Finding Harry Truman’s ChryslerHistorians/History
In the summer of 1953, Harry and Bess Truman, just five months removed from the White House, took a road trip. Unaccompanied by bodyguards or attendants of any kind, the former president and first lady drove 2,500 miles from their home in Missouri to the East Coast and back again. In Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, my book about the trip, I mentioned that the ultimate fate of Harry’s 1953 Chrysler New Yorker, the car in which he and Bess undertook their excursion, was unknown. But at an event in Kansas City shortly after the book came out, I was approached by Carey Creason, an animal feed saleswoman from Kansas who insisted her father had bought Harry’s Chrysler back in the 1970s, and that the car was stored in a barn on her family’s farm. She showed me an old Polaroid of the car, which, I had to admit, looked a lot like Harry’s.
Last November, I visited the Creason farm to investigate. Ostensibly the family raises vegetables, hay, and horses, but their most conspicuous crop was vintage automobiles in every conceivable state of repair, which dotted the landscape.
Carey drove me down to the barn where the Chrysler in question was stored. As we bounced along in her pickup, she explained how her family’s farm had come to be the final resting place for so many automobiles. “My dad liked to collect cars,” she said. “And he was a bit eccentric.” By Carey’s estimation, her father, Bob Creason, acquired at least seventy-five cars over the years. Some were immaculately restored. But many more were simply left to rust, or cannibalized for spare parts. “Dad would sometimes take two or three trucks and make one new one out of them,” Carey explained. “He’d take a fender from one, a hood from another, and put them together.”
In 2002, Bob Creason was killed in an automobile accident. He was seventy-six. Carey Creason still lives on the farm, and she looks after the cars her father left behind. She and her siblings just don’t seem to have the heart to get rid of them.
Carey pulled to a stop in front of a large metal barn. We got out of her pickup. Carey pulled open the sliding door and we walked inside.
And there it was, a battered car parked headfirst against a wall at the back of the barn. It clearly was not in driving condition. The headlights were broken, the body was badly rusted, the tires were flat, and the trunk was caved in. Still, there was no doubt that this was a 1953 Chrysler New Yorker.
But was it Harry’s?
Carey opened a manila file folder she’d brought with her and removed a yellowing piece of paper. It was the original title to the vehicle, which listed the owner as Harry S. Truman of Independence, Missouri.
The title also noted the vehicle’s serial number: 7232332.
I walked over to the car and, with some difficulty, pulled open the driver’s door. Attached to the doorframe was a small rectangular metal plate: “VEHICLE NO. 7232332.”
Bingo! It was Harry’s car.
Carey had other papers detailing the car’s provenance. Harry assigned the title to an Independence dealership in 1955, when he traded in the New Yorker for a newer version of the same model. Later that year, the dealership sold the car to a Kansas City lawyer named Sam Silverman.
The ownership trail goes cold until one morning in 1973, when Bob Creason’s son-in-law, Reed Whittaker, was taking a break at work. A co-worker in the break room called Reed’s attention to a classified ad for a 1953 Chrysler New Yorker. The ad mentioned that the car had once been owned by Harry Truman.
Reed immediately called Bob and told him about the car. Bob wanted it, but he was busy that day, so he asked Reed to go buy it for him. Reed called the number in the ad. The seller lived in Riverside, Missouri, just north of Kansas City. Reed took the afternoon off and hurried up to Riverside.
The purchase price was $800.
After the car was driven back to Bob’s farm, it was parked behind a barn. “Dad planned to restore it,” Carey said, “but he never got around to it.” For twenty-five years the car sat outside, exposed to the harsh elements of Kansas. In 1998, Bob built a new barn and towed the Chrysler inside it. The car hasn’t moved since then.
Carey told me she doesn’t know what her family will eventually do with the car. The cost of restoring it is prohibitive. But she assured me that, ultimately, the family will find a buyer who will appreciate and honor the car’s historic lineage. In a small way, this battered Chrysler connects her family to Harry Truman, and she would like to preserve that connection.
I asked Carey if I could sit in the driver’s seat. “Of course,” she said, and she fetched me a blanket to cover the crumbling bench seat. I squeezed behind the big three-spoke steering wheel. The headliner had fallen, and I had to hold it up with one hand. With my other hand I grabbed the wheel. Above it was a lovely half-circle speedometer. I pressed the ring on the wheel that sounded the horn, but heard nothing. I ran my fingers over the buttons on the radio. Dangling by some wires from the door was a gadget with a single row of four buttons. Harry’s Chrysler came equipped with power windows.
I was sitting exactly where Harry sat when he and Bess drove themselves halfway across the country and back in the summer of 1953. It wasn’t exactly an existential experience. Harry Truman’s Chrysler New Yorker was not my Holy Grail.
But, boy, it did feel pretty cool.