Among other more obvious historical firsts President Obama is the first president to be driven around in a totally custom-made car. The security and communications requirements have become so extensive – a negative pressure system for chemical attacks, IED-proof armor on the doors, a mine-proof underbelly, Level IV bullet resistant glass, etc. – that the body and frame of a normal limousine could no longer bear the added weight. Customizing a Lincoln Town Car or Cadillac Fleetwood is no longer sufficient, so the current Presidential State Car was built from the ground up. "Car" is a wild misnomer, as "The Beast" (as the Secret Service calls the 12,000-pound vehicle) is more tank than car. While the styling cues and badging mark the car as a Cadillac, the resemblance is only superficial.
Built on the platform of the GMC Topkick – a commercial vehicle used as a platform for fire trucks, ambulances, and dump trucks – the PSC has eight inches of titanium armor in the doors, bulletproof glass nearly a foot thick, and generally looks more like a bunker than a car as this Life Magazine photo illustrates:
The exterior bodywork had to be designed carefully so that the vehicle could fit inside a C-17 Globemaster, which, for the record, is really fucking big. The President is not allowed by the Secret Service to be transported in vehicles provided by other nations, which is logical given that he often ends up in dodgy places. Thus wherever he goes, the car goes. The engine is classified but is known to be a very large diesel, which breaks with the tradition of all previous presidential carriages. It also indicates that the Secret Service is minimally concerned about high speed (although I'm sure it's plenty fast) and very concerned that the PSC is able to batter its way through barricades, climb small obstacles, and push other vehicles out of the way. The high-torque diesel is ideal for all three applications.
It is a sad commentary on the current state of the country and of the world that the president must be trucked around in what amounts to a impenetrable bomb shelter on wheels, but that is where we are at in 2010. It is not where we have always been – although in fairness, a couple of assassinated presidents might have benefited from protection of this kind.
The first president to ride in an automobile was William McKinley, although it was a brief novelty ride in something considered far less reliable than a horse in 1900. The first to use on a semi-regular basis a car purchased by the Federal government for the president was McKinley's successor, Teddy Roosevelt. The car was a steam-powered (!!!) Stanley. Hey, if Robert Fulton's brainchild was good enough for a locomotive, surely it belonged in automobiles as well. TR's successor William H. Taft was the first to own a personal vehicle; he squeezed his corpulent hide into this sweet-ass White Model M Steamer:
The first vehicles that indicated the realization that the president required customized vehicles was unsurprisingly FDR, who received two massive Cadillac convertibles in 1938. They accommodated his physical needs and made some basic security concessions as well. This was upgraded to the first vehicle specifically customized on order from the White House, the "Sunshine Special" V12 Lincoln convertible procured in 1939. This is after he already survived one assassination attempt in an open-topped car. Smart.
Post-War presidents had a succession of opulent Lincoln convertibles, none of which, being convertibles, offered much in the way of upgraded security. Communications, at least the wireless kind, were so rudimentary that there wasn't much to put in a car at the time, so the presidential cars were essentially just really nice cars. Kennedy's soon-to-be infamous Lincoln – a landaulet, a strange convertible-limousine hybrid – featured telephones based on two-way radio technology, which was quite advanced for 1960. This photo clearly shows the bizarrely placed "jump seats" in which Governor Connolly sat during the assassination in 1963.
After that unpleasantness, the Secret Service started to realize that convertibles, even with the top up, were a horrible idea. In 1969 the White House finally received a bulletproof and armored Lincoln limousine which was used by Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan – including the latter's assassination attempt in 1981. Reagan switched back to Cadillacs in 1983, although I can't locate information about why. There may be a reason or it may mean nothing in particular. But his new limo was enclosed and heavily armored. Armor upgrades in the 1989 Lincoln delivered to George H. Bush necessitated a transplanted Ford Truck V8, the first indication that the armor requirements of the presidential limo were beginning to tax the limits of standard car designs. Clinton received a Cadillac Fleetwood-based limo in 1993 and his successor took possession of the last limo based on a "normal" car in 2005: a Cadillac DTS-based limo which is still used as a backup by the current president. The Secret Service reportedly was unhappy with the performance and structural integrity of the Bush DTS, as the amount of equipment added during customization badly strained the passenger car underpinnings of the vehicle.
It would be nice if President Obama and his successors could hop in a convertible and wave to parade crowds, but it appears that those days are over. On the bright side, however, it would take a tactical nuclear strike to put a scratch on the passenger compartment of the new Presidential State Car. And there's probably some classified piece of security equipment to protect it from that too.