- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

Trains, boats and planes all have their allure, but when it comes to travel, America’s heart truly belongs to the automobile. Who doesn’t have a story about a favorite car or road trip that changed his or her life forever?

The listening and telling was part of the fun Tuesday night at a lavish bash heralding the new $25 million, 16,000-square-foot General Motors Hall of Transportation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. No matter whom you talked to among the Cabinet members, senators, members of Congress, socialites, business executives — everyone had a favorite tale to share.

For Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, it was a coast-to-coast post-high school graduation trip with a pal in an Austin-Healey convertible.

“We had very little money, but gas was cheap, and the top was down,” Mr. Small recalled as he greeted guests with his co-host, GM Chairman G. Richard Wagoner Jr., in a vast party tent adjacent to the exhibit.

Michael Berman remembered hitting the highway in a ‘51 Pontiac after finishing high school in 1959. Halfway across the country, “it got a flat and died. I had no money and no spare and ended up spending the night in a jail,” courtesy of the local sheriff,” Mr. Berman said as his wife, Carol, recounted happier moments looking at old Burma Shave signs from the back seat of her family’s car.

Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa mentioned a fun trip on Route 66 in ‘61. Sen. Carl Levin had painful memories of “cracking up” his family’s brand-new Oldsmobile. George Stevens Jr. grinned from ear to ear as he recalled a memorable car ride with Elizabeth Taylor in his father’s magnificent Mercedes 360SL roadster.

Ken Burns’ first car (always one’s most fondly remembered) was a 1963 Rambler. His favorite trip? Well, that would involve a lot of storytelling. “I’ve got the best job in the country,” the celebrated film historian said, “because I’m always on the road.”

Mr. Burns’ latest documentary also was celebrated Tuesday night. “Horatio’s Driver: America’s First Road,” which airs Monday on PBS, tells the story of the first cross-country trek by automobile. Despite numerous breakdowns and the scarcity of roads and gas stations in 1903, car-crazed Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson finished the trip in a mere 63 days.

“He set the 20th century in motion in America,” Mr. Burns told the crowd after a Fat Fifties repast of iceberg lettuce salad, beef tenderloin and fudge ice cream cake in the upstairs galleries. “Before his achievement, the automobile was denigrated as a rich man’s toy.”

Rock legend Chuck Berry’s performance of “Maybellene” (among other hits) was bound to please Cadillac fans in the crowd, although local auto magnate Mandell Ourisman may have been somewhat disappointed with his choice of tune.

“You Always Get Your Way at Ourisman Chevrolet” would have provided the perfect local touch.

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