Conservative Cadillacs and Limousine Liberals

From Taft to Eisenhower to Obama: Chauffeuring America’s commander in chief in the modern age.
The 2009 Cadillac Presidential Limousine is equipped with hevy armoring, extra-thick glass, run-flat tires, and a sealed cabin. Photography Courtesy of General Motors Corp.

One reason the federal government ultimately threw General Motors Corp. a lifeline might have had something to do with limousines. While the Detroit Three auto execs were receiving a congressional tongue-lashing for flying to Washington in their private jets last fall, GM was putting the finishing touches on a new limo for President-elect Barack Obama (probably offering it at a bargain price for good measure). Exactly the kind of impressive car that always earned renown for Detroit, the new Caddy represents a big advance over the gawky 2001 and 2006 DTS models that served George W. Bush. While the Secret Service lived up to its name and kept most details under wraps, some facts about the 2009 presidential limo have come to light.

For one thing, it’s not a stretch to characterize the new first car as more of a truck, because of its dependence on components from heavy-duty versions of GM’s light trucks. Run-flat tires capable of supporting the vehicle, even after losing air pressure, are mounted on extra-large wheels. This is partly why “The Beast,” as the Secret Service calls the limo, stands more than 6 feet tall. The headlamps, grille, and other trim are pure Cadillac Escalade. Massive window pillars and chunky doors indicate heavy armoring, and the windows required glass slabs at least 5 inches thick.

In addition, the cabin is sealed to prevent a chemical attack. Amenities that President Obama is likely to enjoy while riding inside include a 10-disc CD changer, iPod station, and digital TV. Aircraft tie-downs so the vehicle(s) can be transported on military cargo jets are attached to the chassis.

One GM retiree and enthusiast of “professional cars” — limos, ambulances, and hearses — saw the limo prototype in October while a guest at the company’s tech center, in Warren, and was told by an insider that nine presidential limos had been built in separate locations around Detroit and were under constant surveillance by the Secret Service during construction. This tidbit led Gregg D. Merksamer, a national expert who has studied and written about presidential limos for years, to conclude the bevy of new cars “is probably enough for all 2001 and 2006 cars to be replaced, or for the new cars to be pre-positioned in cities that the president frequents.” Plenty of decoys and backups are the result.

William Taft
William Taft, 1907 Cadillac Model G

At any rate, two conclusions are foregone: One is that Cadillac keeps its job of supplying the most prestigious car in America. (If the Detroit Three ever went under, it would hardly seem apropos of an American president to switch to a car with the thrifty associations of a Kia Amanti or a Hyundai Sonata, and even less fitting for a Tata Nano limo to dock at the White House.) Secondly, if tradition holds, the government won’t pay anything near the car’s real value. This tradition goes back to the early days. In 1909, William Howard Taft wheedled a pair of limos from Pierce-Arrow for a bargain price of $4,900. Two years later, Taft ordered two more Pierce-Arrows, this time with interchangeable open and closed bodies, and the old cars were taken back. The White House paid only an annual $500 leasing fee.

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy, 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood Series 75 “bubble top” Limousine. Photographs courtesy of General Motors Corp.

The arrangement with Pierce-Arrow continued through the administration of Calvin Coolidge, with five cars supplied — for the same fee. But providing the presidential car was too great a publicity boon to miss, so Packard, Lincoln, and Cadillac all made similar lease offerings, which were accepted. Coolidge, in fact, liked his Lincoln so much that he bought it from Ford Motor Co. upon leaving office.

By 1928, the expanding presidential fleet had become something of an end unto itself, and Herbert Hoover campaigned for the presidency, saying, “If I can’t make the White House, I’ll take the garage.” Authors Michael L. Bromley and Tom Mazza note that, in 1930, Hoover auspiciously acquired a mighty, 16-cylinder Cadillac limousine. Much as President Obama could find himself chastised for riding around in a super-expensive gas guzzler with a huge carbon footprint, Hoover was upbraided by a citizen who wrote a letter bemoaning the nine new presidential cars being purchased for White House use: “Your action … shows a completely unfeeling attitude to the critical situation prevalent in our country to-day.”

The 1933 assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami started a trend in which the Secret Service, which issues specifications for the presidential limos, found itself adopting the security lessons applied by Chicago gangsters (FDR even rode in a limo with bulletproof glass that the Treasury Department had confiscated from Al Capone). The first fully armored presidential limousine was a 1942 Lincoln. And by 1970, the cars became remarkably heavy, tipping the scales at more than 8,000 pounds.

Although Pierce-Arrow and Packard passed from the scene, Ford, GM, and sometimes Chrysler jockeyed for first-car honors through the postwar era. Much of Washington enjoyed riding in limos, with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s administration, when bigwigs either had to ride in taxis or drive themselves. Presidential cars have gradually discarded their convertible tops and sunroofs and replaced them with redundant mechanical components and high-tech electronic communications capabilities — even countermeasures to thwart eavesdropping and, Merksamer speculates, digital photography, as well. While there was no word on whether the 2009 Cadillac presidential limo was equipped with OnStar, imagine the shock of the technician taking a call from a president eager to find the nearest pizzeria.