America’s Presidential Tank

During the last presidential inauguration, the new President got most…

During the last presidential inauguration, the new President got most of the attention. As the motorcade proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue, something else caught the camera’s eye—the President’s new car.

Often referred to as a “tank on wheels,” the presidential limousine is regarded as the top of the line in armored vehicles. Historically, presidential rides came on line when automobiles were first invented and have evolved with changing times and threats. According to White House archives, Presidents William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt were the first presidents to use cars. They both used steam-driven cars, including the Stanley Steamer. When President Taft came to office, his purchase of a Model M Steamer was the first official “presidential limo.”

Cadillac’s first entry into the world of presidential transport was when President Woodrow Wilson rode in one during the World War I victory parade.

Evolution of Protection
When the United States entered World War II, the threats and protective web around President Roosevelt increased. In December of 1941, Roosevelt became the first president to use an “armored” vehicle. The car originally belonged to Al Capone; the car was seized by the Treasury Department in 1932 with Capone’s income-tax evasion charge. In reality, Capone’s cars only had bulletproof glass; the body of the car was still vulnerable.

In June of 1961, the Lincoln Continental limousine, used by President John F. Kennedy, included a series of removable steel and transparent plastic roof panels that could be installed in various combinations. It also contained a hydraulically operated seat, which could be raised 10.5 inches to give the gathered crowds a better view of the President and his guests. Up until this point, only parts of the presidential limos were armored.

After President Kennedy’s assassination, armoring the entire vehicle began, involving a secretive and lengthy process. After “up-armoring” the 1961 Lincoln, it weighed about one ton more than the original weight of 7,800 pounds. The up-armoring process increases the size and weight of any vehicle.
In 1972, in Hartford, Connecticut, a motorist traveling through an unsecured intersection struck the Lincoln Parade Limousine President Gerald Ford rode in. Due to the armor of the car, the President was not injured.

DN-SC-83-02722 The presidential motorcade winds its way down Independence Ave. from the Capitol to the White House during the Inauguration Day parade, 1981.

During the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, the FBI investigation revealed that some of the six bullets fired by John Hinckley struck the limo. Had the limo not been armored, those bullets may have impacted the President, changing history. In addition to the agents that saved President Regan’s life, the car did its job, too.

Since 1975, presidential limos have been purchased outright and up-armored by the Secret Service. This process has led to many evolutions of presidential limos, and with changing times and styles, new limos have changed as well.

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