Monday, January 19, 2009


It’s the one presidential limousine that’s etched in the minds of generations of Americans: the midnight-blue 1961 Lincoln convertible that John F. Kennedy used as he rode through Dealey Plaza in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Two days after the assassination, the Secret Service ordered the limousine sent back to Ford Motor Co. to be completely rebuilt - equipped with armor, a redone engine and a top welded onto the frame.

The vehicle would become the last of the convertible presidential limousines, the last to be built without protective armor and it would mark a new era of more-secure vehicles.

Barack Obama’s inauguration will mark the official debut of a new presidential limousine, designed and engineered in such secrecy by General Motors Corp. that about all that’s been made public are its hand-stitched leather seats and a CD player.

While the engine size and type of Cadillac has not been revealed, the limousine is thought to be equipped with “run-flat” tires, 5-inch thick armored plating, bullet-proof windows and a chassis sealed to protect against chemical or biological attack. The Secret Service will not reveal its cost.

Not much of the first presidential conveyance has survived.

Curators at George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, say the only remnant they have of the first president’s vehicles is a wooden coat of arms from one of his carriages.

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has only the carriage President Ulysses S. Grant used during his 1873 inauguration, which was bought retail from Meeks Carriage Depository and kept in the White House stables, where the Oval Office now stands.

Wealthy New Yorkers gave Millard Fillmore’s wife, Abigail, a carriage complete with horses and silver harnesses, but Fillmore sold it and pocketed the proceeds.

The Henry Ford Museum has a brougham used by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 - the last horse-drawn vehicle to carry a president. In its later life, the vehicle was passed to the White House housekeepers, who carried groceries in it until 1928.

The first president to ride in a car was William McKinley, who rode in a Stanley Steamer on July 13, 1901, two months before his assassination.

His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, preferred horses, though the White House had its first government-owned automobile. William Howard Taft, at 300 pounds, liked to settle back in the seat of a Pierce Arrow limousine.

When Taft left office, he replaced the horses in the White House stables with five cars. The stables officially were closed by act of Congress in 1951.

Calvin Coolidge, who had great regard for Henry Ford, was the first president to get a Lincoln, and the company had a relationship with the White House for more than half a century, leasing limousines to the president for $1 a year.

Only after Pearl Harbor did the Secret Service order the cars fortified with armor and inch-thick bulletproof glass.

The Secret Service ordered a fleet of 10 cars in 1950, including one called the “Bubbletop” because of its Plexiglas roof.

Richard M. Nixon’s White House limousine was the last to be equipped with a sunroof.

Since 1992, the Secret Service has purchased the cars rather than lease them.

The three Cadillacs delivered to Bill Clinton in 1993 reportedly cost a total of $10 million.

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