A Look at the Last 30 Years of Presidential Limousines
Presidential inaugurations have often served as the debuts of new presidential limousines. The inaugural parades would often serve as a sort of unveiling of the new design, even though development work was always something that took years.
The past 30 years have seen a total of five presidential limousine designs, representing an evolution of one of the most secure cars for heads of state ever built. But as you will see, older designs from previous administrations often remained in use. And while 1991 may not seem like a particularly distant moment in time, when it comes to automotive design and engineering, it was an eon ago. The limousines in use 30 years ago aren’t quite from the modern era of presidential limousines, which really dates back to 2001, but it’s a good starting point as we look back at presidential limousine designs on the day of the inauguration of President Joseph Biden.
After several previous administrations had used Cadillac limousines, the George H.W. Bush administration switched to a Lincoln Town Car-based limousine. However, a number of Cadillac cars from the Ronald Reagan administration stayed in use through the mid 1990s, and took part in the 1989 inaugural parade. The Vice President’s vehicle used in the 1989 inaugural parade was a Cadillac.
The Lincoln Town Car-based limousines of the George H.W. Bush administration featured an extra section behind the B-pillar which obscured a second row of rear-facing seats, redesigned rear doors, a redesigned E-pillar with a row of forward-facing seats, and a raised roof. This car featured a layout similar to the Reagan-era Cadillac limousines.
Even though the inauguration of President Bill Clinton saw the debut of the 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood-based limousines, Cadillacs from the Reagan administration also took part in the inaugural parade. The limousine seen here is a Reagan-era Cadillac limousine serving as a second presidential car in the 1993 inauguration parade, carrying Vice President Al Gore. President Clinton periodically used the Lincoln limousine as well built during the previous administration.
The 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood-based limo was the last car-based presidential limousine that would be designed for a president’s use, with all subsequent models being based on SUV or truck platforms. The 1993 limousine kept the layout of the outgoing model, featuring a second row of rear-facing seats obscured by the insert after the B-pillar. The front and rear doors of the limousine were also redesigned to allow for a taller roof, as well as a redesigned rear compartment. So the design was much more than a stretch, incorporating many unique body panels with armor underneath.
Several Fleetwood-based limousines were built during the Clinton years, some for use in Washington, D.C., some for overseas trips, and some as reserve cars. As usual, one of them ended up in the presidential library after the president’s term ended. But whether this was the exact car that Clinton used the most is a complex question, as there were several identical ones.
Cadillac limousines from the Reagan years continued to be in use by the Secret Service during the Clinton years for presidential visits around the country. This older Cadillac limousine is seen here in California in 1994, after the Northridge Earthquake. This again reflects the practice of using older armored limousines in later administrations. Note that this is a different design from the “tall roof” Reagan-era Cadillac limousine.
A number of other Fleetwood-based armored limousines were built during the first and second Clinton terms, for other administration officials. The design seen here is a four-door model with a modified greenhouse that is shorter than the presidential limousine.
Despite the sight of two presidential limousines in motorcades during the 1990s, the number of limousines identical to the presidential cars was much higher, around a dozen. This number was mandated by the need to have several at the ready at any given time for different types of visits around the District of Columbia, the U.S., and the world. A couple of cars could be transported overseas ahead of a visit, the president would take one or two cars to Andrews Air Force Base, another couple would be on standby somewhere around D.C., more cars would be at other locations around the U.S. So the total number adds up quickly.
The 2001 inauguration saw the debut of a new generation of presidential limousines, ones believed to be based on the GMT platform that underpins the Chevrolet Suburban, among other GM vehicles. These were no longer really based on any particular Cadillac sedan, and featured an exceptionally tall greenhouse above a fairly low hood. A number of parts bin items such as various lights were used on the exterior, but a lot of the bodywork was bespoke.
GM kept the three-row layout with the 2001 redesign, featuring a second row of rear-facing seats, while the interior grew pretty substantially over the 1993 generation. The presidential limousines were also much heavier and much taller this time around, with one of the defensive measures being an SUV-like height that could obscure the head and body of the president upon exiting and entering the vehicle as viewed from ground level. The limousines weren’t as tall as the Chevy Suburbans also used by the Secret Service, but they were close, as you can seen in this photo.
In addition to the presidential limousines used during the Bush era, the Secret Service also used a large number of stretched Cadillac DTS limousines that were used by other administration officials. The number of these cars was much greater, numbering a couple of dozen at the least, and they featured redesigned rear doors and redesigned rear passenger compartments. These were typically used by the Vice President and various cabinet secretaries, at home and overseas.
The 2001-generation limousines stayed in use past the end of George W. Bush’s term, as in previous terms. That’s because presidential limousines don’t really go away once a new President is sworn in, remaining in use in the White House fleet for a few years for different types of trips, or are used by the sitting Vice President.
The 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama saw the debut of a new generation of presidential limousines. This version was once again taller and less sedan-like, and at the early planning stages could have ended up being fairly close in appearance to a Cadillac Escalade. However, a limousine bodystyle won out, even though it was now believed to be based on GM’s Kodiak platform.
The 2009-generation limousines had somewhat different proportions in comparison to the 2001-era cars, featuring a taller hood, flatter roof, and some Cadillac Escalade items throughout, such as the headlight housing. The limousines also featured much taller tires and larger wheels, but not ones borrowed from any Cadillac production cars.
Overall, the 2009-era limousines are believed to have reached design and size parameters that we’re unlikely to see changed significantly over the next 20 years. The only thing that could change is the introduction of an electric powertrain, if the government permits this type of powertrain in the vehicle for a number of reasons.
As with previous generations, about a dozen nearly identical limousines are believed to have been produced, some for overseas trips, some for D.C., and a number in reserve.
The latest generation of presidential limousines debuted in late 2018, almost two years after President Donald Trump began his term in office. This marked the first time in several years that a new generation of limousine did not debut in time for the inauguration, but no contract deadline was actually breached: GM delivered the vehicles within a specified delivery window. However, 2009-generation limousines, seen here, continued to be used during various trips well into 2020.
The design of the 2018-generation limousines differed only slightly from the 2009 limousines, losing B-pillar windows and featuring much shorter windows overall from the window sill line to the roof, no doubt saving some weight in the process, as the glass in the vehicles is one of the heaviest components. One of the most noticeable changes was the flatter-looking roof, compared to the two prior generations, which lent this design some visual balance.
The 2018-generation limousines once again relied on some Escalade styling elements, but of course no bodywork was shared between the two vehicles, with the presidential limousine remaining a handmade machine in which just about everything is custom made.
The current generation of presidential limousines is not expected to be replaced until 2025 at the earliest, having only been in use for two and a half years at the present time. But even if the next generation debuts for the 2025 inauguration, it would still be a relatively short span of time for this particular design. Our money, therefore, is on a much later replacement date, perhaps halfway into the term of the president inaugurated in January 2025.
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