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Francis H. Robinson: The Man Behind the Wheel at the White House

Meet Francis H. Robinson, the long-time chauffeur at the White House who drove six presidents, countless kings and queens, and other dignitaries. Learn the history of the automobile at the White House, plus amusing anecdotes about each president's driving preference.
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This is a great personal story of a behind-the-scenes man. Francis H. Robinson was a long-time chauffeur for the White House, having arrived in Washington back in 1910. Robinson was originally from Massachusetts, born around 1876, and had been driving vehicles there for about two decades when Taft came calling.

The original chauffeur, George Robinson, was dismissed at the request of the President in July 1910 and Francis stepped in as his replacement. Abel Long became the head chauffeur, having come to the White House on a strong recommendation from the Pierce-Arrow company.

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Francis H. Robinson (December 27th, 1919)
Francis H. Robinson (December 27th, 1919)

Long became sick in June of 1911 and Francis was then promoted to head chauffeur. He pushed for a raise to coincide with his promotion, but he was block by Taft’s aide, Archibald Butt (the man who tragically went down with the Titanic ten months later). He had to accept the $125 a month salary.

Washington Times - October 31st, 1919
Washington Times – October 31st, 1919

Robinson, or “Robby” as he was known to his colleagues, was witness to an incredible amount of history, having served as official chauffeur for six presidents. Arriving with the first automobile during Taft’s administration, he continued to serve under Wilson, Harding, CoolidgeHoover and Roosevelt.

Well over twenty decades behind the wheel, he also drove countless kings, queens, and dignitaries on during their visits to Washington. He was so well-admired that King Albert of Belgium bestowed Robinson with a military ribbon for his service. The medal was personally given by the King to thank Francis for his service during Albert’s visit to the city in 1919.

In the 1920 U.S. Census, Robby was listed as living at 1812 G St. NW with his wife Annue, and his occupation was “Chauffeur, Executive Mansion.” By the early 1930s, his address was listed as 733 22nd St. NW.

Francis H. Robinson in the 1920 U.S. Census
Francis H. Robinson in the 1920 U.S. Census

Here’s a great shot of Robinson driving President and Mrs. Wilson.

President and Mrs. Wilson (March 20th, 1920)
President and Mrs. Wilson (March 20th, 1920)

The history of the automobile at the White House is an interesting one. The automobile really came of age and started becoming a reliable enough mode of transportation at the turn of the century, during Teddy Roosevelt’s Administration. However, President Roosevelt preferred the rougher, 19th-century mode of transportation, riding his own horse around Washington and the countryside. On occasion, he would borrow a car to speedily take him somewhere, but he never ordered an official White House motor vehicle.

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His successor, President Taft, was the first to order an official motor vehicle for the White House (which happened to be steam-powered).

An amusing article from the New York Evening Post on January 7th, 1928, mentions the driving preferences of each president. Coolidge preferred to ride in a closed car and not be bothered by the wind. He was also known to require the driver to follow the speed limit, strictly. This proclivity to slow-pedal it really irritated the drivers behind him, as the Secret Service would not permit tailing vehicles to pass the President.

The First White House Car
The First White House Car

The latest addition to Nats Park’s Presidents Race, Taft, was a speed demon, always pushing the driver to step on it. He also preferred to feel the wind in his hair (and mustache), opting for an open car and one with no windshield.

His successor, Woodrow Wilson, was more sedate in his taste, taking a closed car and following most speed limits.

President Harding, on the other hand, was the wildest of them all. He opted for the closed car, but it was impossible for any vehicle to go fast enough for his taste.

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