Hail To The Chassis: A History of Presidential Limos

Nicknamed “The Beast,” the current limousine used by the President of the United States is a veritable tank with a Cadillac shell. But what did the leader of the free world ride in before modern technology turned his ride into a fortress on wheels? Let’s take a look at the history of motor vehicles and their relationship to the White House.

The era of presidents in cars technically began when President Teddy Roosevelt’s administration purchased a Stanley Steamer after he took office in 1901. However, given the man’s proclivities as an avid outdoorsman, Mr. Roosevelt mostly stuck to riding his horses for transportation. It wasn’t until his predecessor, William H. Taft (a much more, ah, hefty fellow less inclined to physical activity), took office that the use of a motor vehicle become a more frequent and normal occurrence. So normal, in fact, that Taft had the White House’s horse and carriage stable replaced with a four-car garage which he filled with two Steamers from the White Automobile Manufacturing Company, and two gasoline-powered cars from Pierce-Arrow. Taft’s administration also owned and made use of a Baker Electric. While its top speed of only 14 mph made it less than useful for a quick getaway, the fact that it didn’t require a hand crack to start the engine and made use of a battery-powered engine meant it was exceptionally easy to maintain.


*President Taft’s White Automobile Model M Steamer. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress’ website*

President Barack Obama currently rides around in a modified Cadillac limo, but Cadillac has had a long history with residents of the Oval Office, stretching all the way back to President Woodrow Wilson. In 1919, Mr. Wilson rode in 1916 Series 53 Cadillac when participating in a World War 1 victory parade through the streets of Boston. Cadillac cars, while considered to be the height of American-made luxury cars today, were widely used during World War 1 in Europe thanks to the durability and power of their V8 engines. They were among the first mass-produced V8 engines on the market. A Cadillac was used once again by the Coolidge administration with the introduction of the Series 341. This top-of-the-line cruiser featured a whopping 90 horsepower.

A 1928 Cadillac was again used when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, though the legend goes that this car was once owned by none other than the infamous gangster himself, Al Capone and dubbed the “Sunshine Special.” However, the most impressive pair of Cadillacs used by FDR (as well as his immediate predecessor, President Harry S. Truman) were the 1938 models dubbed Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth (after the ocean liners of the same name). These were the first noted cars in a president’s motorcade to be heavily armored and armed. These cars weighed more than 7.5 tons each and were armor-plated, had hidden weapons lockers and two-way radios.

*Above, President Truman stands beside the 1938 Cadillac dubbed “Queen Mary.” Photo courtesy CBS News*

It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who rode in the first Cadillac Eldorado off the assembly line during his 1953 inaugural parade. Mr. Eisenhower was also the first president to make use of a “bubble top” canopy that was added to a 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan in 1954. This was added, apparently, after the top to the convertible car needed to be raised during a rainstorm. Realizing that people would be unable to see him with the top up, Mr. Eisenhower ordered the custom top. The car became known henceforth as simply “The Bubbletop” which remained in use until it was retired to display status at the Henry Ford Museum.

*The 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan used by President Eisenhower. Photo courtesy Popular Mechanics*

Perhaps the most infamous of all limos used by United States presidents is the 1961 Lincoln Continental X-100, which was used by President John F. Kennedy on the day of his assassination in Dallas, TX. The X-100 (as it was designated by the Secret Service) typically would have retailed for just over $7,000 at the time. However, after the long list of enhancements and modifications made for presidential use, the price tag came out around $200,000. Some of the more “presidential” customization points included a rear seat which could be hydraulically raised 10.5 inches to give onlookers a better view of Kennedy, as well as a metal bar behind the driver’s seat which Kennedy could hold on to while standing during parades. Following the president’s assassination, the car was taken out of service briefly for evidence collection and then further modification, which included new armor plating as well as a fixed, permanent bullet-proof top.

*President Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental X-100. Photo courtesy The Henry Ford Museum.*

Between the presidencies of Kennedy and Bill Clinton, use would alternate between Cadillacs and Lincolns, until Clinton’s presidency ushered in a new era for limousines used by the office. Up until that point, the vehicles were merely production cars modified for safety and use. However, after Mr. Clinton took office the president’s limo then became a custom platform built entirely from the ground up as a specialty vehicle. Intended to be a vehicle solely for transportation and security, Mr. Clinton’s new Cadillac limo was the first to wholly eliminate features such as running boards, a sunroof or anything that might potentially compromise the president’s safety in any way. However, it was during George W. Bush’s presidency that the limo truly evolved into something of a rolling fortress.

Technically President Bush’s limo was based off of a Cadillac DeVille design. The term “technically” is applicable because actually the frame was that of GM’s truck line used in the construction of their trucks such as the Silverado and SUVs such as the Escalade. In addition to having bulletproof glass so thick it reportedly blocked out certain portions of the light spectrum, this sucker also boasted five-inch-thick armored doors and a self-contained passenger compartment which had its own air supply.

However, when President Barack Obama took office, security on the vehicle was amped up even further. The current iteration of the vehicle (dubbed “The Beast,” as mentioned earlier) has armor plating making the vehicle immune to gunfire on the sides and explosives from beneath. A stockpile of the president’s blood type is kept on board. It has a foam-sealed fuel tank to protect from impact and explosions. And its tires are puncture-resistant, though they each have a steel rim that would allow for further travel should the tires ever blow out. It also gets a mere 3.7 miles per gallon.

*President Barack Obama’s limousine, nicknamed The Beast. Photo courtesy The White House.*

Rumor has it that the next iteration of The Beast will debut for the inauguration of the nation’s 45th president in 2017.

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