White House Wheels: Lincoln Luxury for 14 Presidents

Posted on March 1, 1989 by LCT Staff

The new custom Lincoln Town Car commissioned by the U.S. Secret Service perpetuates Lincoln’s reputation as the Car of the Presidents, and adds to a roster of presidential vehicles that goes back 65 years.

At the suggestion of President Eisenhower, the 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan "Bubbletop" presidential limousine had a clear Plexiglas roof added in the read to allow the public a better view of the president.
At the suggestion of President Eisenhower, the 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan "Bubbletop" presidential limousine had a clear Plexiglas roof added in the read to allow the public a better view of the president.

Stretched and specially modified, the most recent in a long line of presidential Lincolns was designed and built by Ford Motor Company at its Advanced Vehicle Development facility in Dearborn Heights, MI.

The Lincoln first became the presidential favorite during the 1920s because, according to one theory, President Coolidge had high personal regard for Henry Ford. Lincolns either have been the exclusive car of the U.S. presidents or have shared White House honors with other cars for all but a few years since that administration.

President Taft, whose term of office began in 1909, is credited with approving the first official auto fleet for White House staff and Secret Service use. In fact, the credit rightly may belong to Mrs. Taft who received a Pierce-Arrow just before the inauguration.

The practice of maintaining a White House fleet of loaned, leased, or purchased automobiles continued through the terms of Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and into President Reagan’s administration.

Automobiles were not complete strangers to chief executives even before Taft, however. Documents collected by the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association show that William McKinley was the first president to try out a motor vehicle while in office when he “varied his usual program by [taking] a little spin” in a Stanley Steamer on July 13, 1901. He was strictly a passenger.

McKinley’s sudden successor, President Theodore Roosevelt, preferred a horse he could ride; but the “Rough Rider” did appreciate the practicality of the motor car and occasionally called upon one for official, pleasure, and campaign use. The Secret Service had a White Steamer in the latter years of Roosevelt’s term, but tradition has it that he never took kindly to cars.

Therefore, it was up to President Taft to “clean out” the White House stables and replace the horse and carriages with automobiles. Even so, it was not for another decade that the switch was completed and the car replaced the traditional “carriage and four” in the inaugural ceremony for President Harding in 1921.

When Taft discarded the old White Steamer, the Pierce-Arrow began a long era — about 17 years — as the make in official favor. Then, President Coolidge reportedly switched to a seven-passenger 1923 or 1924 Lincoln phaeton, although official records are sketchy.

Halfway into his term, President Hoover purchased a Cadillac V-16 limousine, and bought it from the government when he left office. Franklin D. Roosevelt continued his preference for Packards into the early years of his presidential administration.

Although Pierce-Arrows still were used as follow-up vehicles by the Secret Service, in 1933 a five-passenger Lincoln phaeton was acquired for follow-up duties.

In 1939, a Lincoln convertible was leased by Ford Motor Company to the government for use by President Roosevelt. Dubbed the “Sunshine Special” by the president because of its open body, it became one of America’s most famous automobiles.

In 1941, as a result of World War II, the car was further modified to offer the president more protection. Armor plating was concealed in the body, one-inch thick bulletproof glass was added, as were bulletproof metal-sheathed tire tubes.

In use for 11 years and driven about 55,000 miles, the six-foot- high, 9,300-pound Sunshine Spe­cial was transported throughout the world and probably carried more world-famous celebrities than any other car. Today, the car is on display in all its original glory at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

The next Lincoln added to the Secret Service for presidential use was a use 1949 Lincoln Cos­mopolitan convertible. Unmodified in any way, it served as an “off- the-record” car for President Truman and supplemented the Sunshine Special.

Still mechanically perfect, the Sunshine Special and other vehicles of its vintage were retired in 1950 only because of their old style appearance. They were replaced by 10 specially built 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitans leased to the White House by Ford.

Nine of the Cosmopolitan limousines were sedans. The tenth was a convertible parade car. It was returned to Dearborn in 1954 to be revamped with a specially built plexiglass roof.

President Eisenhower suggested the clear plastic roof when crowds frequently braved bad weather only to be disappointed when the president was hidden by the conventional convertible top.

Following this modification, the car became known affectionately as the “bubbletop.” It was retired as the primary presidential car in 1961, but remained as a backup vehicle through 1965.

In 1961, a new Lincoln Continental limousine was delivered to the Secret Service. Converted by the firm of Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati, it would become one of the most famous presidential cars in history. President Kennedy was riding in it in Dallas when he was assassinated.

The car was completely rebuilt in 1964 with a number of new security features including a non-removable bubbletop made of bulletproof glass.

In 1968, a new presidential limousine/parade car was delivered, built on a 1968 model but modified with 1969 trim. Lehmann-Peterson of Chicago did the conversion work. It was built on a 160-inch wheelbase and included a number of technological features that never have been revealed publicly.

In 1972, another presidential-grade car replaced the 1961 limousine which then was retired, and supplemented the 1968/69 car. The 22-foot version of the 1972 Lincoln Continental was designed and built by Ford Motor Company, principally at its Research and Engineering Center in Dearborn.

In later years, two additional Continentals were added to the Secret Service fleet as Presidential off-the-record cars — the last in 1977.

The presidential limousine of the later Reagan years was a Cadillac, presented to the Secret Service in 1984.

George Bush was the 13th president to make the historic trip down Pennsylvania Avenue in an automobile for the inaugural parade. He did so in the latest in a long line of presidential Lincoln automobiles — this one a specially modified version of a 1989 Lincoln Town Car.

He would have been the 14th, but Jimmy Carter chose to walk.

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