Presidential cars have always been impressive. Big, technologically advanced, and increasingly secure, here’s all the official US presidential cars.
Presidential cars have come a long way in their 120-year history here in the US. The current presidential car, known as “the Beast,” may look like a beefed up CT6 limo, but in actuality it’s much closer to a fortified safehouse on wheels. With eight-inch-thick armoring, Kevlar reinforced tires, and its own tear gas grenade launcher, “the Beast” sports more gadgets than Bond’s Aston Martin DB5.
But it wasn’t always this way. For many decades the presidential car was less of a luxury tank and more of a parade float, specially designed for ceremonial drives through crowds. Given it’s inauguration day, we wanted to look back at this unique confluence of automotive and presidential history. Here’s all the official US presidential cars.
Though neither president had an official car, William McKinley’s and Theodore Roosevelt’s tenures coincided with the early days of the automotive industry. McKinley is the first president known to have ridden in a car, specifically a Stanley Steamer in 1901. Roosevelt reportedly wouldn’t deign to ride in a car, preferring a horse drawn carriage as the more masculine option.
In 1909, Pres. Taft had the White House stables converted into a garage. Taft was the first president to have presidential cars, in fact, he had several. They included two Pierce-Arrow, a Baker Motor Vehicle (an electric car with a top speed of 14 mph), and a White Motor Company steam car.
Pres. Wilson also rode in Pierce-Arrows and Cadillac Type 57s. Pres. Warren G. Harding was the first president to ride in a car during his inaugural parade. He was also the first president to hold a driver’s license. Pres. Herbert Hoover rode in a Cadillac V-16 (Series 452) he personally purchased and took with himself after leaving office.
Pres. Roosevelt was the first president to have an “official” state car. Early in his presidency he rode in the armored Cadillac confiscated from gangster Al Capone. In 1936, a Ford Phaeton V-8 became the presidential car. By far the most notable car of Roosevelt’s presidency was the Lincoln K Series V-12, build to spec for the president in 1939. Dubbed the “Sunshine Special” because Roosevelt often rode in it with the top down, this Lincoln was the first purpose built presidential car. Initially it came with modifications that included running boards and grab handles for security personnel. Following the onset of WWII, the “Sunshine Special” received security upgrades that included bulletproof glass, a radio, siren, red emergency lights, and stowage for submachine guns.
Pres. Truman chose the Lincoln Cosmopolitan over GM’s Cadillac for the successor to the “Sunshine Special”. Reportedly, Truman was miffed that GM had declined to donate cars for his 1948 presidential campaign. The Truman administration ordered 10 Lincoln Cosmopolitans, with interiors by famed coachbuilders Hennessey, with one built as a convertible.
Pres. Eisenhower also rode in the same fleet of Lincoln Cosmopolitans, but the convertible was modified with the addition of a protective bulletproof “bubble top”. Notably, Eisenhower rode in a Cadillac Eldorado convertible during his inauguration.
The next generation of presidential car was the 1961 Lincoln Continental SS-100-X. Sadly, the car is best known for being the vehicle Pres. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated. The specially modified rear seat could be raised approximately 10-inches to give the public a better view of the president. Following the death of Pres. Kennedy, the car was modified with the addition of a bulletproof hardtop and repainted black.
Pres. Johnson rode in the same Lincoln Continental presidential car until 1967 when it was replaced by another Lincoln Continental. This Continental was heavily armor, had run-flat tires, and weighed in excess of 11,000lbs. Side note: Johnson owned an Amphicar he drove around his ranch in Texas. Though this list is about official presidential cars this anecdote from presidential aid Joseph A. Califano, Jr. (via the National Parks Service) is too good not to include:
“The President, with Vicky McCammon in the seat alongside him and me in the back, was now driving around in a small blue car with the top down. We reached a steep incline at the edge of the lake and the car started rolling rapidly toward the water. The President shouted, “The brakes don’t work! The brakes won’t hold! We’re going in! We’re going under!” The car splashed into the water. I started to get out. Just then the car leveled, and I realized we were in an Amphicar. The President laughed. As we putted along the lake then (and throughout the evening), he teased me. “Vicky, did you see what Joe did? He didn’t give a damn about his President. He just wanted to save his own skin and get out of the car.” Then he’d roar.”
~ Joseph A. Califano, Jr
The 1967 Lincoln Continental went on to be used by the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations.
The presidential car contract finally made its way back to GM during the Regan administration with the purchase of a specially built 1983 Cadillac Fleetwood. It featured a raised roofline, to allow the president better outward visibility. All that bulletproof glass is heavy however, and the car was fitted with heavy-duty brakes to handle the added weight. Of course, there was also all the requisite armoring and enlarged run-flat tires.
In 1989, Lincoln got another crack at the presidential car with a new Lincoln Town Car. It would also be the last Lincoln presidential car. Similar to its predecessors, the Town Car sported heavy armoring and bulletproof glass, among other modifications.
In 1993, the presidential car for the Clinton administration was another Cadillac Fleetwood. It of course came with plenty of armor and the like, but also a telephone and satellite communications.
Parallels between the Bush II and FDR administrations are hard to come by, but one is that both saw major shakeups in the conception and building of presidential cars. Pres. George W. Bush’s presidential car would be the first not built off a modified version of a road-going car. Instead the new presidential car was purpose built by GM. The heavily armored, gadget laden behemoth would be dubbed “the Beast”. Sure, there was the bulletproof glass, super-thirsty 454-cubic-inch engine, and high-tech communications, but there were also such early-aught amenities as massaging rear seats and a 10-CD disc changer. Most of the actual details about “the Beast” are kept tightly under wraps by the Secret Service.
With the Obama administration in 2009 came a new version of “the Beast.” Which grew in weight with even more (and we assume more better armoring). The added weight meant this presidential car could only muster a top speed of 60 mph. This version of “the Beast” (and the next) could be hermetically sealed and featured its own oxygen tanks. It also carried a supply of the blood matching the president’s type, in case an emergency transfusion was needed.
In 2018, the latest version of “the Beast” came into service as the presidential car. It represents the latest and greatest in protective technology, though much of the specifics continue to be shrouded in secrecy (for obvious reasons). It’s thought that the armoring consists of steel, ceramic, and aluminum. The sides of “the Beast” are roughly eight-inches thick and the bulletproof windows five-inches thick. It’s rumored that the door handles are electrified, but that’s just the start of the defensive weaponry. Tear gas, night-vision goggles, a pump-action shotgun, and water cannon are also equipped as well as a smoke screen and oil slick capabilities. Even the tires and gas tank are armored, with Kevlar used in the tires and armor plating and a fire-retardant foam preventing the gas tank from exploding. There are even some simple but effective measures like the sheer height of the vehicle, taller than the president himself, that can protect the Commander-in-Chief.
Though nothing is official yet, it’s assumed that the next presidential car won’t be coming until at least 2025. But the current version of “the Beast” seems more than well-equipped for the job. Too bad presidents aren’t allowed to drive themselves while in office. Four years will be a long time for Biden to wait to do another burn-out in his C2 Corvette Stingray.