Sunday, December 11, 2011

Franklin Roosevelt and Al Capone's car ...

On December 8, 1941 – one day after the Japanese surprise attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor -- U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was set to make one of the most important speeches of his political career.  He was to address Congress (and millions of Americans via radio broadcasts) from the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, noting the “Day of Infamy” and seeking a declaration of war against Japan.

But before he could do that, there was a problem to overcome. Government regulations had prohibited spending more than $750 for a car, even for the president. So on previous trips around Washington, Roosevelt had used a typical, non-bullet proof car. But on this day, when suspicions ran unusually high so soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, the possibility that Japan might have agents in place to try to kill the president couldn’t be easily dismissed. So riding in a standard, off-the-rack-type of car from the White House to the Capitol seemed to be a tremendous risk for the American leader.

Steven M. Gillen’s 2011 book Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War offers the resolution to the problem. According the Gillen, it went down like this:
   “'Mr. President, I’ve taken the liberty of getting a new car,’” White House Secret Service head Mike Reilly said to Roosevelt after he stepped out of the White House for the trip to the Capitol. “‘It’s armored, I’m afraid it’s a little uncomfortable, and I know it has a dubious reputation.’
   ‘Dubious reputation?’ FDR asked inquisitively.
   ‘Yes sir. It belonged to Al Capone. The Treasury Department had a little trouble with Al, you know, and they got it from him in the subsequent legal complications. I got it from treasury.’
   Roosevelt seemed amused. ‘I hope Al doesn’t mind,’ he said.”

Al Capone was a notorious gangster who was convicted in 1931. Roosevelt continued using Capone’s car for trips into 1942, when it was replaced by a specially designed armored car that the federal government leased from Ford Motor Co. for $500 annually.
The Capone car has been in private hands for many decades, according to a history of the car provided by RM Auction in 2006. Wonder where it is now ...

(The History Insider note: More recent information suggests that this story is false, despite what would seem to be evidence from a solid source here.)

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