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Iconic Presidential limousines: from The Sunshine Special to The Beast

As we approach the Presidents Day holiday weekend in the U.S., let’s look back at some of the most iconic presidential limousines in history

Home road Iconic Presidential limousines: from The Sunshine Special to The Beast
Iconic Presidential limousines: from The Sunshine Special to The Beast

In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt kicked off a tour of New England with a car ride through Connecticut, becoming the first sitting President of the United States to make a public appearance in a car. Since then, the limousines various Presidents have used through the decades have become almost as iconic as the chief executives themselves. As you browse the list, you’ll consistently see Lincoln and Cadillac, which are not only popular among U.S. presidents, but are also some of the most popular cars in the U.S. market that Pirelli makes tires for.

Here’s a look at a few of the more memorable Presidential limousines.

The Sunshine Special

During the early 20th century, Presidents rode in production-model vehicles. It wasn’t until Franklin Roosevelt took office that the first vehicle specially built for a President made its way to Washington. FDR’s limousine was a 1939 12-cylinder Lincoln K Series convertible, and he almost always rode in it with the top down. Because of this preference, the vehicle was nicknamed the “Sunshine Special.”

Even though FDR had survived an assassination attempt in 1933 while riding in an open limo, the Sunshine Special initially did not have any sort of special defensive features. It wasn’t until after Pearl Harbor that the Secret Service asked for the vehicle to be retrofitted with armor plating, bullet-proof tires and thick windows.

The Sunshine Special was also used on occasion by President Harry Truman and others before being retired in 1948. It is now on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.

Lincoln Continental SS-100-X

This vehicle may have been iconic on its own, considering its sleek styling and bevy of unique features, but it will forever be linked with tragedy due to it being the vehicle President John Kennedy was in when he was assassinated. Originally a standard 1961 Lincoln Continental, the car had an additional 41 inches added to it when it was retrofitted for Presidential use.

In addition to the extra length, the vehicle featured a hydraulic rear seat that could rise, allowing the President to be more visible during motorcades. It was the only Presidential vehicle to have interchangeable roofs: a standard soft top, a lightweight metal one, and a transparent plastic one that was often referred to as a “bubble top.” The SS-100-X also had retractable steps and handles for Secret Service agents to use. Ironically, nothing on the vehicle was initially built to be bulletproof.

The SS-100-X was also unique in that it was the only Presidential limo not painted black; it was originally a special navy-blue color. It was, however, repainted black after JFK’s assassination, when additional safety features such as bullet-resistant glass and armor plating were added. It remained in service until 1978, and it is now also displayed at the Henry Ford Museum.

The Beast

Presidential cars changed considerably between the 1960s and the late 2000s, when Barack Obama took office. One prominent difference is that the vehicles no longer started their lives as standard production models that were later modified; Obama’s Cadillac was built from the bottom up based on specs provided by the Secret Service. The cars also lacked any sort of roof opening, like Kennedy’s convertible or the Lincoln Continental used by Richard Nixon, which had roof panels that could open.

The car built for President Obama – a version of which was put into service in 2018 for President Donald Trump – was based on a truck chassis and rumored to weigh as much as 20,000 pounds, resulting in the Secret Service nicknaming it “The Beast.”

The safety features on The Beast (officially referred to as Cadillac One) were the stuff of legend. The reinforced chassis could protect against a bomb exploding underneath the car. The doors featured five-inch-thick glass and were as heavy as the ones on a Boeing 757. The gas tank was armored and surrounded by foam, so it wouldn’t explode if shot. The sealed-off interior could protect passengers in the event of a chemical attack or nuclear contamination. And of course, because no car would be complete without it, the limo was stocked with pints of blood matching the President’s type.

The Beast had offensive capabilities as well, including built-in tear gas cannons and pump-action shotguns, as well as infrared smoke grenades that could act as a counter-measure to rocket-propelled grenade attacks or anti-tank missiles.

One final fun fact about The Beast: the passenger doors had no keyholes. Only the Secret Service knew how to open them.

We think Teddy Roosevelt would have been impressed. 

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