List of McKinley Firsts Part 6: William McKinley was the First President to Ride in an Automobile

Presidents of today have many means of transportation at their disposal. Early Presidents rode in carriages. The first President to ride in a train was Andrew Jackson. Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s Presidential successor, was the first to ride in an automobile in a public procession. Years after his Uncle Teddy rode in an automobile, President Franklin Roosevelt was the first to ride in an airplane. However, William McKinley was the first president to ride in an automobile. Author Douglas Nelson Rhodes described the exchange between President McKinley and O.F. Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, prior to McKinley’s first ride.

“The President of the United States glanced again at the engraved calling card which the usher had placed on the desk after making his perfunctory introduction. It bore the name, O.F. Stanley.

‘I’ve heard of you, Mr. Stanley,’ said the chief executive. ‘You recently invented a steam-propelled horseless carriage, did you not?’

‘Yes, Mr. President,’ replied the visitor, ‘and I have called to inquire if you will do me the honor of witnessing a demonstration of my invention at your convenience, and perhaps take a short ride in it.’

The President hesitated. ‘I appreciate the invitation, Mr. Stanley, but are you quite sure the contraption is safe? You know, as chief executive, I must refrain from taking unnecessary risks.’

‘You have my word there will not be the slightest danger,’ Stanley promised and hastened to add: ‘The news that the president has recognized horseless carriages as a new mode of travel will stimulate public interest in the further development of these machines. I venture to predict that within a few years they will be a commonplace means of transportation.’

‘That remains to be seen,’ said the president. ‘However, I believe it will do no harm to accept your invitation. It may prove an interesting experience.’”[1]

And so William McKinley, who was known for driving his wife Ida in a carriage throughout Washington, became the first United States President to ride in an automobile. The automobile was a Stanley Steamer. The President apparently did not enjoy his ride. The reader can picture McKinley riding in the automobile gripping the seat with white knuckles. McKinley later reported to a friend that he felt as if the car and its occupants could be blown to bits at any moment, or that the driver would lose control of the vehicle. “Stanley’s overoptimistic, I think, when he says those things will someday replace horses,”[2] McKinley supposedly remarked. While there is no picture available of McKinley’s ride, one can only imagine if that ride occurred in the vehicle pictured below, with no protective roof, side panels, or safety belts that McKinley’s unease was indeed justified. Additionally, roads were little more that muddy paths with wheel ruts, so the ride was not smooth, and the passengers became covered with mud and dust unless wearing protective gear.


The Stanley Brothers in one of their first automobiles.[3]

However, it turned out that it was not the last time McKinley rode in a horseless carriage. After McKinley was shot by assassin Leon Czolgosz at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901, medics moved the president to the small infirmary on the exposition grounds in an electric ambulance.


The ambulance in which McKinley rode after his shooting. It was electric in keeping with the theme of the Exposition.

 The Stanley Steamer Company itself only existed until 1924, when the last Stanley Steamer was built. This is due to the fact that while the steam engine was much more economical to run than an internal combustion engine, a steam engine took much longer to warm up. To get a steam engine to full running power took a half hours’ time, while an internal combustion engine, with its electric starter, took only seconds.  And so to some extent, McKinley was right in that the steamer car did not last long. However, the internal combustion engine is still in use today. And of course, with the emphasis now being on eco-friendly or green transportation, thoughts return to building steam-powered cars. We shall have to see if Mr. McKinley’s prediction will still hold true for steam-powered automobiles.

[1] Douglas Nelson Rhodes, “In 1899, After Steamer Jaunt, He Predicted Cars Wouldn’t Replace Horses.” The cKinleyMilwaukee Journal, January 27, 1945. Retrieved 7.19.2016 from,3937913&hl=en


[2] Ibid.


[3] “The Stanley Brothers in One of Their Automobiles,” phot credit Retrieved 7.19.2016 from


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