Automotive

The Sunshine Special: The First True Presidential Limousine


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Photo: Greg Gjerdingen / Wikimedia Commons

One of the most evocative symbols of the modern American Presidency is the presidential state car. The image of a black American limousine with the national and presidential flags mounted on each 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 was commissioned.

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In 1937, the federal government granted the contract for a state car to the Ford Motor Company. Edsel Ford, Ford’s then-president and son of Henry Ford, had directly lobbied for the contract to increase the company’s (and especially Lincoln’s) prestige.


FDR behind the wheel of his 1936 Ford Phaeton

FDR behind the wheel of his 1936 Ford Phaeton
Photo: FDR Presidential Library

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an avid driver despite losing the ability to use foot pedals after contracting polio in 1921. During his time in office, he received a 1936 Ford Phaeton equipped with hand controls to drive while at his Springwood estate in Hype 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 the FDR Presidential Library in 1946, the car had over 19,000 miles on it.


1936 Ford Phaeton on display at the FDR Presidential Library

1936 Ford Phaeton on display at the FDR Presidential Library
Photo: FDR Presidential Library

When the new Lincoln K Series limousine 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 to make it easier for FDR to enter and exit the vehicle. While the White House already had a fleet of vehicles, this was the first car to be built to specifications provided by the Secret Service. The Lincoln had extra-wide running boards, step plates on the rear bumper, and externally-mounted handles to allow agents to ride on the outside of 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 powered limo was returned to Lincoln to be remodeled with H-Series components and modified to make the state car appropriate for wartime use. The Lincoln was laden with steel plating underneath its body and fitted with bulletproof glass and experimental run-flat tires. After being armored, the limousine weighed 9,300 pounds and had a sturdier suspension added to compensate.

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The Sunshine Special at Willow Run Airport in 1942

The Sunshine Specialat Willow Run Airport in 1942
Photo: The Henry Ford

When the now-armored limo returned to the White House, it was nicknamed the Sunshine Special by someone in the press corps. The nickname was probably due to either 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 him. The Sunshine Special was used extensively during World War II, even after Roosevelt died in 1945. The Lincoln even accompanied President Truman to Germany for the Potsdam Conference, before being 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.

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The current Presidential State Car during the 2021 Inauguration Parade

The current Presidential State Car during the 2021 Inauguration Parade
Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

While no longer convertibles, presidential limousines have never shed 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 constructed 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 last 80 years and into the foreseeable future, the Commander-in-Chief can expect to travel in comfort and be defended from any threat imaginable.

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