CA: Richard Nixon resigned, but the 1972 BART car he made famous still serves – MassTransitMag.com


President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon on BART in 1972.

President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon on BART in 1972.

BART

Oct. 26—It was mostly downhill for Richard Nixon after his 1972 tour of BART. 

The president resigned from the presidency in 1974, faced disbarment in 1976, was protested when he released a memoir in 1978 and then lived a relatively private life. He died more than 26 years ago at his New Jersey home.

But the BART car he traveled on during that 1972 trip from the San Leandro to Lake Merritt stations has served with dignity. It continued to ride the rails through 12 more presidential administrations, surviving the Loma Prieta earthquake and transferring passengers to untold Day on the Green concerts and Warriors playoff games — in both the Rick Barry and Steph Curry eras. Even now, in a pandemic year, it has logged more than 3,000 hours on the tracks.

“It is still in operation,” confirmed BART Chief Communications Officer Alicia Trost. “Just today it was at our Concord yard.”

The news of the car’s survival arrived after BART announced its legacy car program, allowing citizens to buy decommissioned cars — with some limitations — for artistic, commercial or personal use. While the brass plaque that once marked Car 120 as the only BART car graced by a U.S. president is long gone (it was stolen in 1975 or 1976), the transit agency has tracked its service, and the car has been in continued operation.

Nixon’s Sept. 27, 1972, ride was front-page news in The Chronicle. The president was at the tail end of his re-election campaign, in San Francisco to collect $500,000 at a Sheraton Palace Hotel fundraiser.

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Nixon told reporters, “I’ve been all over the world and this is the smoothest ride I’ve ever had.” (The system was much quieter in 1972, running on brand-new rails.) He later visited the BART control room near Lake Merritt and proclaimed, “You know, it does look like NASA.”

The president reportedly did not pay his 40 cents for the ride, but no one tried to collect. He showed up with a $38.1 million check from the federal government to pay for another needed round of BART cars.

Former transit spokesman Michael C. Healy was on board that day, and offered his recollections during a recent “Total SF” podcast interview.

“I showed (first lady) Pat Nixon how to use the fare machine. She did fine,” Healy said. “She was very gracious. She seemed to be interested in the technology.”

White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman was also on the car, along with a U.S. Army major carrying a briefcase. Last year, that officer received a copy of Healy’s 2019 book, “BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.”

“He contacted me and said, ‘I want you to know I was on that car, in fact, I was standing right beyond you,'” Healy recalled. “I said, ‘Really, what were you doing?’ He said, ‘I was carrying the football.’ … The nuclear football was on BART.”

BART’s Trost said the car is a workhorse, but its repair history wasn’t particularly distinguished. There are many cars still on the rails from the 1972 inception of BART, but the Nixon car had a particularly rough life.

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It was stripped of its slanted nose in 1981 and transitioned to a middle car, which were needed as trains got longer. Car 120 quietly became Car 1834, and recently received a new floor; one of many upgrades that has it looking like a transit Frankenstein’s monster compared to its pristine 1972 sleekness. Trost said the Nixon car’s “mean time between incidents is 200 hours, which isn’t particularly good.” (A mean time over 400 hours between calls for service is a more typical number.)

But far from resigning in disgrace, the car will remain accessible to the public. After the legacy program starts, the plan is to ship the Nixon car to the Western Railway Museum in Suisun City, where its nose already resides.

Healy said it deserves the honor. Nixon was an advocate for public transportation, and the president and the rapid transit system are bound by history.

“He did love BART. And I think that he really felt that BART was the future,” Healy said. “BART was being monitored by China and various other countries that were looking for a new kind of rail system. BART was really starting a renaissance.”

Peter Hartlaub is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com

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