“I’ve always loved cars,” says General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.) sitting in his Alexandria office on a cool August morning. He logged hundreds of thousands of miles during his tenure as US secretary of state, but Powell, now retired from military and public service, has traded plane travel for short drives.
His passion for cars started with the new 1961 VW Beetle he bought while stationed in Germany as a young Army lieutenant. “It was the coolest thing around, and it had a sliding roof. I’ll never forget it,” he says. “It was the first car my wife and I had, and we drove it all over the place.”
He has since owned an eclectic array of cars that appeal to a variety of collectors, including a series of classic Volvos. “I fell in love with Volvos when I bought one [a 1977 240] for my son going to college,” he explains. That adoration led to the purchase of roughly 20 vintage Volvos from the ’50s and ’60s, and he restored them for eventual sale: “I would pull the parts off, the starter, the alternator, [and] pull out the engine.”
One of the most remarkable cars Powell has owned is a white 1966 Volga GAZ-21, a “fantastic” and “unique” gift he received from the president of Kazakhstan, NursultanNazarbayev, in 2012. But without time to maintain it, or the opportunity for others to see it, Powell donated the car later that year to Jay Leno, who now showcases it in his famous auto collection.
Powell was also among the first to adopt an electric vehicle, the Fisker Karma, which he owned for about a year. “It was a controversial car,” he says. “but stunningly beautiful.” Though Fisker Automotive declared federal bankruptcy in May, Powell still sees a future in electric vehicle technology.
Though many of his autos have come and gone, Powell held onto his 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SL Pagoda, purchased about 15 years ago. “It’s a beautiful car, with a dark-blue hard top. My wife loves to drive it; it’s really a gift to her,” he says. A bonus: “It runs just like it did 40-odd years ago when it was built.”
Any article that mentions Powell must include the classic Corvette, a car that he’s been fond of since boyhood. He drove one at speeds up to 125 miles per hour when he was appointed the official celebrity Pace Car driver for the 2005 Indianapolis 500 race. And he’s made good on his dream of owning the classic car: On his last commute home with his security motorcade, the general found the 2005 Corvette that he’d ordered waiting in his driveway. “I got out of my State Department government limo, said good-bye to everybody, and got into my new Corvette,” he recalls. He’s now the proud new owner of a 2013 Corvette. Don’t be surprised to see the general cruising on the George Washington Memorial Parkway—one of his favorite local roads—to the songs of Fleetwood Mac.
Though he steers clear of the politics surrounding federal auto bailouts, he says American automakers are thriving. “They realized that the industry was in trouble. They needed new designs, better quality,” he says. “They have come back strong, and I’m very glad of it because it’s a major, major part of the US economy.”