I recently traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to visit the home and Presidential Library of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. In the basement, behind interactive screens and panels of thick glass, sits his 1936 Ford Phaeton Convertible — with the top down. After contracting polio at 39, FDR became paralyzed from the waist down. To accommodate his disability and love of driving, FDR acquired a car unlike any other — a Ford Phaeton, which was custom-designed to be entirely operated by hand.
Delivered to him by the Ford Motor Company on April 26th, 1936, the Ford Phaeton resided at his Hyde Park home, where FDR loved to take trips around his property, giving rides to many notable politicians and heads of state. Notable passengers included Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Fiorello LaGuardia, his family and his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala, to name a few. On a trip to a picnic on his property, Queen Elizabeth described his driving as, "very frightening, but quite exhilarating. It was a relief to get to the picnic." A Park Ranger from the National Park Service leading the tour mentioned that Queen Elizabeth also said "(The ride) was more terrifying than the bombs of London!"
Franklin Delano Roosevelt preferred the convertible style because it allowed him to address the public without standing. He often held press conferences from the driver’s seat and loved to drive fast. For FDR, the Phaeton symbolized freedom, which he often exercised by evading and outrunning the Secret Service members assigned to protect him on his property.
The Ford Phaeton’s hand controls were ingenuously designed by Fred Relyea, a local mechanic from the nearby town of Poughkeepsie. As illustrated in these diagrams from the FDR Presidential Library & Museum’s website, the clutch and brake were operated by one lever that, when pushed halfway, would engage the clutch — and when pushed in further, it controlled the brakes. The throttle was controlled by a push/pull lever mounted on the right side of the steering column. Also mounted on the steering column was a small device that dispensed freshly lit cigarettes to FDR’s hand.
The gearshift and hand brake were not modified. Although this Ford Phaeton is the second of FDR’s hand-operated vehicles (the other, a Plymouth PA Phaeton, lived in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he resided yearly for polio treatments), I believe these were of the earliest disability-accessible vehicles manufactured in the United States. During its use — until 1946, when FDR’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, donated the car to the Presidential Library — it had logged 19,143 miles.
FDR was elected during the Great Depression in 1933 and presided over the nation during World War II. He was the first and only president to serve for more than two terms, ending with his death on April 12th, 1945. During these pivotal years of technological growth, FDR was also the first president to travel by air, which lead to the first presidential aircraft, a Douglas VC-54C named The Sacred Cow. This customized aircraft included an elevator that lifted FDR directly into the aircraft in his wheelchair. As a lifelong naval enthusiast and a former Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, FDR also opted to travel on naval ships, which were fit with special railings and elevators for his use.
FDR’s disability was widely known, yet he went to painstaking lengths to diminish the visibility of his handicap. All wheelchair ramps in his home could be removed from sight. He was rarely seen or photographed in a wheelchair. At the time, disabilities were highly stigmatized, and the President did not want to appear weak. FDR’s love of American automobiles shows that the 32nd president was at the forefront of innovative, modern development that began to destigmatize disability and promote technological advances that made transportation accessible to all. Find a used Ford for sale