In 2018, The White House took possession of the only custom-built car that Cadillac still builds. Known simply as The Beast, it cost $1.5 million and was built to Secret Service specifications using an extensively modified Chevrolet Kodiak heavy-duty truck platform.
Aside from its pseudo-Cadillac XT6 styling, it shares little with Cadillac production cars. Weighing close to 20,000 pounds, it’s reported to seat seven, sealed against biochemical attacks and uses run-flat tires.
The vehicle can also emit a smokescreen, fire tear gas, and has electrified door handles to keep out unwanted visitors. It can dispatch the codes that launch the U.S. nuclear arsenal, is stocked with medical supplies and contains a refrigerator filled with the President’s blood type.
But Presidential limousines weren’t always so specialized.
William Howard Taft
More than an ardent admirer of cuisine, Taft was a gearhead and, after a fight with Congress, spent $12,000 to transform The White House fleet from horse power to horsepower. It’s one that would please environmentalists today, consisting of a White Model M seven-passenger steamer, two gas-powered Pierce Arrows – a suburban and a landaulet – and a Baker Electric for the First Lady.
The fastest thing on the road, the Model M generated 40 hp, had a 150-mile range and a 10-minute warm-up time to produce steam. Three years later, Mrs. Taft replaced the 1909 Baker with a 1912 Baker Electric Victoria, which would be driven by First Ladies through 1928.
Unlike his rotund predecessor, Wilson didn’t know how to drive. Nevertheless, he bought a 1919 Pierce-Arrow Vestibule Suburban Limousine trimmed in silver and nickel plate for $9,250; or $145,915 adjusted for inflation. The price included a limousine body and an open touring body for summer use.
Wilson’s chauffeur took the car to Pierce-Arrow’s Buffalo, N.Y. factory when the body needed to be changed. A 48-hp, 6-cylinder engine was burdened with moving three tons of metal. Thankfully, it wasn’t fast; brakes were fitted to the rear wheels only.
Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover
The first president-elect to ride in a car to his inauguration, the Republican National Committee provided a Packard Twin Six to Harding. Like Taft, Harding loved cars, driving Pierce-Arrows, much to the concern of his security detail.
Coolidge couldn’t be more different, admonishing his driver not to exceed 16 mph around Washington D.C., according to the Associated Press. Ford supplied the White House with a 1924 Lincoln Model L; Cadillac followed in 1928 with a Series 341 town car powered by a 90-hp V-8. In 1930, with excessive sensitivity and the Great Depression raging, Herbert Hoover’s administration bought a custom-built 1930 Cadillac V-16 – GM’s most expensive car. Hoover loved it enough to buy it after leaving office.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
After an assassination attempt was made on Roosevelt while riding in a convertible in Miami, the feds employed Al Capone’s armored 1928 Cadillac, which the government seized following Capone’s indictment on tax-evasion charges. But FDR preferred Packard Twelves, particularly open ones. Nevertheless, the feds looked to Lincoln to supply the next presidential ride, nicknamed the Sunshine Special.
A Lincoln Model K featuring V-12 power and custom coachwork by Brunn & Company of Buffalo, N.Y., it had platforms on its rear corners, extra-wide running boards, and chrome handles on the windshield frame to accommodate Secret Service agents. Truman would also use it before it was retired in 1950.
Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower
A fleet of nine Brunn-bodied Lincoln Cosmopolitan Limousines replaced the Sunshine Special in 1950, with a lone convertible reserved for presidential use. Custom designed by Raymond Dietrich, it would be used by Truman and Eisenhower for parades and later fitted with a plastic bubbletop after President Eisenhower was rained on during an appearance in Richmond, Virginia.
President Kennedy would use it for his inauguration before it was replaced, relegate to “spare” status through 1967. But the First Lady wanted a car she could use, so a 1955 Cadillac Series 75 Imperial Sedan was purchased and sent to Hess & Eisenhardt, a professional car conversion specialist in Rossmoyne, Ohio. There, the rear roofline and window from a Series 62 Coupe de Ville was fitted to eliminate the rear roof pillars. It was used through 1967.
John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson
How’s this for creepy? Once President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the 1961 Lincoln Continental Presidential Limousine, it was modified to improve security and continued to be used by Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter despite knowing of its notorious past.
Originally modified by Ohio-based coachbuilder Hess and Eisenhardt, the car had no armor plating, but Kennedy preferred it because the seat could be raised for better visibility. Against the advice of the Secret Service, Kennedy chose it for what would be his last public appearance.
Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and James Carter
A 1968 Lincoln Continental was ordered for President Richard Nixon, who took office in 1969. The 1968 Lincoln later was replaced by a 1972 model, which survived through the Reagan administration, witnessing assassination attempts on Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. It’s thought the limousine’s armor plating caused Reagan’s injury, as the bullet is thought to have ricocheted off the car’s armored plating, injuring the president.
Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and William J. Clinton
Cadillac rejoined the presidential fleet in 1984 with a pair of Fleetwood limousines alongside the 1972 Lincoln. Since the 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood replaced the 1984 Fleetwoods, Cadillac has remained the presidential car of choice. And while you can view Reagan’s limousine at his presidential library in Simi Valley, California, don’t expect to see others, as the Secret Service now has the cars destroyed upon retirement.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama
For 2001, a Cadillac DeVille Limousine was built in-house by General Motors with state-of-the-art protection and communications systems including Night Vision, Cadillac’s infrared object detection system.
Inside, there’s seating for seven. Wood trim and blue leather with the presidential seal accent the seats, and a foldaway desktop is available for affairs of state. In addition, the rear seats recline. Another limo arrived in 2005, followed by another when Barack Obama took his first oath of office. Aside from larger windows, it wasn’t dramatically different and would be used through 2018.