Presidential limos evolve into heavily fortified machines

Monday, February 2, 2009

MotorCities National Heritage Area

Presidential limos evolve into heavily fortified machines

Gary R. Familian / MotorCities National Heritage Area

During his recent inauguration, President Barack Obama traveled to the steps of the Capitol to take the oath of office in a limousine dubbed "the Beast." All who saw this Cadillac tank on wheels built by General Motors Corp. had to be impressed.

While the people at GM who built this monster are understandably mum about the specifics of its features — for security reasons very few people were privy to the development of its design — we do know some of the basics of the car engineered to get the new chief executive around.

The president’s new ride is heavy. How heavy? Well, it’s equipped with Goodyear Regional RHS tires — that’s rubber usually reserved for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Limophiles estimate it weighs in the neighborhood of 10 tons.

We also know it is completely fitted with military-grade armor eight inches thick for maximum protection, and the aforementioned RHS wheels are fitted with "run flat tires" designed to keep the car rolling even if punctured. Because the windows are nearly six inches thick, the interior has very little natural light making fluorescent luminosity essential.

The car can seat seven people, including the president. The front seats two and includes a console-mounted communications center. A glass partition divides the front from back. Three rear-facing seats are in the back, with cushions that are able to fold over the partition. The two rear seats are reserved for the president and another passenger, with the ability to recline individually. A folding desk is between the two rear seats. Storage compartments in the interior panels of the car contain communications equipment.

The Beast is technological wonder and one that has taken the best features of a long line of limos custom built for the commander-in-chief for nearly 70 years.

The first limousine that was not a standard production car was built for Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 and dubbed the "Sunshine Special" because its top was virtually always open.

FDR’s limo (on display at The Henry Ford) was built by coach builder Brunn & Co. of Buffalo and designed for safety and convenience. Stretched out over a massive 160-inch wheelbase, the Sunshine Special’s armored body had oversize rear-hinged rear doors, armor plating and bulletproof glass.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Secret Service used an armored limousine, originally belonging to gangster Al Capone, to transport the president to the Capitol to deliver his "Infamy" speech. The car had been confiscated by the Treasury Department following Capone’s arrest and had been stored in an impound lot until that day.

Legend has it that following FDR’s death, President Harry S. Truman had a strong dislike for General Motors products because he was denied use of them during his 1948 presidential campaign. So when it came time to replace the Sunshine Special, it was Ford’s Lincoln division that got the job.

A stretched 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan (with a 145-inch wheelbase) was ordered from Ford and provided to the Secret Service for a nominal lease fee. Still a convertible for parades, the Lincoln was modified in 1954 with the addition of a large "bubbletop" canopy after President Dwight Eisenhower realized during a rainstorm that with the top up no one could see him.

Of course, the most famous (or infamous in this case) presidential limo was John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible the car in which he was riding when he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. The design team of Hess and Eisenhart of Cincinnati stretched the car a total of 33-inches between the front and rear doors and behind the rear doors to add space to the passenger compartment and make the car a true limousine.

A metal hoop just behind the driver and over his head gave the president something to hold onto while standing during parades (as Kennedy did while visiting Germany during the summer of 1963). In addition, the rear seat could be raised to give crowds a better view of the president. Power came from a standard 430-cubic inch Lincoln V-8.

After the tragedy in Dallas, the car was retrofitted with armor plating, a permanent sedan roof, a new interior, an improved air-conditioning system, electronic communications equipment, bulletproof glass, a new paint treatment and cosmetic alterations to remove damage incurred during the assassination.

After decades of Lincolns, Cadillac was finally given the chance to produce a limousine for the Secret Service in the early 1980s during the Reagan administration. Appearing in 1984 was a pair of 1983 Fleetwoods built by Hess & Eisenhardt. Since the coachbuilder started with production Fleetwood limousines, the cars were stretched only 17 inches and their roofs raised three inches. Power for both came from Cadillac’s own massive 500 cubic-inch V8.

Though awkward in appearance, the Fleetwoods provided excellent visibility for the president. Large greenhouses were made possible by the development of 2 3/8ths inch thick bulletproof glass and powerful air conditioning systems that kept the cabin cool.

Upon their retirement, one of the Fleetwoods was returned to GM, which lent it to producers of the 1993 Clint Eastwood film, "In the Line of Fire." The other Fleetwood is on display at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Obama’s limo is the most secure yet. It is virtually impervious to chemical and biological attacks and rocket-propelled grenades. Rumor has it that a dozen of these dynamos have been built and, no, the public can’t own one.

"Making comparisons to any other car falls apart because there is no comparable car," Cadillac spokesman David Caldwell said.

For more information about other iconic figures, go to MotorCities National Heritage Area at

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