One of the most evocative symbols of the modern American presidency is the presidential state car. The image of a black American limo with the national and presidential flags mounted on either side of the hood is as synonymous with the office as “Hail to the Chief,” the two-century-old presidential anthem. Today on Presidents Day, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the first purpose-built Presidential State Car 85 years after it entered service.
In 1937, the federal government awarded the contract for a state car to the Ford Motor Company. Edsel Ford, then president of Ford and son of Henry Ford, had directly lobbied for the contract to increase the prestige of the company (and in particular of Lincoln).
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an avid driver despite losing the ability to use pedals after contracting polio in 1921. While in office, he was given a 1936 Ford Phaeton equipped with hand controls to drive around his Springwood estate in Hyde Park, New York. He also had a modified 1938 Ford V-8 convertible coupe at The Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. By the time Eleanor Roosevelt donated the Phaeton to FDR’s Presidential Library in 1946, the car had over 19,000 miles.
When the new Lincoln K Series limo arrived at the White House in 1940, it was also heavily modified to accommodate President Roosevelt. The K-series featured forward-facing jump seats and wider-opening rear doors for easier entry and exit of the vehicle by FDR. While the White House already had a fleet of vehicles, this was the first car built to specifications provided by the Secret Service. The Lincoln had extra-wide running boards, running boards on the rear bumper, and externally mounted grab handles to allow officers to climb outside the car.
Later in 1941, Pearl Harbor was infamously attacked by Japan and the United States entered World War II. The 150-horsepower, 414-cubic-inch V-12 limo was returned to Lincoln to be remodeled with H-series components and modified to make the state car suitable for wartime use. The Lincoln was loaded with steel plating under its body and fitted with bulletproof glass and experimental run-flat tires. After being armored, the limo weighed 9,300 pounds and had a sturdier suspension added to compensate.
When the now armored limo returned to the White House, it was dubbed the Sunshine Special by a member of the press. The nickname was likely either due to FDR’s love of driving with the top down, or his desire to have the top down on the Sunshine Special so citizens could see it. The Sunshine Special was used extensively in World War II, even after Roosevelt’s death in 1945. The Lincoln even accompanied President Truman to Germany for the Potsdam conference, only to be replaced when Truman was elected to a full term in 1948. Today, the Sunshine Special is on display at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.
Although no longer convertibles, presidential limos never lost any defensive capabilities after the Sunshine Special. The current presidential limousine, colloquially known as the Beast, is a car in name only. The vehicle was built around a medium-duty truck platform and is a Detroit-designed love child of a luxury SUV and an infantry fighting vehicle. The beast’s exterior can withstand small arms fire and direct hits from rocket-propelled grenades. For the past 80 years and into the foreseeable future, the Commander-in-Chief can expect to travel comfortably and be defended against any imaginable threat.