All the presidents' limos

by Autocar UK 05 Nov 2020


If there is one thing that people relate to a US President after the White House and Air Force One, it has to be the black limousine they travel in.

Every ‘state car’, as they are referred to, have been one of the most iconic symbols associated with them. 2019 saw the 80th anniversary of the car in the modern-day era. As America awaits who its president will be from January, we take a look at the cars that have been ferrying “the most powerful person in the world” through the years, starting in 1939. 

Update: On November 7, with 270 electoral college votes required to clinch the top office with him, Joe Biden won the cliff-hanger race with President Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the USA, pending the outcome of any legal challenges.   

Lincoln Sunshine Special – 1939

The first car to be truly used as a presidential limousine was the Lincoln Sunshine Special used by President Franklin Roosevelt. It is said to be the first presidential car to acquire its own personality and it was also the first state car built to Secret Service specifications. The car was a coachbuilt convertible based on the Lincoln K-Series luxury car. The roof of the car mostly stayed down – hence the name “Sunshine Special”. It was modified by Buffalo, New York firm Brunn & Company.

It was powered by Lincoln’s 6.8-litre V12 L-head engine which made 150 hp. While initially the car did not have added security features, armour-plated doors, bullet-proof tires, inch-thick windows and storage compartments for firearms were added after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that took place on December 7,  1941. After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, the car was used by the new president, Harry Truman. The limousine was retired in 1948, and is currently on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Lincoln Custom – 1942

The Lincoln Custom was a long-wheelbase touring sedan also used by Roosevelt and then Truman. The Custom was not very popular with the presidents due to the fact that it was a hard-top sedan which didn’t allow people to see the president in parades and public gatherings like the Sunshine Special did. A 4.8-litre V12 that made 120 horsepower powered the Custom.

Lincoln Cosmopolitan – 1950

The replacement for the Sunshine Special came in the form of the Lincoln Cosmopolitan convertible. President Truman used a specially modified long-wheelbase version of the Cosmopolitan that was powered by a 152 hp 5.5-litre V8 engine. The car also came with a heavy-duty version of the Hydra-Matic transmission, first introduced by General Motors in 1939 and widely sold to competitors like Lincoln - it's regarded as the first mass-produced fully automatic transmission.

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower got the rear part of the convertible roof replaced by a clear Plexiglas roof as people were unable to see him with the roof up during rain. This came to be known as the “bubble-top”, and it remained in service until 1965.

Lincoln Continental SS-100-X – 1961

The Lincoln Continental SS-100-X is probably the most famous presidential limousine for all the wrong reasons - President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in one during a presidential motorcade on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

Powering the 3.5-tonne car was a hand-built 7.0-litre Lincoln V8 that made 350 hp. The four-door convertible was custom-built with a removable bubble-top and a lightweight metal roof option apart from the regular soft-top. It also came with a host of firsts for a presidential car, including a pair of radio telephonesfire extinguishersretractable standing platforms for Secret Service agents and a hydraulic lift that raised the rear seat to make the president more visible to the public, a fact that some assert made Kennedy an easier target for the assassin.

After the assassination, the 100-X was redesigned with reinforced armourbulletproof glass, an explosion resistant fuel tank and other safety features. It was also the last open-top state car used, the assassination laying bare the risks of using such a vehicle. After being occasionally used by successive presidents, the car was retired from service in 1977 and is now also on display at the Henry Ford Museum.

Lincoln Continental – 1972

A 1970 Continental was given the 1972 model’s styling for this heavily armoured 264in (6.7-metre), 13,007 lb (5900kg)limousine. Coming with a 7.5-litre V8 that made 214 hp, this Lincoln was fully loaded with safety features. Full armour platingbulletproof glass, and racks for the Secret Service to store automatic weapons were a part of this state car, which was in use during the assassination attempts on both the presidents Gerald Ford (in 1975) and Ronald Reagan (in 1981). The Continental was the last presidential limousine with a sunroof-like roof opening for the president to stand, which Reagan used during his 1981 inauguration, as pictured at the start of this story.

Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham – 1983

After decades of Lincolns, GM got the presidential contract. Its car was the Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, used by President Ronald Reagan. Also called the Cadillac DeVille, the car was longer than the regular production version and had a raised roof, leading to large glass area for a good view of the president from outside.

The DeVille was powered by a 8.2-litre V8, and to lug around the weight of its armoured body and thick bulletproof glass, it also had oversized wheels, heavy-duty brakes and an automatic levelling system.

Lincoln Town Car – 1989

In 1989, the honour of building presidential transport returned to Ford's Lincoln division. A heavily modified version of the Lincoln Town Car was used by President George H.W. Bush throughout his presidential term. Specially commissioned by the President, it was also the last Lincoln to date to serve as the official presidential vehicle. Today it's on display at the George H.W. Bush presidential library at College Station, Texas.

Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham – 1993

So the baton returned to General Motors (GM). President Bill Clinton’s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham was the first state car which was developed from the ground up. As with previous presidential vehicles, the Fleetwood was fitted with many security and safety measures. This presidential limousine is still on display at the William J. Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas.

To preserve the secrets of its security measures, even now the library's staff can't access the interior without Secret Service supervision.

Cadillac DTS – 2005

The research & development department of GM developed this state car for President George W. Bush as per the specifications of the Secret Service. Based on the chassis of a Chevrolet Suburban and with four wheel drive, it's said that the new DeVille came with 5-inch thick military grade armour bodybulletproof glass so thick that it even blocked out a spectrum of light, run-flat tires and its own air supply.

A 7.4-liter V8 engine powered this 14,000 lb (6400kg) car which was nicknamed “The Beast”. Comfort features included a 10-disc CD changerreclining seats with massaging function and a foldaway desktop for the president.

Cadillac 'Cadillac One' – 2009

President Barack Obama’s Cadillac DTS was kept secret, so much that even today noone is sure of what fuel type or engine capacity it got, with rumours suggesting it to be a big diesel that usually does duty in large commercial trucks. A few details are known. It has 8-inch thick armour5-inch bulletproof fixed glass windowsarmored fuel tank filled with foam to prevent explosion, run-flat tyres that are generally found on medium and heavy-duty trucks and an interior completely sealed to protect the passengers in case of a chemical attack.

This limousine also came with night vision opticspump-action shotgunstear gas cannonmulti-spectrum infrared smoke grenades and was also rumoured to be armed with rocket-propelled grenades. “The Beast” was speculated to weight between 15,000 to 20,000 lb (6,800 to 9,100 kg), and could only reach speeds of about 60 mph due to its weight. Fuel consumption? Autoweek speculated a figure in the region of 3.7 miles-per-gallon.

Cadillac 'Cadillac One' – 2018

The latest iteration of the state car is yet another Cadillac. Current American president Donald Trump continued to use the older Cadillac One until an updated model made its debut on a presidential trip to New York City in September 2018 (pictured).

The new ‘Beast’ is similar to the previous car used by President Obama, although it comes with design elements to keep it in line with current Cadillac models. It's based on a GM truck platform to take the heft of all the armour and safety equipment it carries.

Other specifications about the car have been kept under the wraps by the Secret Service, but expect updated versions of all security and safety features from the previous car to keep the president safe from not just guns firing but also grenades and land mines. Why are two of them in the picture? Well, nowadays two identical vehicles - with identical licence plates - are always operated at the same time to confuse any potential assailants.