You'd be forgiven for assuming that the President of the United States of America has always travelled with a huge entourage of protectors and vehicles. However, POTUS (the Secret Service codename for the person whom they're charged to protect) has only been surrounded by an army of vehicles and people for a relatively short time.
So join us, don a pair of aviator shades and an earpiece as we take a look at the cars used by the world's most powerful politician, how they've evolved and how they're protected.
It would be clichéd to start in Dallas in the 1960's with an open topped limousine and equally so fast forwarding to the mid noughties and a behemoth weighing as much as a small delivery lorry (although we will touch on both of those) so our story fittingly begins almost at the birth of the motor car.
Whilst there is record of President McKinley using a Stanley Steamer in 1901, this wasn't a vehicle purchased specifically for presidential use. Following his assassination his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, eschewed the use of a car preferring instead to use a horse drawn carriage.
The 27th POTUS, William Taft, was widely credited with being the first to use the Oval Office but he could equally claim credit for being the first president to use the motor car as a regular form of transport, converting the last and most elaborate of the White House stables into a motor garage; subsequent renovations and alterations relocated the garage. For obvious reasons, it's exact location isn't publicly broadcast but it is believed to be within a basement beneath the main house or within the Secret Service's Washington D.C. offices.
By the time Woodrow Wilson became the 28th president, the car had become a permanent fixture and his choice was a 1919 Pierce Arrow Series 51 model. It featured the presidential seal on the rear doors and an AAA badge affixed to the radiator grill – but no armour or bulletproof glass amazingly.
It's rare for ex-presidential cars to be sold at auction. In recent decades, this would be “never happens” as the Secret Service policy is now to destroy all vehicles to ensure that all protective measures and features remain, well, secret.
However, in 2007, Bonhams sold a 1932 Cadillac V16 Imperial Limousine formerly used by President Herbert Hoover for $US87,750. Hoover was notable as being President during the Great Depression and this particular car was purchased by him personally towards the end of his term and used by him personally for some years afterwards.
His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, famously used a 1936 Ford Phaeton. This car was fitted with hand controls and he used it primarily within the grounds of Hyde Park, his New York estate. Sitting presidents are forbidden from driving themselves under security protocols and FDR's use of the car was in direct opposition to these rules. The car remains on display at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in New York.
At the same time, Edsel Ford was lobbying the administration to put Ford products in the White House garage. As a result, the first vehicle built to Secret Service specification was duly created. This started life as a Lincoln K Series chassis and was sent to Brunn and Company to be built, eventually becoming a 10-seat convertible with reinforced running boards and steps plus handles for security personnel when riding with the vehicle.
it was nicknamed “The Sunshine Special”. This is rumoured to be due to its convertible roof being opened as frequently as possible whilst in use at the behest of FDR – something which seems scarcely credible today, particularly in light of events 20 or so years later.
The car was extensively remodelled by Ford in 1941 during the onset of the War. This included the installation of armour plating, bulletproof glass and strengthened suspension. Cosmetic upgrades included newer 1942 front panels to give the car a more modern appearance and most interestingly, some of the very first run-flat tyres were fitted.
The Sunshine Special was in service until 1949 when, during Harry S. Truman's time in office, it was replaced by a Lincoln Cosmopolitan. It is now on permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum with various other presidential cars.
The Cosmopolitan is mostly closely associated with President Eisenhower. A massive convertible with the by-then standard security additions of armour plating and bulletproof glass, this car saw service through the Kennedy and Johnson eras before being retired in 1967. One of its most notable features was a “bubble top” – a Perspex roof which protected the occupants whilst allowing them to remain visible.
1961 saw the arrival of a new car for a new president. It also marked without a doubt one of the century's most significant events. John F. Kennedy embodied the spirit of a new, prosperous and confident era.
Codenamed SS-100-X, his Lincoln Continental was a lengthened 6-seater convertible. Whilst it had no armour protecting the bodywork or glass, it had various removable roofs including another bubble top which he famously instructed was not to be used when it was transported to Dallas in November 1963. What happened next made the car immediately infamous; images of the stricken president, Agent Clint Hill racing to jump on the bootlid and the car speeding to Parkland Memorial Hospital are all etched into history.
Following JFK's assassination, the car was rebuilt extensively including armour plating, bulletproof glass and a fixed roof . Lessons from November 22 changed presidential protection forever and this included vehicles used to transport POTUS and other senior government officials. The Lincoln saw service until the late 1970's.
The 70's and 80's saw Lincoln continue to be the transport of choice but cars were now fixed roof limousines and saloons with exact modification details kept strictly confidential. Those that were donated to museums are kept under precise display conditions and cannot be opened with a member of the Secret Service present.
It was also a presidential limousine which ever so nearly saw another presidential assassination. On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot and a bullet ricocheted off the door frame of his 1972 Lincoln Continental, hitting him in the armpit. Whilst he later famously replied that “I forgot to duck”, it was only the quick thinking of his security detail that saved his life.
The early 80's saw a switch to Cadillac and presidents from Reagan to Bush Snr and Clinton's 1992 model was the first model to be completely sealed, without a sunroof where the occupant could stand and wave to crowds should they wish.
George W. Bush's 2001 Cadillac was the first presidential car to be designed from the ground up by the Secret Service. Whilst it resembled other models available to the public, it was a fully armoured and sealed 6.25 ton tank. Several were built (the exact number is a closely guarded secret) and despite modifications, mechanical failures were frequent due to the sheer weight of the car.
President Barack Obama 's inauguration in January 2009 gave the world its first look at his new wheels; nicknamed The Beast, this took the cues from its predecessor. Whilst exact details are once again classified, it featured a Cadillac grill but is rumoured to be based on a lorry chassis. Photos do reveal that the doors are several inches thick and it is rumoured that the car houses various weapons, an oxygen supply and a supply of the president's blood.
The current occupant of the White House had his new car delivered in 2018 and it resembles an evolution of the Obama limousine. President Trump's car was first seen in New York and the specification is again a mixture of rumour and occasionally well-placed photo opportunity.
With the increased level of protection provided to POTUS's wheels, his entourage has expanded and presidential motorcades now comprise almost 50 vehicles including decoy “Beasts” and an army of black SUV's filled with very heavily armed agents. This does include one with a minigun which can be deployed via the roof – sobering that something which appears very “Hollywood” is a reality (and in point of fact appeared during a rather ludicrous chase sequence featuring a replica Beast during “White House Down”).
So there you have it. From the dawn of the motoring era to the current tank-dressed-up-as-a-Cadillac, it's clear that presidential cars have evolved massively, although unlike the cars we all drive, the changes have been mandated by tragedy and global conflict – it does make choosing your next car based on connectivity, paint shade and alloy wheel design feel a little mundane, doesn't it?