As a planet, we’re living through some tumultuous times. But while the world’s leaders clash over the future of diplomacy, we’re compelled to ask: What do they drive?
Official cars are some of the most visible symbols of any government. These cars are chosen to give a sense of power, strength, and professionalism at home and abroad while still conveying a sense of their country’s national identity. All this adds up to a difficult proposition for automakers. With a long list of do’s and don’ts, many of these cars are scrutinized and built for conditions that most civilian cars would never face. Sometimes an automaker rises to the occasion and builds a timeless, elegant classic. Others emerge as strange, dated curiosities that are analyzed as everything that’s wrong with their home country.
Hit or miss, these exclusive cars serve as some of their countries’ most visible exports. From the elegant to the bizarre, here are 15 of the most memorable official cars that ever served on the world stage.
1. 2009 Cadillac One
The Presidential Limousine has come a long way from JFK’s nearly-stock Lincoln. The Cadillac One, (nicknamed “The Beast” by the Secret Service) may look like a regular Cadillac, but it’s more combat vehicle than luxury sedan. The diesel-powered limo is built on a heavy-duty truck platform, has armor strong enough to stop a rocket-propelled grenade, doors as heavy as a Boeing 747’s, a mobile communications center, self-contained oxygen system, and enough firepower to safely get the president out of a war zone. A new Beast is slated to arrive by 2018. Expect it to be even more impressive.
2. ZiL 41047
The ZiL limousines offered a rare glimpse into Soviet-style opulence. The long-serving official cars of the USSR received minor updates through the years, but the final model, the 41047, was little more than an updated version of the 1950s model. The ZiL was built largely unchanged between 1985 and 2002, and its legacy is a conflicting one. Fidel Castro’s limo has been relegated to taxi service on Havana streets, while Vladimir Putin ordered three new ZiL convertibles built for official ceremonies in 2010.
3. Hongqi L5
Believe it or not, the Hongqi L5 (or “Red Flag”) is a brand new car. Designed to look like Hongqi’s original model from 1958 (Mao’s car of choice), the L5 is the official car of Chinese Communist Party members and visiting heads of state. The 18-foot long cruiser is powered by an impressive 400 horsepower 6.0 liter V12 of Hongqi’s design. The car is for sale to the Chinese public, but its $801,624 price tag makes it the most expensive car in China.
4. North Korea’s 1970s Lincoln Continentals
Kim Jong-Il’s funeral in December 2011 offered a rare glimpse into the isolated and secretive world of North Korea, and Westerners were astonished to find that it was a world populated with malaise-era Lincolns. Several Continentals were featured prominently in the funeral procession, causing speculation as to how and why the cars made it to North Korea. Kim was a reported fan of American culture (especially film), and experts believe the cars were smuggled into the country from a Japanese Ford dealership in the 1970s.
5. 1963-1981 Mercedes-Benz 600
For decades, the Mercedes-Benz 600 was the ultimate car for presidents, royalty, and tyrants. Available as a four-door sedan, stretch limousine and convertible Landaulet, the cars were hand-built around a 6.3 liter V8 and a fantastically complex hydraulic system that silently controlled everything from the suspension to the power windows. On top of this, a host of options (including “special protection” armored versions) were fitted to the owners’ specifications, making the 600 one of the most expensive cars of its day. In all, 2,677 of the 600s were produced, with 70 cars officially delivered to world leaders, and one to a pope: The one pictured above was presented by Mercedes to Pope Paul VI in 1965.
6. 2002-2009 Lancia Thesis
Lancia built the Thesis to return a level of prestige to the faltering brand, and for a few years, it worked. The full-size sedan’s avant-garde styling and luxurious interior won over many early converts, including the Italian government, who bought the Thesis in large numbers and designated it as the official state car. For years, the Thesis was one of the most unique looking official cars in the world. Unfortunately, Lancia’s luck has since run out. In 2014, new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi began gutting the government fleet by selling 151 cars on eBay – many of them Lancias. Later in 2014, parent company Fiat began to quietly phase-out the 109-year-old brand.
7. Renault 4
Being the leader of the Catholic Church has yet to go to to Pope Francis’ head. Since ascending to the Papacy in 2013, Francis has earned the reputation for being a forthright and thrifty Pope. So much so, that when he isn’t on official business, he drives himself in a 1984 Renault 4 that was a gift from an Italian pastor. And if you’re wondering why the Pope made a list for heads of state, remember, he’s also the sovereign of Vatican City.
8. Toyota Century
The Toyota Century is one of the few cars in the world that represent crime and order in equal measures. The Century’s design has been largely unchanged since 1967, but a mechanical refresh and slight update in 1997 added a massive V12 engine that Toyota builds exclusively for the car. Its largest buyer is the Japanese government, where it carries the Prime Minister, high-ranking government officials, and the imperial family to official events. The Century is available to the public in very limited numbers, but Toyota does no advertising for the car, and it’s positioned high above Lexus in Toyota’s domestic market to preserve its discreet, professional reputation. Despite the Toyota’s official status, it’s also famously favored by the Yakuza – the Japanese mob.
9. 1961 Lincoln Continental Limousine
This 1961 Continental Limousine will live in infamy as the car President Kennedy was assassinated in, but in its day it was viewed as the ultimate symbol of American modernity. With some cars in the White House motor pool dating back to the 1940s, Kennedy asked Ford to develop a new limousine to bring the presidential car into the 1960s. The sleek car was based on the radically new Lincoln Continental, and delivered to the White House in June 1961. Astonishingly, the limo remained property of Ford, and was leased to the U.S. Government for $500 a year. After Kennedy’s death, the car was modified, returned to Washington, and continued to serve presidents until 1977. Today it resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
10. Rolls-Royce Phantom IV
When the Rolls-Royce Phantom IV was released in 1950, it was announced with an advertising campaign highlighting the car’s advanced features – and how you could never buy it. Only 18 Phantom IV’s were built, and Rolls-Royce made it very well-known that they would only accept orders from heads of state. Today, Spain and England’s Phantoms are still maintained as official state vehicles, and 16 of the 18 cars survive. In 2008, Princess Margaret’s Phantom IV was sold in England (presumably to non-royalty) for 395,000 pounds.
11. 2001 Bentley State Limousine
To celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2001, Bentley teamed with a group of British craftsman to design and build the State Limousine, a modern take on classic British royal cars, and the first Bentley to join the royal fleet. The tall, round limo has an aggressively British look thanks to its round headlights, bustle back trunk, and upright grille. Only two of the Bentley Arnage-based limousines were built, and both are owned by the royals. The State Limousine entered service in 2002, and has been The Queen’s official car ever since.
12. Holden Commodore
You may not know the Holden Commodore by name, but chances are you’ve seen one around. From 2008 to 2010, we got the Australian-built car as the Pontiac G8. Since 2011, it’s been the police-issue Chevy Caprice. And from 2014 to this year, it’s been sold as the fantastic Chevy SS. With its rear-wheel drive architecture, big V8, and an available manual transmission, there’s a lot for enthusiasts to love about the car. Seeing as Australia is the only other country in the world that fundamentally gets muscle cars like Americans do, it’s only appropriate that its president gets chauffeured in a discreet black Commodore.
13. Citroën DS
When it was released in 1955, the Citroën DS was unlike anything the world had ever seen before, with its avant-garde styling, front-wheel drive architecture, and complex hydraulic suspension. Almost immediately, French president Charles de Gaulle adopted a black DS as his car of choice. On August 22, 1962, de Gaulle’s motorcade was ambushed on the outskirts of Paris. Despite his car getting riddled with machine gun bullets, the Citroën’s self-leveling suspension allowed it to speed away despite four flat tires. de Gaulle credited the DS for saving his life, adding even more importance to an already iconic French car. DS models would continue to serve as state cars until the late 1970s.
14. Volkswagen Beetle
From 2010 to 2015, Uruguayan president José Mujica made international headlines as “the world’s poorest president.” A former guerrilla who fought against a brutal military regime in the 1960s and ’70s, Mujica believed his title shouldn’t separate him from his people. He reportedly donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to programs benefitting the poor and small businesses, lived on a small farm outside of Montevideo, and drove himself around in a Mexican-built 1987 Volkswagen Beetle. The old Beetle earned so much attention during his term that Mujica received a $1 million offer from an Arab oil sheik for the car. Naturally, he turned it down.
15. Jaguar XJ Sentinel
The past few American presidents have all been driven around in Cadillacs. But British prime ministers get something a little more exciting: A Jaguar. And unlike the president’s car, where even the most simple question will likely be answered with “that’s classified,” we know a good amount about the British state cars. The XJ Sentinel is powered by a 503 horsepower supercharged V8. It weighs over four tons, though most of that comes from the heavy armor plating, state-of-the-art communications systems, and a self-contained oxygen supply system. Zero to 60 takes over nine seconds, and the top speed is a sluggish 121 miles per hour, but when you consider that the Sentinel is basically a light tank in a Jaguar suit, it’s all pretty impressive.