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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 9, 2012 @ 7:11 am

    Your car awaits, Mr President…

    Neil Briscoe

     

    So, Barack Obama has taken a second win at the world’s biggest popularity contest and has himself another four years in one of the most iconic structures around. No, not the White House, but the official presidential limousine; the vast, armour-plated Cadillac that is officially known as the Presidential State Car but which insiders know best as “The Beast.”

    Yes, it’s the same car that was stymied two years ago by a speed bump on the way out of the US embassy in Dublin, but there are few, if any, other threats that the massive Caddy couldn’t meet head on and defeat. In fact, calling it a Cadillac is something of a misnomer. It’s actually built on the chassis of a Chevrolet Kodiak, what the Americans call a ‘medium duty vehicle’ and what you or I would call a pretty hefty lorry.

    On top of that chassis is basically a giant, heavily armoured survival cell that is designed to protect the president’s life in the event of an attack, as much as it is to whisk him in traditional Cadillac comfort from engagement to engagement. Mind you, if you think The Beast is impressive, you should check out the Chevrolet Suburban escort car that follows along behind it. Nothing much to be impressed by if it were a regular Suburban, but this one has a 6-barrel 20mm rotary Gatling gun that pops up from the rear roof section and which can instantly convert most exterior threats to little more than vapour…

    The US Presidential limo has, of course, a long and distinguished history, but it’s surprising how equally chequered that history is.

    President William McKinley was the first US president to so much as ride in a car, but he was assassinated in 1901. Perhaps future presidents should have taken note of this unfortunate confluence of presidential motoring and presidential death. (There is also of course the conspiracy theorists’ favourite footnote that while Kennedy was assassinated in a Lincoln Continental, a car made by the Ford Motor Company, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre… We’ll come back to Kennedy in a moment, but seeing as Honest Abe died twenty years before Karl Benz invented the car, we should probably just leave that particular slice of history well enough alone for now.)

    It was Theodore Roosevelts adminstration which began the tradition of using an official state car (a Stanley Steamer, bringing alternative fuels to the White House about a century ahead of anyone else) and it was Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft who converted the White House stables into a garage, and ordered a brace of gorgeous Pierce-Arrows to be used for state occasions.

    However the whole armour plating thing doesn’t come into the presidential equation until the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era. Roosevelt’s Lincoln V12 convertible was the first purpose-built presidential limo, but following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the Secret Service got nervy about FDR riding about in an open car, so the dragged a 1928 Cadillac 314A, with heavy armour plating, out of government storage. It was this car that delivered FDR to the Capitol Building to deliver his famous “Day of infamy” speech. There was just the unfortunate fact, hanging in the air, that the armour-plated Caddy had once been the property of Al Capone… It had been seized by the Department of the Treasury when Capone had been put away for tax evasion, and Roosevelt would continue to use it until the Lincoln could be armoured with bullet-proof plates in the doors and machine guns for the Secret Service agents tucked into the doors.

    FDR's 'Sunshine Special' Lincoln V12 presidential car

    Two specially built armoured Cadillacs would be used by Roosvelt, Truman and Eisenhower until we come to the most famous presidential car of all time, the 1961 Lincoln Continental, as tragically used by John F Kennedy in November 1963. We all know what happened that day, but interestingly (and rather gruesomely) the car was not destroyed after Kennedy had been killed riding in it. Rather, the interior was replaced, it was converted (sensibly, if rather too late) to a hard-top and continued to do service in the White House motor pool.

    President Lyndon B Johnson greets the arrival of Pope Paul VI in a Lincoln Continental

    A later Chrysler Imperial LeBaron presidential limo was also nearly responsible for the untimely death of Ronald Reagan. When wannabe assassin John Hinckley opened fire, Reagan’s Secret Service team reacted fast to get the president into the cover of the car, but the bullet that hit, and almost killed, “The Great Communicator” in fact ricocheted off the armour of the Chrysler, striking the president below the ribs. If the Chrysler had been a normal car, the bullet would just have passed right through it…

    Since 1983, the presidential fleet has been entirely Cadillac-based and the current car was delivered to the White House in 2009. There is more than one, of course. There are always spare limos in any presidential motorcade in case of a breakdown or an attack that puts one out of commission, and the White House uses similar cars to transport suitably important VIPs. At a rough cost of $300,000, it’s not even that expensive, although the 8mpg fuel economy might mean that President Obama might want to have another look at that whole Stanley Steamer thing…


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