"Trump Force One," a quarter-century-old Boeing 757, might not be the largest, or the fastest, or the most expensive private aircraft in the world, but it holds the undeniable virtue of being the most famous. With a pair of powerfully inefficient Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan engines, the plane was flown by discount airlines after its completion in 1991 (the first in Denmark, the second in Mexico) before it was sold in 1995 to Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder. Allen is said to have selected this particular plane from his personal fleet to ferry about his N.F.L. team, the Seattle Seahawks.
In 2011, Donald J. Trump reportedly paid $100 million for the plane and in short order erased whatever traces of Seahawk might have remained: The plane's face-lift included the installation of a silken master bedroom, as well as 24-karat-gold plating on the bathroom fixtures and seat belts.
The plane's opulence — its seats embroidered with what the reality-TV star claimed was the Trump family crest — and its billionaire pedigree recalled a venerable tradition of elite mobility, whereby warrior-aristocrats would commission costly ships not just for splendid seafaring and maritime conflict but for exchange among themselves, as gifts befitting their shared station. These practices endured for millenniums, from Pharaonic barges and Chinese imperial dragon boats to medieval Viking galleys (as, in the 10th century, when King Harald Fairhair of Norway presented to King Aethelstan of the West Saxons and the Mercians a purple-sailed vessel with a bow of gold) and British royal yachts, which Queen Victoria lent liberally to friends like the Empress of Austria.
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The early custodians of the American experiment, with egalitarian ideals and no real use for fancy boats, moved from here to there with relative humility. In 1787, when Thomas Jefferson set out from Paris for a three-month, 1,200-mile visit to American interests in Mediterranean seaports, he took no servants and paid personally to refresh the carriage horses. It was only with the arrival of the train that Americans developed a taste for class-differentiated transit. Perhaps the first private celebrity rail car was built by P.T. Barnum as a touring parlor for the "Swedish nightingale," Jenny Lind, and soon these were de rigueur among robber barons like Leland Stanford, George Gould and Charles Schwab.
William H. Vanderbilt, during the decade-long tenure he enjoyed as the richest man in America, ordered what The Chicago Daily Tribune identified in 1882 as "the most expensive private vehicle in the world." The Vanderbilt featured a "grand saloon" with lavish exterior panels of train depots and suspension bridges rendered in oil, but its owner emphasized not the trappings but the performance: "Mr. Vanderbilt has inherited his father's fondness for fast traveling, and, in a lesser degree, the old Commodore's partiality for what is known in railroad-parlance as 'going special' — which is traveling with a special engine, on special time and without regard to the trains and traffic of the road."
Yet even after these industrial and financial titans had begun to avail themselves of such perquisites, our heads of state maintained lingering reservations about priority treatment. In late 1863, the government appropriated funds to outfit President Lincoln with a custom rail coach. Later accounts would inflate the car's extravagance, but according to the assistant master car builder in Alexandria, Va., "Anyone who knew the habits of Mr. Lincoln would scout the idea of his designing an armored car of such luxurious appointments for his own use in going to the front."