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the bridge drive


(the Woodrow Wilson Bridge dedication)


Article from The Steering Wheel, Chesapeake Bay Region, CCCA, Spring 2006,

The Silver Ghost Tourer, The Silver Ghost Association, 06-3,

The Flying Lady, The Rolls-Royce Owners Club, September/October, 06-05,

and The Bulletin, the Classic Car Club of America, October, 2006.



for those who came in late…


80JH is a 1923 Rolls-Royce Springfield Silver Ghost that was given to former President Woodrow Wilson as a 67th birthday present, on December 28th, 1923.  The car was delivered with two bodies, an Oxford six-passenger touring body with an extended windshield, and a special limousine body that duplicated the dimensions of the body on the 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine that was President Wilson’s White House car.  He rode in the Rolls-Royce once, on his birthday.  President Wilson had been in very poor health since leaving the White House, and he died in early February 1924.  Edith Wilson kept the car until 1932, when it was traded in on a Packard. 



                        80JH, being delivered on December 28th, 1923.           Woodrow, Edith, and Margaret Wilson, in the back seat of 80JH.

photos courtesy of John deCampi.


A Princeton student named Walter Compton subsequently purchased the car from the Packard agency.  Mr. Compton then sold a half-interest in the car to fellow student (and future brother-in-law) Charles Emerson. Compton and Emerson had the car “updated” in Indiana in 1933: the high windshield was cut down, a Packard top was installed, the front seat was modified, and the steering column was lowered.  Mr. Compton was quoted as saying, “We made a very sporty car out of it.”  Marriage and a growing family prompted Compton to give his half-interest in the car to Emerson.  When Emerson likewise married and began a family, 80JH was then sold to George Waterman, who kept the car for several years. It was sold to Bentley Warren just after WW II.


In the early 1950s, Bentley Warren felt that the car was getting somewhat mechanically tired.  He was able to purchase a Springfield Silver Ghost with a good chassis (394XH) and engine (21-219), but a tired sedan body.  A common practice at that time, the body, firewall and bonnet were moved from 80JH to 394XH.  Bentley Warren sold the complete car to Donald Hurter in the mid-1960s, keeping the original chassis (albeit without the correct firewall) and engine (22-155).  Don Hurter restored the car mechanically, but never did much with the body. 


Ted Leonard, a collector in Rhode Island, purchased the car in the mid-1970s.  He was also able to purchase the original chassis and engine from Bentley Warren at the same time.  When he restored the car, the original Oxford touring body was reunited with chassis 80JH, but the other engine (21-219) remained with the car. (For more details of the history of 80JH, see Phil Brooks’ article in the 2006 RROC Desk Diary.) 


And why was the bridge named for Woodrow Wilson?  President Wilson was an avid fan of the automobile.  In 1916, recognizing the need for better roads, he signed a Federal Highway Aid Bill.  He was the first member of the Lincoln Highway Association, and liked his White House Pierce-Arrow limousine well enough that he purchased the car from the government when he left the White House in 1921. 


The current Woodrow Wilson Bridge was built between 1958 and 1961, and was dedicated on December 28th, 1961 (Woodrow Wilson’s birthday, and coincidentally the very day Edith Wilson died).  The original bridge was designed to carry 75,000 cars per day.  By 1988, it was carrying more than twice its intended load, and recently, that had grown to almost three times.  In the mid-1980s, the critical need for a larger and more substantial crossing became clear.  In 2000, after years of debate, planning and design, the Federal Highway Administration and Maryland, Virginia and District of Columbia transportation departments began construction on the first of two new spans, which will replace the existing bridge when complete.


here's where the fun begins…

In mid-April 2006, I received a call from Andy Diem, Chairman of the Chesapeake Region of the RROC.  He had received an email from Meg Nowack, Curator of the Woodrow Wilson House in Northwest DC.  The Wilson House was about to receive 80JH on loan for the next two years.  The current plans were to have the car sitting in the driveway in front of the house for the Wilson House’s annual Garden Party, have the car drive dignitaries during the dedication ceremonies for the first span of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River, and then participate in a driving tour around the Dupont-Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhoods in Northwest DC where the Wilson House is located.  And they needed someone to drive the car. 


Knowing of my interest in cars of this vintage, and that I have had a small (very small) amount of experience with Silver Ghosts, he asked if I was interested.  I believe I had to give the idea about two whole milliseconds of thought before I said yes.


the first look…

80JH, in the garage at 2340 S Street, NW, Washington, DC.

One week after 80JH was delivered to DC, I was able to get down to look at the car for the first time.  Former RROC Big Cheese Matt Sysak took the train from Philadelphia down to DC, and I picked him up at Union Station.  We met Andy Diem at the Wilson House. 


After looking the car over, we both quickly reached the conclusion that “Woodie” had received minimal (if any) maintenance over the past few years.  When we got the car started, we heard one intake valve that appeared to be sticking.  The car had been driven into the garage, and I was asked to turn it around and back it in.  I got it done, but the clutch was not happy about backing up that inclined driveway.  Over lunch, we began discussing a plan of attack for the chassis maintenance. 




the test drive…

…was just that, a spin around the block a few times to determine if I thought the car would run well enough to survive the bridge dedication ceremonies.  She performed fine, although I learned that the temperature gauge and the speedometer don’t work.  We also heard some noises emanating from the right-rear wheel.  Tapping the wheel spokes with a screwdriver indicated that a significant percentage of those spokes were ‘dead’.  Here we are putting her away again…

photos courtesy of Bill Loewy


and now for a bit of elbow grease…

A couple of days prior to the Garden Party, I called Meg and asked if she felt like working late the next evening.  My plan was to do some basic cleaning.  When I told Matt Sysak what I was planning, he almost begged me to change the oil while I was there. 


photos courtesy of John Kelly, The Washington Post


I arrived about 4pm.  While I began giving her a bath, Meg asked what she could do.  I handed her a bottle of Bleche-White and a brush, and she got right to work on the whitewalls.  With that done, it was time to start working on polishing the radiator, and the headlamps, and the cowl lamps, and the door handles. And did I mention the tail lamp?  Or the steering column?  Or Eleanor? (Meg worked on her, some.)  We also removed the seats and vacuumed the interior (there was a fair amount of evidence that critters had taken up residence in the past).  When all that was finished, I backed the car back into the garage, and I drained the crankcase and put in six quarts of fresh oil (I could almost hear Matt sighing with relief).  I departed at 9:30pm.

the garden party…

The Wilson House holds an annual Garden Party as a fundraiser.  This year was the debut of the Ghost at the beginning of her two-year tenure here in DC.  This was easy, start her up, put her in the circle in front of the house, and put her away again when the party was finished.  I also got a personal tour of the house, including the servant’s floor, which is now used for office space, and not included on the tour.

some last-minute prep…

This included changing the wheel with the questionable spokes (for which I had to acquire a proper wheel wrench, as there were no tools with the car), and starting in on the chassis lubrication.  This included oiling the clutch and throwout bearing, the distributor, and as many other oiling cups as I could locate (and I know I didn’t find them all).  When this was done, we took her out for a short drive, and put her away.  The lubricated clutch seemed much happier backing up the driveway (although the continuing education of the pilot may have contributed as well).

and it’s showtime

The day began hideously early (4am), in order to get down to the Wilson House to meet the car hauler. We were scheduled to be on the bridge by 7am.  Since “Woodie” isn’t currently registered, I thought it was a good idea to have the car trucked down and back. 

Waiting for the flatbed with Andy Diem.

Loaded up and ready to roll.

With John Undeland, the PR guy who was in charge of the dedication ceremonies.

Meg Nowack, Curator of the Woodrow Wilson House.

The bridge drive…

My passengers were Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.  Governor Kaine and Secretary Mineta walked from the Virginia side of the bridge, and Governor Ehrlich and Mayor Williams walked from the Maryland side.  They all met in the middle of the draw span and shook hands. At this point, we pulled up, my able footman Andy Diem got out, opened the doors, and the dignitaries all got in the car.  Andy got to walk away as we continued across the bridge.  The choreography for the ceremony had me driving past the podium and the grandstand, turning the car around, driving back past the grandstand, and parking next to the podium. 

(L – R) The Chauffeur, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams, and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

On the drive across, as we were heading downhill, looking at the Virginia shoreline, someone in the back seat (I don’t know who) said, “We should just keep on going.” To this, Secretary Mineta replied, “Yeah, we could go to Five Guys (a local hamburger chain).”  As part of the ceremony, I had to turn the car around and drive it back toward the draw span, parking next to the podium.  As I was backing the car up towards the Jersey wall, someone in the back seat asked, “How are the brakes?”  My response was, “Well, all two of them work okay.”  And then a different voice in the back seat asked, “How well can you swim?”



80JH, following our fifteen minutes of fame.

We eased back past the grandstand, and I parked the car next to the podium. After my passengers got out, my part in the production was finished.  We waited for the ribbon cuttings (there were two, one for the Governors, the Mayor and the Secretary, and a second for the other elected representatives present), and the inevitable speeches.  Fortunately, those were kept mercifully brief.  When the ceremony was finished, I drove the car back to the other side of the bridge.  We loaded her onto the flatbed, and headed back to the Wilson House.  It began to sprinkle a bit during the drive, but we managed to dodge that bullet.  When we returned to the Wilson House, the sun was shining brightly, but the pavement was very wet.  80JH was then put away, to await further cleaning and lubrication. 

After the ceremony, (L – R): Frank Aucella, Executive Director of the Woodrow Wilson House; Meg Nowack, Curator of the Woodrow Wilson House; The Chauffeur; Andy Diem, able footman and Chairman of the Chesapeake Region, RROC.


Putting her away, after a busy day.


on the road again…


The “Road Rally on S Street” happened two weeks later.  This was a tour of the Dupont-Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhoods in Northwest DC held in concert with the Museum Walk Weekend.  It was also an event for the Chesapeake Region of the RROC, and about fifteen PMCs were in attendance.  With my continuing concerns about the state of the car’s maintenance, the route was cut short.  Perhaps I was worrying for nothing, as the car performed fine, and did not seem to run hot (I felt the radiator when we returned to the Wilson House driveway).  I did get to meet Jerauld Adams, the friend of the Leonard family who got the car running.  Jerauld told me that the car had been sitting in that barn in Rhode Island for about eight years.



                              Starting on the Road Rally.                                                             And here we are on the street.


and for my next trick…


Vern Parker (no relation) writes a weekly column on old cars for the Washington Times.  He features a different car each week, and has a show once each year for those cars he has written about.  I have learned that 80JH was written up about fifteen years ago and is therefore eligible to attend.  My goal for the summer is to get the chassis maintenance to the point that I would feel comfortable enough to drive it out to this particular show.  It’s about a twenty-mile round trip, and I can do it all on local roads.  I’ll keep you posted…




I want to thank Phil Brooks for permission to use his article, “President Wilson’s Birthday Present” in the RROC 2006 Desk Diary, as source material.


the epilogue…


Woodie didn’t make it to Vern’s show. It seems that the published piece on the car was a sidebar, and Vern said that she didn’t qualify.  We did take her to the Rockville show, however she was trucked up and back.



In 2008, I learned that Ted Leonard had passed away some months previously.  Betty Leonard ultimately decided to put Woodie up for auction at the Bonhams Greenwich sale in 2009.  A friend of mine moves cars for Bonhams, and he asked me to help in getting  Woodie loaded.  At that point, I hadn’t been down to see her in over a year, and hadn’t tried to start her in about 2 years.  The fuel system had become thoroughly gummed up, and while she would start, she would not run for more than 30 seconds at a time.  So we had to push her out of the garage and winch her into the trailer. 




Three months later, she crossed the auction block in Greenwich and was sold for $161,000.00.  I made inquiries, but have not been able to learn who purchased her.


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