Parked in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: What Fred Rogers Taught Us About Cars
Though rarely center stage, automobiles played a quiet but crucial role on the iconic children's TV show.
Despite growing up in a wealthy family and being taken to school by the family driver in a Cadillac, Fred McFeely Rogers—known as Mister Rogers to most of us —never appeared to have developed a taste for exotic or expensive things. As the nationally-known host of the PBS children's program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and perhaps one of the most universally adored public figures in the country, Fred's personal life was strikingly modest. He seemed the least likely person you'd expect to be interested in cars.
And yet: take a wider view, and his program showed children that the automobile is a fixture in modern American life over the second half of the 20th century, introducing them to everything from seat belts to automated car washes to early EV efforts. Fred Rogers himself wasn't much of a gearhead, but he knew just as much as anyone how much emotion can be wrapped up in a car, quietly maintaining a 1928 Ford Model A Sport Coupe over the decades that had been given to him by his parents.
In reality, a survey of the 900+ episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood indicates that Fred understood there are lots of kids (and adults) who love anything with wheels. So with help from the invaluable NeighborhoodArchive.com and a few phone calls with Rogers' former producer Margy Whitmer and former co-star/company PR rep David Newell, let’s dive into the automotive world of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Mister Rogers' Garage
If you Google “Mister Rogers car,” the number one result is a rumor about Fred owning an Oldsmobile that was stolen while visiting his grandchildren. Supposedly, when the thieves looked through the car and discovered it belonged to Mister Rogers, they returned it with a written apology. For years I assumed this was just another urban legend about the children's TV host, like the clearly-debunked myths of him being a Marine sniper or wearing sweaters to cover up his tattoos. However, after talking to Whitmer and Newell, both confirmed the car theft actually happened.
“It is true,” said Newell, “but I think it's been embellished.” He couldn't remember whether it was the thieves or the police who finally returned the car to Rogers, but he said the perpetrator(s) did indeed leave an apology behind.
“There was a note to something along the lines of, 'if we knew this was yours, we wouldn't have stolen it.'” Newell remembered, noting that Fred was somewhat amused. Whitmer said Rogers was also slightly concerned; he didn't like the idea that if the car hadn't belonged to him, the criminals might have kept it.
“Possessions didn't mean much to Fred,” Newell told me on the phone, “and a car can be the epitome of possessions.” It's been almost two decades since Fred Rogers passed away, and both Whitmer and Newell stated the entire time they knew him, Fred's daily drivers were remarkably unremarkable. At one point Rogers even purchased a car without a radio, because he loved listening to silence. Over the years he drove a Ford Country Squire, Chevrolet Vega, various Hondas, and the previously mentioned Oldsmobile, which had a black exterior and a red velour interior. Rogers and friends affectionately called his large sedan “the Bishop's Bus,” and he kept it for a very long time. The only flashy vehicle his co-workers ever saw him driving was a BMW at some point in the mid-70s.
“... but it was a small BMW,” recalled Newell, “and it was always temperamental.”
Parked in the Neighborhood
Regardless, on TV he rarely drove anything, as his idyllic fictional neighborhood seemed to have every possible business and attraction within walking distance. Rogers carefully maintained this illusion, in one episode “walking” all the way from his house to visit the set of The Incredible Hulk in Hollywood. Margy Whitmer told me that this was all intentional.
“He grew up in a small town. Walking was just a way of communicating neighborliness and interaction between humans. A sense of being close-knit.” The most-visible form of transportation on the children's program wasn't an automobile but the iconic red trolley. (It figures Mister Rogers would be a public transportation advocate before it was cool.)
Each episode begins with a slow camera move over a miniature neighborhood model, and although the earliest episodes have bare streets, it didn't take long before toy cars dotted the landscape. Along with playing Mr. McFeely, the neighborhood “Speedy Delivery” man, David Newell also started out in charge of the program’s props, which included buying the first toy cars for the set.
“I bought a [miniature] Jaguar once,” Newell told me, “...and Fred said something like, 'Don't park it in front of my house!' in a joking way.”
Perhaps Rogers was concerned that a tiny E-Type would look out of place in front of his “television house,” as he called it. During the course of 900-plus episodes and 33 years, a wide variety of toy cars cycled throughout the mini set, including a mid-70s AMC Pacer, and—in later years—a trendy VW New Beetle. According to Whitmer, the staff picked up many of the toys at thrift stores and made an effort to include more than just sports cars and hot rods. There were station wagons, pickup trucks, and even farm tractors. When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ended production in 2001, Whitmer kept a 1957 Ford Thunderbird Matchbox as a memento.
Occasionally the neighborhood display was modified to fit the episode's storyline, for instance, featuring a miniature bucket truck to match the actual Mack bucket truck Mister Rogers got to ride in that day. In fact, Rogers often used toys for educational purposes, typically demonstrating them at the beginning of the program to foreshadow the rest of the episode.
This practice occasionally created challenges for the art department. When he wanted to show children how people use wheelchairs, the crew couldn't find a toy wheelchair-accessible van, so—much like real life—they had to buy an off-the-shelf model and modify it.
“The art crew...had to cut in side doors, because it was just a panel van,” Whitmer explained, “and then repaint it to look as close in color as possible to match the real van Fred sees in the location visit.”
Cars for Kids
After showing kids the toy version, Mister Rogers visited Keystone Coach Works outside of Pittsburgh to demonstrate a mid-90s Ford E-series wheelchair van with his friend Ben Adleman. Never shying away from difficult subjects, Rogers asked Ben why he needed a wheelchair, and Ben explained to viewers how the van helped him go places.Rogers often featured people with disabilities on his program, and in a now iconic clip from another episode, a guest named Jeff Erlanger comes to Fred's house and shows how his electric wheelchair works.
While somewhat less iconic, earlier in that same episode Fred also visited a company in Boston that built electric trucks and vans. Broadcast in 1981, it's a fascinating time capsule of early EV technology, featuring boxy vehicles that look mostly like oversized golf carts. Always a stand-in for curious children, Rogers asks lots of questions, and counts that the EVs are powered by a stack of 18 large (presumably lead acid) batteries connected to a motor that turns the front wheels.
Later, he mentions the vehicles will go about 50 miles per charge, which seems like extraneous information for a the children watching , but it's still good to know. Unfortunately, further details on the company are scarce, which means the fate of those boxy EVs remains a mystery.
A much more recognizable box is the early blue-green Ford Explorer driven by Mr. McFeely in a 1994 episode where he shows Mister Rogers how an automated car wash works. Margy Whitmer shared that the idea for the segment came to her completely by chance. After taking a friend's son to see a Christmas train display at the Buhl Planetrium in Pittsburgh and then stopping for a car wash on the way home, Whitmer realized the young boy was more engrossed by the car wash than anything he'd seen at the museum. This led her to suggest visiting a car wash as part of an episode centered around Going Away and Coming Back. Anyone with very young children knows the anxiety little ones feel when separated from their parents, and Rogers wanted to help children understand that when people or things go away, they will come back again.
The image of a vehicle disappearing into a carwash and coming out the other end illustrated this beautifully to his young audience. Newell said the crew rented the Explorer used in the video, and he had to keep going through again and again so they could shoot all the footage.
“We did it about 20 times, I think,” he chuckled. “It was the cleanest Ford Explorer ever...”
Mr. McFeely wasn't the only one who got behind the wheel on camera. In a 1982 episode, Chuck Aber, aka “Neighbor Aber,” stopped by Mister Rogers' house in a Chevrolet Chevette to pick up a missing kitten. While modern day Radwood enthusiasts might be thrilled to see a mint condition, brown, four-door Chevette, Chuck and Fred's main focus is on a rather old-fashioned child safety seat in the rear of the car. Fred looks into the camera and reminds young viewers, “It's mighty important to have something to protect you when you're moving,” and they both talk about seat belts.
After Chuck leaves, Fred shows a video of people installing seatbelts in early '80s Chevy Citations at a General Motors factory as they roll along the assembly line. At the time the episode aired, child safety seats weren't even required in all 50 states.
I remember plenty of kids well into the 90s didn't wear seat belts, and plenty of parents didn't care. Naturally, Fred wanted to do anything he could to protect children. It's a touching moment that makes me thankful for how far automotive safety has come.
It turns out Chuck Aber owned a 'Vette in real life too, a beautiful 1958 C1. Aber had restored it and was rather surprised when Fred wrote the classic car into part of a 1987 episode on the theme of Alike and Different. The producers contacted the Western PA chapter of the AACA and set up an antique car show at Idlewild Park, where Mister Rogers came to see Chuck and his Corvette. The majority of the automobiles were beautiful 1900s-1920s cars, but some later vehicles are briefly visible, including an incredibly rare 1954 Kaiser Darrin. Considering when it was filmed, Chuck's Corvette was one of the youngest there, at only 29 years old. As he examined an early brass-era Buick, Fred looked at the camera and wisely said.
“A long time ago there were a lot of cars like this. But now there aren't very many left. The ones that are left have had very good care.” I like to think he is nurturing a young audience of future enthusiasts.
Of course, like every episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, this served to demonstrate an idea to children. By comparing the 1958 Corvette to older pre-war cars, Fred points out that they may have different lights (kerosene vs electric), different air cleaners (wide vs narrow), and different steering wheels (wood vs bakelite), but they are all alike because they are all cars. It's an interesting window to a time before muscle cars came to dominate the collector scene, where “real” antiques were considered pre-WWII, and you could still buy decent '60s cars for a few grand.
Before leaving, Fred smiles and says, “So many different cars, and so many different people taking care of them.”
The Official Car of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
What Fred doesn't mention is that he is one of those people. In the episode immediately following the Corvette one, he plays a home video of himself driving a beautiful navy blue 1928 Ford Model A Sport Coupe—his 1928 Ford Model A Sport Coupe. This revelation sent me excitedly searching back through the series’ archives, where I found that the old car appeared sporadically throughout the series. Its first time on screen came in 1973, where a much younger Mister Rogers stands next to the car and proudly declares: “I've taken care of it ever since my mother and dad gave it to me.”
David Newell gave me more details on the antique, saying that it once belonged to Fred's parents, and they kept it at their vacation home in Ligoneer, PA.
“It was Fred's family's car that I think his father owned, and I think it had some sentimental value, and I guess his father had it restored... I'm sure it wasn't a purist's restoration, but at any rate it was beautifully restored to my eye.”
Back in the day, Newell and the program’s art director were tasked with driving the antique car from its home in Ligoneer all the way to the WQED TV studios in Pittsburgh. Thankfully the ride was uneventful, except for stalling the car on one of Western Pennsylvania's many hills.
In some episodes the Model A has a sign on the door that says, “Official Car - Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,” which suggests it may have been used for parades and promotional events. In the aforementioned 1973 episode, Rogers demonstrates the lights, horn, and other features to viewers. He even explains to children what a rumble seat is and later takes his friends for a ride around town.
The car appears again in a 1975 episode, where the always safety-conscious Mister Rogers mentions the addition of aftermarket seatbelts. He then loans the car to Mr. McFeely, who uses the rumble seat to haul some packages. We see the car twice more: in a 1984 episode and then finally the 1987 episode where I first discovered it. Newell explained that they also filmed a sequence with the Model A for Fred's short-lived TV series for grown-ups called Old Friends, New Friends, but the footage never made it on the air.
And so, it turns out Mister Rogers, the modest-living, Honda-driving, vegetarian who walked everywhere was also a classic car owner. Given the colossal amount of material that's been researched and written about his life and work, I never would’ve guessed this would fly under the radar. But upon further reflection, a nicely maintained Ford Model A seems the perfect car for him. The small blue coupe wasn't fast or luxurious, but it had an understated elegance. Rogers always had an affinity for numbers and birthdays, and perhaps driving a car from 1928—the year he was born—held special meaning for him. It's also fitting that he would share the joy of this family heirloom by giving rides to his friends.
“The car itself wasn't something that Fred cherished,” Newell told me. “I think it was the memories that the car brought from his youth. From his family.” After Fred's parents passed away, the Ford Model A was sold. However, David Newell still has the toy version that once sat parked outside the Mister Rogers' miniature “TV house.”
As enthusiasts, we tend to see automobiles primarily for the entertainment factor, with transportation perhaps as a distant second. But after watching hours of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a pattern emerged. Like so many things in life, automobiles present us with a chance to show how we care about others—whether it's caring about the way people do work, caring about the accessibility for people with disabilities, caring about the safety of children, caring about our treasured memories, or simply caring about the hobbies of our friends and neighbors.
Everyone might approach the world of cars from different perspectives, but ideally the neighborhood is big enough for all of us. In case you didn't know this by now, children aren't the only ones who can learn something from Mister Rogers.
Special thanks to Margy Whitmer, David Newell and the Neighborhood Archive for information used in this story.