Finally, mercifully, the 2016 US Presidential Election is sliding to a halt, like a 747 that has lost its landing gear. By January, we’ll have a new president and that person will be driven around in one of a dozen specially constructed Official State Cars. Here’s a look at how presidential limousines evolved since the beginning:
William Howard Taft – 1909 White Model M
Prior to William Howard Taft’s inauguration, every president from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt was shuttled hither and yon by horse-drawn carriage. Taft was an unapologetic booster for the nation’s early automotive industry, though, and for his inauguration in 1909, he wanted to display the benefits of the modern horseless carriage. His choice for presidential livery was a steam-powered, 40-horsepower White Model M. Taft’s White is currently on display in the permanent collection of the Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts.
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Franklin D. Roosevelt – 1939 Lincoln K-Series
Prior to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ascendancy to the office, the President of the United States drove around in cars like any average Joe with a fat bank account could buy at the local dealership. Roosevelt used other cars during his presidency, but this car appeared to be one of his favorites. Nicknamed the “Sunshine Special,” the car started life as a 1939 Lincoln K-Series, but it was heavily modified by coachbuilders Brunn & Company from Buffalo, New York.
Because of his physical challenges, the Sunshine Special’s retractable roof panels allowed Roosevelt to appear in front of crowds without ever having to leave the automobile. With the roof panels in place, it provided ample protection from the weather and room for important passengers. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Sunshine Special was retrofitted with armor plated doors, bullet-resistant tires, inch-thick glass and storage for armament inside. Despite the added protection, FDR still went out in public with the top down.
Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower – 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan
According to an auction listing from Bonhams when one of the Truman era limousines went up for auction, the entire fleet of State Cars required replacement because they were more than a decade old. “Truman chose Lincoln over Cadillac after GM had snubbed his requests for vehicles during his presidential campaign, which he had been expected to lose,” reads the listing.
The cars were 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitans, stretched and modified by limousine builders Henney Motor Company under the direction of Lincoln, who leased the cars to the Secret Service. The most famous of between nine and 17 limousines (depending upon who you ask) is the one designed by Ray Deitrich, which features a Lexan bubble top. It was constructed for Dwight Eisenhower from one of the State Cars Truman used.
John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford – 1961 Lincoln Continental
You’d be hard pressed to find an American that hasn’t seen John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental S-100-X limousine, since it appeared in those horrible photographs of his assassination in Dallas, Texas. Surprisingly, the convertible — which was modified by limousine builder Hess & Eisenhardt — was immediately retrofitted just a month after the assassination to provide ample protection for president Lyndon Johnson, and remained in service through the Ford administration, after which it was finally retired in 1977. During the Kennedy Administration, the car had several modifications, including a 1962 Continental grille, and 1957 Lincoln Premiere wheel covers.
Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan – 1972 Lincoln Continental
The 1972 Lincoln Continental that first appeared during the Nixon Administration is important for two reasons. First, it provided a safe haven for two presidents that were the victims of assassination attempts. Gerald Ford’s most notable assailant was Manson Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme, but it wasn’t the only woman who tried to shoot him. In 1975, Sara Jane Moore attempted to end his life, and Ford was quickly pushed into the Continental limousine. It was the very same limousine that Secret Service agents hustled President Ronald Reagan into in 1981, when John Hinckley shot him outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.
It’s confusing because a Cadillac appeared in a famous photograph of the attempt, but that’s a smaller car used by the Secret Service, and not the official state car. The Lincoln is just behind it, with a later 1978 model year grille.
The second reason the Continental is important is because it was the last State Car that featured a retractable roof that the President could stand through.
Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton – 1983 Cadillac Fleetwood
Lincoln had pretty much been the limousine of choice for presidents from Truman through Reagan, which makes sense considering it was named for a President. But in 1983, Cadillac got the call and provided a 1983 Cadillac Fleetwood, which was heavily armored and modified by Hess & Eisenhardt. The 1983 Fleetwood was relatively unremarkable during Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s early tenure, providing serviceable transport for the Chief Executive on his daily rounds. Its most interesting feature is the tall greenhouse that provided protection for the Presidents, and it also allowed bystanders to see the occupants inside.
What’s somewhat notable is where this car ended up. In 1993, Clint Eastwood starred in the Wolfgang Peteresen movie In the Line of Fire as Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan, who couldn’t save Kennedy, but was on a mission to prevent John Malkovich from taking the new president down. The 1983 Cadillac that shuttled three presidents was loaned to the production, lending an air of authenticity to the movie that was unprecedented.
Barack Obama – The Beast
In 2009, after a series of Cadillac DeVille and DTS-based limousines, the Secret Service took delivery of what can only loosely be described as another “Cadillac” limousine. Yes, the grille has the appearance of the CTS and DTS models Cadillac sold in 2009, but the vehicle it’s based on has nothing to do with Cadillac. Informally, it’s known as “the Beast.”
Most people think it’s based on the Cadillac Escalade, but the builders went well beyond that truck’s capabilities. It’s based on GMC’s medium-duty Topkick chassis, and most likely features a GMC Duramax 6.6-liter turbocharged V-8.
You won’t find a keyhole anywhere on the Beast, and the method for opening the doors is a closely guarded secret. The only window that opens is the driver’s door. The glass is five inches thick, and a completely sealed interior to protect occupants from chemical attack. Unlike cars that preceded it, the Beast is armed with rocket-propelled grenades, smoke grenades and a tear gas cannon. Oxygen tanks and two pints of the President’s blood are kept on board at all times. General Motors spokesperson Joanne K. Krell said of the Beast, “The presidential vehicle is built to precise and special specifications, undergoes extreme testing and development, and also incorporates many of the top aspects of Cadillac’s ‘regular’ cars — such as signature design, hand-cut-and-sewn interiors, etc.”
What’s it’s not is particularly maneuverable. The Beast got hung up on a curb outside the Dublin Embassy in 2011, which left it vulnerable to potential attack.
There’s already a new State Car in production, and when the next President takes office, it will be at his or her disposal.