Even at $1.5m, Joe Biden’s ‘Beast’ isn’t the priciest presidential limo

Cheaper than a Bugatti Chiron, it’s a bargain compared with past White House limousines

The Beast: the presidential limousine. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times

The Beast: the presidential limousine. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times

 

Now that we’re about to have a US president about whom we can talk without wincing, and know for certain who’s going to be sleeping in the White House come January 20th, it seems like a good time to take a look at his wheels.

No, not his personal car – US presidents aren’t allowed to drive on the public road for security reasons, which will doubtless upset Joe Biden, a classic Corvette owner, more than a little – but the official limousine that the president uses whenever Air Force One is too big to park.

From inauguration day, next week, Biden will be riding in “the Beast” – the official presidential limo, which looks like a stretched Cadillac but is actually custom-made for the US government by General Motors. Although the Beast looks like a car, underneath it’s based on a heavy-duty lorry chassis, weighs almost 10 tonnes, and is really closer in specification to a tank up top.

The Beast’s doors, with their 10cm-thick armoured windows, weigh as much as those on a Boeing airliner, while the armour plate is said to be as much as 15cm thick

The actual specifications are top secret, but the Beast is armoured against gunfire and explosives, has puncture-proof tyres and its own internal air supply, and carries packets of the president’s blood type in a chilled compartment so that he or she can be given an emergency transfusion if needed.

The doors, with their 10cm-thick armoured windows, weigh as much as those on a Boeing airliner, while the armour plate is said to be as much as 15cm thick.

All of that, of course, makes it very expensive. How expensive? Well, according to research out by the UK website Vanarama, the current Beast costs about $1.5 million per vehicle. That makes it a little cheaper than, say, a Bugatti Chiron but still pricier than your average family hatchback. However, it’s actually something of a bargain for the US taxpayer if you go back in history and adjust the costs of all the presidential limos for inflation.

The Beast: President Eisenhower in his 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan, in New York. Photograph: Transcendental Graphics/Getty
The Beast: President Eisenhower in his 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan, in New York. Photograph: Transcendental Graphics/Getty

Do that, and it very quickly becomes clear that it was John F Kennedy’s now-infamous 1962 Lincoln Continental that was the most expensive presidential car of them all, costing $1.74 million if you work out the inflation. Still, that was probably something of a drop in the ocean considering how much money Kennedy was pouring into the US space programme at the time.

That Lincoln was about a metre longer than the standard Continental model, and had rear seats that could be raised hydraulically, so people could get a better look at their president. While often used as a convertible, it also had a fixed roof that could be attached, as well as a transparent “bubble” top that would allow the president to smile and wave, but keep dry on a rainy day. Sadly, neither was bulletproof.

Franklin D Roosevelt's 1939 Lincoln K ‘Sunshine Special’ had a compartment in the boot for Thompson submachine guns, for the president’s Secret Service detail

After the tragic day in Dallas, in 1963, on which Kennedy was assassinated, the Lincoln, somewhat surprisingly, wasn’t thrown away. It was instead refitted and updated, given armour plating in the doors and a new bulletproof roof, and stayed in service for both the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The car itself is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.

Saving the US taxpayer the most money were Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successor, Harry S Truman. Both men used the same 1942 Lincoln Custom. In modern day money, that cost just $49,000 and served for eight years – good value, then, and doubtless some of that was due to wartime austerity.

Belly of the Beast: Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the presidential limousine in 2010. Photograph: Pete Souza/White House
Belly of the Beast: Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the presidential limousine in 2010. Photograph: Pete Souza/White House

Previously, Roosevelt had used a 1939 Lincoln K ‘Sunshine Special’, which was a convertible but which was also the first presidential car to feature armour-plated doors and extra-thick glass. There was also a special compartment in the boot for Thompson submachine guns for the president’s Secret Service detail, and bulletproof tyres, too.

Other presidential modifications include a roof raised by seven inches on Dwight D Eisenhower’s 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan, to accommodate tall silk top hats, and bigger glass on Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Cadillac Fleetwood, so that he could see the crowds, and they could see him. (It wasn’t the Fleetwood that rushed Reagan to hospital after his attempted assassination by John Hinkley in 1981 – the White House was still using Lincolns at that time.)

Trapped beast: mechanics try to free the presidential limo after it got stuck on the crest of a ramp at the US embassy in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Trapped Beast: mechanics try to free the presidential limo after it got stuck on a speed bump on a ramp at the US embassy in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Bill Clinton’s 1993 Cadillac was the first presidential limo to be purpose-built for the job, from the ground up, and so was the first to feature under-body protection from explosives, land mines, and rocket-propelled grenades. It was also possibly the fastest First Car ever, rumoured to have a top speed of 228km/h. (The current cars mostly have a top speed of around 95km/h, thanks to their massive weight.)

George W Bush’s 2001 Cadillac DeVille limo was the first president’s car to have satellite-communication tech, as well as an on-board infrared night-vision system for the driver. Barack Obama got a bus – the so-called Ground Force One – which was used for his re-election tour in 2012, and which features the same bullet- and bombproof design as the Beast.

Mind you, for all of their impressive tech and high cost, the presidents’ limo can be defeated by something much simpler than a bomb or an assassin’s rifle. When Barack Obama visited Dublin in 2011, the Beast got stuck on a particularly vicious speed bump, trying to get out of the US embassy in Dublin. Barack and Michelle were instead put into a taller-riding (and still heavily armoured) SUV and driven off in that instead.