Monday, November 8, 2010

Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Pierce Arrows. Presidential limousines and parade cars throughout history

You know that the president rides around in a fancy black limousine. But did you know that there’s more to those cars than just looking “presidential”? Since Veteran’s Day is Thursday, I thought we’d take a look at some of the cars America’s commanders in chief have ridden in throughout the years.

The Cadillac limo that President Obama rides through town in is more like a tank than a car. It is believed to weigh-in at more than 10,000-lbs. Most of that is due to thick, bullet-proof glass and armor plating throughout. Even the tires are resistant to attack and contain innerliners just in case the outer tires are damaged.

Many of the specific details of the president’s car are secret. Cadillac provides information like “old-world craftsmanship” and “hand-sewn interior”, but for security reasons they don’t tell us things like what’s under the hood or how the car is built.

Most people agree that in spite of its appearance, the latest presidential limousine isn’t based on the Cadillac DTS. Analysts speculate that it actually sits on a modified General Motors medium-duty truck chassis. Due to the size and weight of this monster, it takes a pretty beefy chassis to handle it all.

Obama’s limo is the first presidential Cadillac that isn’t named after a specific model. For example, previous versions were still considered to be Fleetwoods, DTSs, or Eldorados. This one is just a Cadillac Presidential Limousine. There are parts that you can recognize, though. For example, the headlights appear to be those used in a production Escalade.

In the early days, armor-plating and high-security wasn’t as big of a priority for the U.S. President. When William S. McKinley became the first president to ride in a car (a Locomobile Steam Carriage), he was just hanging right out there in the open with a couple of street cops riding bicycles nearby. But cars were a novelty in the beginning, and just the idea that it could motivate without being dragged by a horse was big news. Bulletproof automotive glass technology would have to come at a later date.

Back then, the cars the president chose to ride in were status symbols. He was the leader of the free world, and he needed to be seen in a car befitting of his position. That explains why our early motoring presidents were shuttled about in lavish nameplates such as Pierce Arrow, White, Cadillac, and Packard.

Eventually, as in most things, the biggest, most powerful companies began to get those prestigious presidential limousine contracts. As special orders and heightened security became more prevalent, General Motors and Ford seemed to take the lead.

Cadillac has supplied cars for our nation’s Commanders in Chief on-and-off since any living person can remember. Most of them had some version of armor-plating similar to this current offering. Some of them were all-out assault vehicles. In 1938, Cadillac provided two fully plated and armed behemoths to Franklin D. Roosevelt that were named the “Queen Mary” and the “Queen Elizabeth” after the huge ocean liners of the time.

Others weren’t as formidable. There is a very famous picture of the newly elected Dwight D. Eisenhower driving past the Capitol building standing up in a white ’53 Eldorado with nary a hint of security. The Eldorado was essentially a production “dream car”, produced in limited numbers for not-so-limited dollars. It didn’t hurt the allure of the Eldorado that the new president was seen in one, although it probably didn’t hurt Eisenhower’s reputation either.

The first full-on limousine that Cadillac produced for a president without the aid of an aftermarket upfitter came with the Clinton Fleetwood of 1993. Before that, all presidential limos started off as a production car that an outside company would transform. The ’93 Car was built from the ground-up by General Motors, and for the most part they continue that tradition today.

Lincoln was also responsible for some memorable presidential rides. One of the more notable came in 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned the “Sunshine Special,” which was a Lincoln V12 Convertible. It was the first presidential state car specifically built for a president. Modified for Ford by coachbuilder Brunn & Company, the convertible configuration of the Sunshine Special made it possible for the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt to make appearances without leaving the car. This car is still on display at the Henry Ford Museum.

The most infamous presidential limousine of all time had to be the 1961 Lincoln Continental SS100-X, which people typically associate with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And while the car was in use during one of the most significant events in U.S. history, it was not actually retired after the assassination. Instead, it was sent back to coachbuilder Hess & Eisenhart, where it was repainted from blue to black, and fortified with an armor-plated roof among other updates. The car remained in service for several years, and is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum.

The slideshow included with today’s story includes several significant presidential limousines throughout history. Take note of not only the cars, but the level of security that seemed to develop over the years—especially after President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. It is also fun to look back at the fashions and the backgrounds they chose to take the pictures.

If you click on the little dialogue balloon in the lower left corner of these pictures, you’ll see a caption with more information on that particular car.

Notable presidential vehicles throughout history

William S. McKinley – First president to ride in a car-Locomobile Steam Carriage

Theodore Roosevelt – Stanley Steamer

William Howard Taft - White Model M Steamer, and two Pierce Arrows

Woodrow Wilson – Cadillac, Pierce Arrow

Warren Harding – 1921 Packard Twin Six

Calvin Coolidge – 1928 Cadillac Town Car, Pierce Arrow

Franklin D. Roosevelt – 1938 Cadillac Convertibles known as the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth

Franklin D. Roosevelt – 1939 Lincoln V12 Convertible known as the Sunshine Special

Franklin D. Roosevelt – 1928 Armored Cadillac 341A Town Sedan formerly belonging to Al Capone was used for Infamy Speech after Pearl Harbor attack.

Harry S. Truman – 1947 Cadillac

Harry S. Truman – 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitans, including one with a bubble top.

Dwight D. Eisenhower – 1953 Cadillac Eldorado

Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon – 1952/1956 Chrysler Imperial

John F. Kennedy – 1961 Lincoln Continental Convertible SS-X100

Lyndon B. Johnson – 1965 Lincoln Continental

Richard M. Nixon – 1969 Lincoln Continental, 1972 Lincoln Continental

Jimmy Carter/ Ronald Reagan – Nixon’s ’72 Continental updated to look like a 1978

Ronald Reagan – 1983 Cadillac Fleetwood

George H.W. Bush – 1989 Lincoln Town Car

Bill Clinton – 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood

George W. Bush – 2001 Cadillac Deville

George W. Bush – 2005 Cadillac DTS

Barack Obama – 2009 Cadillac Presidential Limousine


  1. You know that the president rides around in a fancy black limousine in long island. But did you know that there’s more to those cars than just looking “presidential”? Since Veteran’s Day is Thursday, I thought we’d take a look at some of the cars America’s commanders in chief have ridden in throughout the years.

  2. Cadillacs Lincols and Pierce arrows. Read to know more