a problem in recent memory. Roosevelt had died in office and Hoover, who was the only other living ex- at that time, was what one might call fabulously wealthy.
Truman, on the other hand, had relied on more modest means while ascending to the highest office. Thus, when he returned home, it was to those same means.
It is hard to imagine now.
The summer after he left office, Truman and his wife decided to do something even more unimaginable now: take a road trip. They would take Harry’s new 1953 Chrysler New Yorker and drive it from their home in Independence, Missouri to Washington D.C., then Philadelphia and finally New York before making the long drive back home. It is this journey that author Matthew Algeo chronicles.
Perhaps “chronicles” is too dry a term, though. The whole book is written as though he is the narrator of a television documentary or book on tape and, from the first page, Algeo takes a friendly tone. In the early parts, he takes a very casual, almost Bill Bryson-like approach to story telling. He abandons that mode somewhere after the first hundred pages or so, though, and sticks with a more cut-and-dry discussion method for the rest. I don’t know if the shift was intentional, but it was noticeable to me, anyway.
To keep the story from getting monotonous, Algeo breaks it up with little mini-stories relating to the Trumans’ journey. He talks about the history of each location the former First Couple passed through and what has happened to it since, before describing the actual visit.
One of the more fascinating tomes is Algeo’s description of the origins of the nation’s roads, from Thomas Jefferson through the modern interstates. The evolution is truly remarkable.
Another similarly interesting story involves the rise and fall in popularity of the motor hotel, or mo-tel, and the subsequent improvements in roadside hospitality. I think an entire book could be (and probably has been) written on that subject, but suffice it to say that the Hampton Inn wasn’t always right around the corner for travelers on the road.
As interesting as I found all of the side stories, the focus of the book is Harry Truman himself.
Truman, it seems, was a bit of a car guy. Not a mechanic, mind you, but a man who was fascinated by them. He cared for his cars, as Algeo puts it, “with a meticulousness that bordered on compulsive.”
And he was especially meticulous about the New Yorker: “He had the oil changed every thousand miles. He had it washed and vacuumed every few days. He habitually inspected the tires, measuring the tread and air pressure. He religiously recorded every gasoline purchase on a small card he kept inside the glove compartment, so he could calculate fuel mileage.”
He wasn’t simply an obsessive-compulsive neat freak, though. Truman loved to drive. During his campaign for the Senate in 1934, he had traversed much of Missouri in his own Plymouth. During his stint in the Senate he spent considerable time on the road. Even the Presidency couldn’t keep him from behind the wheel and Truman was rumored to have driven his own limo home on several occasions.
Those must have been remarkable occasions, too, since Truman’s “biggest vice was speed.”
Although there are no documented incidents of speeding, there are plenty of rumors and stories, which Algeo clearly relishes in sharing.
I never really knew about Harry Truman the car guy, but it was damn cool to get to know him.
Truth be told, most of the story of the Trumans’ trip is actually pretty boring. “Harry stopped here and had dinner, then signed some autographs, drove to this motel and went to sleep” kind of stuff. Algeo, though, makes the characters compelling. Each one has a story and each story is told in careful, friendly terms with seamless transitions from one the next.
It was Harry’s story that kept me interested, though. I could identify with the man as a lover of cars and as someone who is at home on the road. If you are reading this site, you could probably say the same.