The mighty power of the United States is seen in a variety of ways. The monstrously large nuclear aircraft carriers that cruise menacingly through the oceans, its fearsome aircraft trialled first at the secretive Area 51, NASA extraordinary escapades into outer space. And then, there is a car.
The Presidential State Car comes with a variety of names; Cadillac one, First car and Stagecoach, which is the official designation used by the secret service, but personally I prefer another name that really describes this quite extraordinary automobile – known to many, as the Beast.
A True Tank of a Car
If you’ve ever seen the vast motorcade with its stars and stripes fluttering on those little poles on the sides of cars, you’ll know that transporting the President of the United States is no mean feat. The man who occupies that seat, in that dark car, is likely the most well-defended human being on the planet.
The secret service is well known for keeping its protocols well under wraps, but it’s thought that the White House, the Treasury Building and other diplomatic missions in Washington D.C are protected by 3,200 special agents with an additional 1,300 uniformed guards. From snipers on roofs to sniffer dogs patrolling perimeters, these are incredibly well-protected places and people.
The role of the Presidential Car has always been an important one. It needs to provide military-grade protection, without looking like a car with military-grade protection.
The world has changed markedly since the advent of the automobile at the end of the 19th Century – and so has the method of transportation for sitting U.S presidents.
The Benz Patent Motor Car arrived on the scene in 1885, and it’s fair to say it’s a craze that caught on. Estimates place the number of cars worldwide at an astonishing 1.4 billion, with that figure expected to hit 2 billion by 2035. When you take into account how many people on Earth are too young to drive, and how many live in impoverished situations where a car is a distant fantasy, that is an unbelievably high number.
The first recorded instance of a U.S president riding in an automobile came with William Mckinley in 1901 with a trip in a Stanley Motor Carriage Company steam car. Theodore Roosevelt famously chose to ride in a horse-drawn carriage while his secret service followed in a car – in his own words, he was “a rough-riding horseman”.
Things began to change in 1909 with the election of the 27th President of the United States, William Howard Taft. It was he who ordered the stables within the White House to be converted into a garage, and with good reason. President Taft was also the first president to purchase cars for official use. And yes, I did say cars, plural. His fleet of four included two luxury Pierce-Arrow cars, a Baker Motor Vehicle electric car, and a 1911 White Motor Company steam car which cost $4,000 (about $115,000 today). All in all, the shopping spree cost the U.S taxpayer $12,000 (around $341,000 today).
President Warren G. Harding became the first to be driven by car to his inauguration in 1921 and also the first man to hold a valid driving license when he took office. No doubt some of you are now mulling over just when driving licenses were first introduced, and I can tell you that, in the United States at least, it was in 1903 that both Massachusetts and Missouri passed laws requiring drivers to have a license – but no test was involved. Even by 1935, only 39 states required a driving license. And the last to bring in driving licenses? South Dakota, in 1954.
Franklin D Roosevelt bought a Ford V8 Phaeton coupe in 1936 and the rebellious President had it equipped with hand controls, firmly against secret service protocols which prohibited Presidents from driving their own cars. With the world building up the Second World War he obviously had more pressing matters on his mind than car safety.
But never underestimate the power of the Secret Service and in 1939, the Sunshine Special arrived – probably a nickname it wouldn’t get these days. The Lincoln Motor Company V12 convertible was the first car to be built to secret service specifications and should be considered the first Beast – or Baby Beast as I’m just coming to.
It was nicknamed ‘sunshine’ because of the President’s frequent desire to ride with the top down and was built over the chassis of a Lincoln K-series. It came with a 4.1 metres (13.3ft) wheelbase – meaning the horizontal distance between the two sets of wheels, which in this case was enough room to seat 10 passengers. It also came with rear doors hinged backwards, heavy-duty suspension and two side-mounted spare tires. Outside, the now-iconic platforms for secret service agents to ride on appeared on either side of the car.
The car took on an entirely different tone after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. Suddenly the country was at war and there was a fear the President’s car presented a soft target. Changes included adding 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick bulletproof glass, metal-clad flat-proof inner tubes, a radio transceiver, a siren, red warning lights, and a convenient place to keep a few submachine guns – just in case. As well as all of this, the car received an undisclosed, but a presumably hefty amount of armour plating. The Beast had come of age.
With President Truman came a break with tradition when he chose Lincoln over General Motors for his presidential motorcade. Rumour is he fell out with GM because they hadn’t provided him with the use of their cars during his election campaign. Ten Lincoln Cosmopolitans were leased by the White House then adapted to suit the Presidential needs. One of the Lincolns was an armoured convertible measuring 6.1 metres (20 ft) long, 2 metres (6.5 feet) wide, and weighed 2,900 kg (6,500 pounds). All of the cars came with a 152-horsepower V8 engine and a heavy-duty Hydra-Matic transmission, the first mass-produced fully automatic transmission.
The End of the Top Down
As President Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental cruised through Dallas on 22nd November 1963, with the top down and the President leaning jovially on the door, two things were about to happen; the assassination of the U.S President and with it, fundamental changes in the protocols of the Presidential car.
With the open-top Continental now on Dealey Plaza a shot rang out. Then another, and another – the President slumped forward. We’re not going to dive into the conspiracy theories here, but let’s say there are still plenty of unanswered questions. What was clear, however, was that John F Kennedy was declared dead on arrival at hospital – the 4th U.S President to be assassinated.
The irony of it all was that this had been the most sophisticated presidential car yet, and with a cost of $200,000 (around $1.7 million today) it was easily the most expensive. Nicknamed X-100 by the secret service, it came with not one, but three sets of removable roofs (a standard soft top, a lightweight metal one, and a transparent plastic one). This was a car that the President wanted to be seen well from as it also included a hydraulic lift capable of raising the rear seat 27 cm (10.5 inches). It’s all the more tragic that it was this that made him so much more exposed.
Into the Modern Era
That was the last time a U.S President ever had the top down. In 1974, a two-year-old Lincoln Continental, 6.7 metres (22ft) in length and weighing a hefty 5,900 kg (13,000-pound) arrived at the White House – fully armoured plated and with bulletproof glass. But things go to show that isn’t just the car that you need to worry about. The new Lincoln Continental managed to keep all of its occupants safe while in the car but was also used to transport President Reegan to hospital after he was shot on 30th April 1981.
The Presidency of George W.Bush saw the Beast take on a few home comforts, including an integrated 10-disc CD changer, a foldaway desktop and reclining rear seats with massaging and adaptive cushions. While there were rumours of sealed passenger compartments, each with their own air supply. This was an entirely new vehicle thought to weigh 6,400 kg (14,000 pounds) and was a switch back to General Motors from Cadillac. It was also the first time that the nickname, the Beast first appeared.
For the inauguration of President Obama, things switched back to Cadillac once again with a car weighing between 6,800 and 9,100 kg (15,000 to 20,000 pounds) and Goodyear Regional RHS tires often found on heavy-duty trucks. This considerable weight meant that the car was limited to a top speed of around 97 km/h (60 mph), and probably wasn’t the best for long journeys as it only got a paltry 16.8 to 36 miles per litre (3.7 to 8 miles per US gallon). Its cost was reported to be between $300,000 and $1.5 million ($400,000 – $1,600,000 today), but I think it’s fair to say it was probably on the upper side of that estimate.
Now, there are many other aspects of Obama’s Beast that I could go into, but many are also included in the latest model, so without further ado, the newest, baddest, Beast.
The Latest Beast
The newest version of the beast was first used on a trip to New York City on 24th September 2018. It is believed to be modelled on the Cadillac CT6, but details are still on the hazy side with this one.
NBC stated that it believes the armour on the car is made of aluminium, ceramic, and steel. The exterior walls are 20 cm (8 inches) in thickness, while the polycarbonate windows are multi-layered and 13 cm (five inches) thick, enough to not only make it bulletproof but armour piercing bulletproof too. The fuel tank is not only armour-plated but also comes with a special foam that would prevent it from exploding after a direct hit. The Kevlar-reinforced tyres are both puncture and shred resistant. Even if somehow the tyres were destroyed, the steel rims beneath are designed to be able to drive with or without the tyres.
The car uses hermetic sealing which essentially makes the vehicle entirely airtight in the case of a chemical attack. And possibly my favourite facts about this current Beast, the doors are believed to weigh as much as those on Boeing 757, and, this is the great part, the handles can be electrified to prevent entry. I mean if somebody can actually get close enough to pull the door open, then a whole lot must have gone wrong in the build-up. Thought to weigh between 6,800–9,100 kg (15,000–20,000 pounds), the Cadillac also comes with onboard storage of the President’s blood type, night-vision devices, smoke screens, and oil slicks as defensive measures. If things got really serious, there is an onboard water cannon, a pump-action shotgun and tear gas grenade launchers thought to be kept under the front of the car where Secret Service agents can quickly retrieve them.
A Fortress on Wheels
There is probably a direct correlation between how many people you’ve infuriated and how much armour platting you need on your car. If that’s the case, the American Presidents have plenty of enemies. I suppose that’s not entirely surprising and probably comes part and parcel with the position of leader of the most powerful country in the world.
If you know of a better-defended car anywhere on the planet, please let us know, because we couldn’t find one. The Beast is about as close as you can get to military-grade without starting to make it look like the President is riding in a tank. In fact, it’s remarkable just how elegant the Presidential cars have always appeared over the years, despite their fearsome underbelly. They may be known as the Beast, but there is a real beauty to go along with them.