Payne: The presidential wheels of choice

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
  • “I like the car I’m in now. It’s a Chevrolet Suburban. Made in the USA,” Donald Trump said
  • Hillary Clinton can be found driving around in her campaign’s GMC Savana Explorer Limited van
  • Libertarian long-shot Gary Johnson drives a 2003 Porsche Targa and 2009 Toyota Tacoma

Americans are defined by their wheels, whether as motorheads, Prius huggers, minivan moms or pickup cowboys.

In a presidential campaign that has defied tradition and split America, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s different automotive tastes are suitably unusual.

The Democratic public servant for nearly three decades hasn’t owned a car since 2000, while the Republican New York business tycoon has a collection of more than 110 vehicles to match his outsized lifestyle.

Yet when it came time to choose their wheels for glad-handing Middle America, they have reverted to campaign tradition and arrived at a bipartisan consensus: Buy American and drive SUV.

“I like the car I’m in now. It’s a Chevrolet Suburban. Made in the USA,” The Donald said in a campaign email when The Detroit News asked him to name his favorite car in a multimillion-dollar fleet that includes a scissor-door Lamborghini Diablo and a Rolls-Royce Phantom.

The man is a natural-born politician.

Clinton can be found riding around these days in her campaign’s GMC Savana Explorer Limited van. She likes to call it the “Scooby Van” — a reference to the flower-powered machine that Scooby Doo and his teenage sleuths drove in the popular animated series from the 1970s.

But don’t expect to find her behind the wheel. She hasn’t driven a car since she was first lady in 1996 — the Oldsmobile Cutlass she bought in Arkansas in 1986.

“I remember it very well,” she told the National Auto Dealers Association Convention in 2014. “Unfortunately, so does the Secret Service, which is why I haven’t driven since then.”

Clinton sold the Cutlass and has since been chauffeured in big, government vehicles — usually the familiar black General Motors sport-utility vehicles of the Secret Service.

Clinton has had a long history with big Detroit iron even before she bought an Olds in law school. She grew up in Illinois in her father’s Cadillac. If she moves into the White House in 2017, she will get another Caddy — an all-new, truck-based, presidential limo code-named “The Beast.”

Libertarian long shot Gary Johnson drives a 2003 Porsche Targa and 2009 Toyota Tacoma.

The German and Japanese wheels may not be politically correct, but they represent an American dream garage: A sports car for on-track driving and a pickup for off-roading.

Shake Johnson’s hand on the campaign trail and there might be oil under his fingernails. The former New Mexico governor is a garage monkey.

“Favorite car I ever owned is a 1967 Austin Healey Sprite,” he told The News in an email. “Bought it for $350 with a blown head gasket and fixed it myself.”

He would be a kid in a candy store in Trump’s Garage Mahal of collectibles.

The Manhattan billionaire lives large. A gold and diamond-covered door greets visitors to his Trump Tower penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue. He flies aboard his own $100 million Boeing 757 — complete with gold-plated seat belts, according to BusinessInsider.com. And when he hits the road, he has a selection of toys to fit any mood.

Trump can go out in the Big Apple in a selection of luxury European land yachts including a classic, 1956 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, 2015 Rolls Phantom or a sumptuous Mercedes S600 sedan. When he has the need for speed, earth-pawing stallions await like the 617-horsepower, $450,000-plus 2003 Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren. But he recently put up for sale on eBay the electric-blue 1997 Lamborghini Diablo capable of 202 miles per hour. It got one bid for $460,000.

And if he and wife Melania want to cruise with the hogs, The Donald can wheel out the 24-karat gold, custom-made motorcycle built for him by biker television star Paul Teutal Sr. — former “Apprentice” contestant and proprietor of Orange County Choppers.

Trump also has a taste for American iron — particularly from the General, which may explain in part why Ford Motor Co. has borne the brunt of his attacks about outsourcing production to Mexico (once upon a time, his Chevy Suburban was made south of the border in Silao). He owns a Cadillac Escalade SUV, Cadillac Allante drop-top and a 2011 Chevy Camaro Indianapolis 500 pace car.

Trump was actually supposed to pace the Indy field in the Camaro — but racing legend AJ Foyt took the wheel instead.

If this were a conventional election, Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s 2010 Toyota Prius hybrid usually would be the greenest of them all. After all, Stein chose the made-in-Japan fuel-sipper “because it had the lowest environmental impact of any vehicle offered by the auto dealers near her home” in the Boston suburb of Lexington, a campaign spokesman said.

But spitting in tradition’s eye, it is the Republican who owns the greenest ride. Trump, a global warming critic, has a Tesla Roadster, the first all-electric vehicle made by Silicon Valley’s environmentalist-in-chief Elon Musk. The little green sports car gets an EPA-rated 120 MPGe compared with the 2010 Prius’s mere 50 mpg, and the thirsty Scooby Van’s 12.

Nevertheless, if The Donald wins the election, he too will be ferried by the Secret Service in the gas-guzzling Beast down Pennsylvania Avenue. Who knows, maybe he’ll get it gold-plated.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.