Presidential Vehicles of the Past

How did the presidential limousine evolve from a simple transportation vehicle into a crisis command center?

American presidents have ridden in style for generations. And what they hit the roads in weren't always the military inteligence-level rides we see today. They focused on glamour--or practicality. Here's some quik info about some of the limousines in the presidential stable, courtesy Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, home to a permanent display of presidential limousines.

Lincoln “Bubble Top” Cosmopolitan, (1950-1967)

Used by: Harry Truman (1945-1953); Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961); John F. Kennedy (1961-1963); Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969);

Eisenhower’s administration special ordered 10 limousines in 1950. The president and World War II hero added a Plexiglass bubble top to the convertible in 1954. The transparent addition allowed Eisenhower to see--and be seen--in foul weather. The distinguishing feature soon became the limousine’s nickname.

Lincoln Continental, (1961-1977)

Used by: John F. Kennedy (1961-1963); Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969); Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)

Kennedy’s youthful appearance and boyish charm distinguishes him from presidents before him. And so did his limousine.

“That particular model wasn’t even introduced yet when Kennedy received his. It was clean and elegant, without a lot of chrome--definitely more luxurious than its predecessors,” Anderson said. “The car was the perfect complement to his image and style.”

A 430 cubic-inch V-8 engine powered the limousine hosting. Inside there was a public address system and rear seats that could be raised 10 inches for a better view.

Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 transformed design of presidential limousines. Each subsequent version became more equipped and advanced than the one it replaced--high-tech communications systems, state-of-the-art ballistic materials and military-grade defense systems.

After Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Nov. 22 1963, the secret service beefed up the vehicle and got it back on the road.

“They rebuilt the Kennedy car with a permanent roof and titanium plating,” Anderson said. “The car returned to service in May of 1964."

“The limousines have all been tanks on tires since 1963,” Anderson said.

Cadillac One: “The Beast” (2009-Present)

Used by: Barack Obama (2009-2017) Donald Trump (2017-

This presidential fortress sits atop a Chevrolet Kodiak chassis (same as commercial-grade trucks) with Cadillac embellishments and is known by the Secret Service codename “The Beast.” Estimated price tag: about $1.5 million.

Efficiency takes a back seat to security, as bulky armor plating and ballistic glass allow the limousine to log less than 4 miles to the gallon. Top speed is 60 mph and it takes the 10-ton behemoth 15 seconds to accelerate to that figure from a dead stop.

Public comments from White House representatives indicate the doors weigh as much as those found on a Boeing 757 and the vehicle rolls on bus-size Kevlar-reinforced run-flat tires. Safety precautions include five communication antennas, bags of the president’s blood in case he’s wounded and a secure oxygen supply to combat a chemical attack.

More History from Way Back

“Before FDR, the government just bought presidential vehicles right off the lot. Adjustments focused on sitting more people and having the interior last longer,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, home to a permanent display of presidential limousines. “Other than running boards for the Secret Service, there wasn’t emphasis on security.”

Horse-drawn Brougham (1902-1928)

Used by: Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909), Woodrow Wilson, (1913-1921)

Avid outdoorsman and rugged individualist Theodore Roosevelt rebuked the automobile.

“Teddy felt the horse-drawn carriage looked more stately and presidential,” Anderson said of the brougham in the museum’s collection. The carriage’s role ebbed and flowed during subsequent administrations. Toward the end it was only called upon for public appearances and housekeeping errands. Coachman Daniel Webster, however, transitioned to the driver’s seat of the president’s Ford Model A until retiring in 1928.

Woodrow Wilson preferred carriages to automobiles, though he rode in a Cadillac through the streets of Boston to celebrate the end of World War I.

Model M Steamer and two Pierce-Arrows (1909-1913)

Used by: William Howard Taft: (1909-1913)

The president known for his considerable carriage was quite fond of horseless ones. Taft successfully lobbied Congress to spend $12,000 on three vehicles. Two were gasoline-powered Pierce-Arrows and the third, which ran on steam, came from the White Sewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. His administration selected one of each engine style because the auto industry was in its infancy and it wasn’t clear which platform would emerge victorious.

Taft also converted the White House’s stables into a garage and his “White Steamer” is on display at the J.K. Lilly III Automobile Museum in Sandwich, Mass.

Cadillac: “Queen Mary” and “Queen Elizabeth” (1938-1956)

Used by: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1939-1945); Harry Truman (1945-1953); Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)

Cadillac delivered two massive convertibles to Washington in the late 1930s, each stretching nearly 22 feet in length. The 7,600-pound Caddys contained two-way radios, a few firearms and a high-capacity generator. As for the nicknames, the behemoths adopted monickers from the two elite ocean liners of their day, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth.

Sunshine Special (1939-1950)

Used by: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1939-1945); Harry Truman (1945-1953)

This Lincoln K-Series convertible appeared roofless more often than not, leading to the “Sunshine Special” nickname. Handlers and officials concealed FDR’s polio symptoms, but his limousine offered no special accommodations for his condition.

The convertible top enabled him to interact with the public without standing up. The vehicle’s wide rear doors made it easier for dignitaries to enter and exit.

“They often just drove him to the podium so he could get out right where he needed to be,” he said.

A two-way radio, siren and running boards for Secret Service agents to stand on were the only protective measures originally included in the Sunshine Special.

The Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor saw the White House emphasize presidential security.

Officials reached out to Brunn, a coachbuilder in Buffalo, NY, to armor the Sunshine Special. Bullet-proof glass and armor paneling were immediately installed, and a 1942 update improved the defenses while updating the front end. The car was decommissioned in 1950 and is parked at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.