Presidential Cars: White House on Wheels

The 2009 Presidential State Car. (Image from U.S. Secret Service via Wikimedia Commons)
The 2009 Presidential State Car. (Image from U.S. Secret Service via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to ride in an automobile in public.

Here are some things you may not know about presidential cars.

Roosevelt’s predecessor William McKinley was the first president to ride in a car, but apparently he did so in private. Roosevelt’s excursion took place during a visit to Hartford, Connecticut.

The car he rode in didn’t much resemble the cars of today, or even those of later that decade for that matter. He rode in a Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton, which had an open carriage for passengers in front of an elevated seat for the driver. The driver used a tiller to steer. The car’s batteries alone weighed about 800 pounds, and the car had a top speed of 13 miles per hour.

Roosevelt wasn’t impressed. He called automobiles “distinct additions to the discomfort of living.”

Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, converted the White House stables to a garage and purchased four cars, including an electric car and a steam-powered car. Warren Harding was the first president to be a licensed driver and the first to drive to his inauguration. Franklin Roosevelt, who was paralyzed from the waist down, had his car outfitted with hand controls for the accelerator and brakes.

FDR was also the first president to ride in a limousine built to the specifications of the Secret Service. The car was known as the Sunshine Special because of its convertible top. It could seat 10 passengers and was equipped with a siren, running lights, two-way radio, and running boards and handles for Secret Service agents. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Sunshine Special was modified with armor plating, bulletproof tires and windows, and compartments for Secret Service weapons. Convertibles remained in the presidential motor pool until the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The car Kennedy was riding in when he was shot remained as the presidential limousine until 1967 and was used on occasion until it was retired in 1978.

In 1983, the first Cadillac limousine was purchased for use by Ronald Reagan.

1993 saw the first vehicle designed from the ground up as a presidential state car.

The exact specifications of recent presidential state cars are kept secret. It’s thought that the current limo is built on a truck platform that has more in common with a bus or dump truck than with a traditional limousine. It’s believed to have a 490 cubic-inch turbo V8 engine, but because of the tremendous weight of the vehicle, can only reach a top speed of 60 miles per hour. It’s estimated to get, at best, 8 miles per gallon. Among the rumored features are run-flat tires, rocket-propelled grenades, a tear-gas cannon, a sealed interior with on-board oxygen tanks and bottles of blood in the president’s blood type.

About the only thing it has in common with a production Cadillac is the insignia on the front grille and some interior design touches.

Our question: Air Force One is the call sign for any Air Force aircraft carrying the president. What is the call sign of a civilian aircraft carrying the president?


Today is Flag Day in Russia and National Heroes’ Day in the Philippines.

It’s unofficially National Peach Day and National Tooth Fairy Day.

It’s the birthday of writer Dorothy Parker, who was born in 1893; musician John Lee Hooker, who was born in 1917; and actress Kristin Wiig, who is 43 today.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1976, the top song in the U.S. was “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee.

The No. 1 movie was “The Shootist,” while the novel “Trinity” by Leon Uris topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

Who was the only sitting president to travel on a regularly scheduled commercial airline flight?


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