Washington — From the outside it looked like an ordinary Pullman car, but it was a rolling fortress. Windows were three inches thick and bulletproof. Franklin D. Roosevelt began using the Ferdinand Magellan in 1942, and Harry Truman took the car for his famous coast-to-coast whistle-stop tours in 1948, when every one of the 50 reporters on board (including this one) predicted a victory for Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York.
President Jimmy Carter made a one-day nostalgic ''whistle stop'' trip from Pennsylvania Station in 1976 trying to bring back the old aura. On Friday Ronald Reagan revives the memory by a one-day whistle-stop trip of his own across Ohio on the Ferdinand.
In Truman's day the Ferdinand was the last word in electronic equipment. It had radio and telephone connections and a new-style portable loudspeaker for rear-platform appearances. At any stop, by prearrangement, the technicians could snap in telephonic communication with Washington. A pilot locomotive always went over the tracks in advance.
Franklin Roosevelt on the campaign trail went 35 miles an hour, but Truman hurried along at 80 m.p.h. on the car, which carried 6,000 pounds of ice for air-conditioning.
In Sept. 17, 1948 I noted that President Truman left Washington at 11:05 a.m. Eastern daylight time; traveled to California, speaking as many as a dozen times a day; and returned to Washington at 10:00 a.m. on Oct. 2. For accompanying reporters it was relaxed, because we all knew the result.
I wrote in the Monitor Oct. 14:
''It is now as certain as anything can be in the course of American politics that Governor Dewey is elected and the nation knows it and yawns over the final three weeks of a campaign whose outcome was certain before it began.''
Until just recently, the feeling of certainty about President Reagan's reelection has seemed as universal as for Dewey in 1948. I moved briefly to the Dewey train to compare the atmosphere. The Dewey train was terribly dull. He gave bland homilies.
In those happy far-off days every trip produced a ballad composed by the press from excerpts of the candidate's endlessly repeated speeches. Columnist Tom Stokes started the one for Truman in 1948, titled ''The Little Man's Ballad.'' Truman, all the way across America, explained that he was going out to California to get a degree: He got more colloquial as he advanced. He produced an ancestor or two at each stop. When the Republicans responded with a counterattack, Truman said at Pocatello, Idaho: ''They can't prove nothing; they ain't got a thing on me.''
Here is one of the lines from our ''ballad,'' to the tune of ''Oh, Susanna'':
I went to work for Pendergast, he made a judge of me;
Before I knew what happened I was picked by Franklin D.
I got my boots and saddles on and started for the sea;
I made a lot of speeches and I plugged for Sun Vallee.
They can't prove nothing, they ain't got a thing on me;
I'm going down to Berkeley for to git me a degree!
Humming over the refrain brings it all back, the excitement, the little candidate, the rear platform of the Ferdinand, the smiling crowds, the little girl who wants the President's signature, the feel of the soot on the side of the car against which we wrote our dispatches (if indeed, Mr. Truman had said anything quotable), the calls for ''Postal'' and ''Western'' to take our copy, and finally the culminating toot from our engineer.
How could anybody doubt that Dewey would win? The certainty was as sharp as it has been (until recently) for Mr. Reagan's reelection. I wrote from the Dewey train:
''The Republican candidate is having good crowds along the way who show cordiality but never the frenzy of an old-fashioned political campaign. This election is marked by calmness amounting to apathy.''
This was the election in which the press couldn't see what was before their eyes. On Oct. 15, I wrote, ''Governor Dewey ... is blandly continuing his chosen course, which is apparently carrying him straight to the White House.'' We wrote advance pieces (for postelection publication) telling what kind of president Dewey would be. And yet we sensed vaguely that something was happening, and that the courageous Truman was having an effect. I wrote Oct. 21: ''There's no doubt about it any longer, that chirping you hear is the sound of revived Democratic hopes. ... A combination of recent evidence indicates that a mild 'trend' may be developing in many areas....''
The trend gave Harry Truman the victory. Like the famous Literary Digest poll in 1936 that elected Alf Landon over FDR, the press was wrong again. And so we came to the climax. In a ''now it's all over'' mood I summed it up: It ''had been the most active campaign tour of modern times.'' Truman had been seen by 8 or 9 million people. But it added up to defeat (I wrote), ''as practically every political correspondent believed on election eve.''
You know what happened. Truman won. And he deserves the last word that covers all parties: ''It is not possible for a public man,'' he said, ''to be constantly worrying about what history and future generations will say. ... He must live in the present, do what he thinks is right at the time, and history will take care of itself.''