Princeton Alumni Weekly. June 15, 1981.

Editor’s note: This story from 1981 contains dated language that is no longer used today. In the interest of keeping a historical record, it appears here as it was originally published.

A rather substantial specter returned to the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., last month. It was Wilson’s 1923 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, now owned by Ted Leonard of Barrington, Rhode Island, who tells the tale of the car’s long journey back.

In 1923 a group of Wilson’s friends, including Bernard Baruch, Cleveland Dodge 1879, and Thomas Davies Jones 1879, decided to give him a new car as a birthday present. The six-passenger Rolls cost nearly $13,000 and had interchangeable summer touring and winter limo bodies. Its rear doors were altered to accommodate Wilson, who was by then an invalid. Best of all, it was black with orange trim.

Wilson was surprised and delighted with the gift, presented to him on his 67th birthday. He was taken for a ride around the neighborhood, but that turned out to be his only trip in the Rolls, for he died about a month later.

Mrs. Wilson kept the car until 1932, when she decided to buy a new one. She asked a local dealer to arrange for the Rolls to be sold quietly. During spring break that year, Walter Compton ’33 went to Washington to visit his classmate John Kerkam. The Kerkams’ car was being serviced at the dealer’s garage, where Compton discovered the Silver Ghost.

“I was always interested in old cars,” he recalls, “so I asked the man, jokingly, if it was for sale. He said, ‘Yes, I’ve been instructed to sell it to the first person who inquires about it.’ I said, ‘That’s a very strange directive. Who owns it?’ When I learned it had been Wilson’s car and that I could get it for $300, I decided to buy it.

“This was during the Depression and $300 was a lot, but I had that much saved. Then I drove it back to Princeton and went to see Dean Gauss. He reminded me of the rule forbidding students to have cars, but I explained this wasn’t just any car – it had been Wilson’s and that made it special. He agreed, saying I could keep it if it was garaged off-campus and if I just used it to drive home to Indiana.”

Over the summer, Compton and his future brother-in-law, Charles Emerson ’33, had it remodeled. The windscreen was cut in half, the front seat lowered and moved back, the steering column angle changed, and a Packard Phaeton top put on. “We made a real sporty car out of it,” recalls Compton.

The Ghost took Compton and Emerson to Harvard Medical School, but then both married and had families and the Rolls seemed unsuitable. It was sold to a car collector, then to Bentley Warren of Boston, and after that it is hard to keep tabs on the Ghost.

According to Leonard, by then the body of the auto was getting a little shabby, though the engine and chassis were in good condition. When Warren spied a Ghost of the same era with a good body, he arranged to make a deal with its owner, a Harvard student. For $50 and a couple of drinks Warren bought the other Rolls and grafted the new body onto the chassis.

Leonard says he has returned the Ghost to its original condition, right down to the orange trim and Wilson’s initials. That’s the version visiting its old haunts in Washington through mid-October.

This was originally published in the June 15, 1981 issue of PAW.