Safe, yes, but Obama's new limo won't turn any petrol heads

'Ugly as sin': the verdict on modified Cadillac capable of withstanding bomb blasts
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Barack Obama's brand new presidential limousine has been given the Pimp My Ride treatment by the US Secret Service in time for his inauguration in under two weeks time.

Despite campaign trail promises to transform all White House vehicles into hybrids, the President-elect has had to bow to security concerns. As he tools around Washington DC in the years to come, he will be cocooned inside a modified Cadillac that is capable of withstanding roadside bomb blasts and could survive a sustained battle involving gunfire and RPGs.

Code-named "Stagecoach," it is more like a rolling tank with no gun barrel. According to the Detroit News, the new limousine also has "run-flat" tyres, bulletproof glass and a completely sealed interior to protect the next president in the event of a chemical attack. It also has encrypted electronic communications equipment.

A detail of Secret Service agents is currently being familiarised with the new vehicle at an undisclosed location near Washington. Shortly after Mr Obama takes the oath of office on 20 January, the agents will drive him the two miles down Pennsylvania Avenue for the inaugural parade.

Vast crowds are expected in Washington, some predict more than two million people, and billions are expected to watch the inauguration live on television. But as soon as Mr Obama has been sworn in on Abraham Lincoln's bible, (who used a horse and buggy to get around) and hops into the limo, he may very well disappear from view.

The windows in his Cadillac are especially small to present less of a target and the doors are as thick as those on an airliner and packed with armour.

Spy photos of the limousine – complete with bands of grey primer – have leaked, as have car enthusiasts' reviews: "Ugly as sin," said one on a car enthusiasts' website. "Can't we make a hotter ride for our pres?" "Sheesh," wrote another, "why don't they just transport the president around in an Abrams tank?"

One commentator suggested it could withstand a "direct hit from an asteroid". However, General Motors' spokeswoman Joanne Krell dismissed that, telling CNN: "And it will fix you a latte if you ask."

"The presidential vehicle is built to precise specifications, undergoes extreme testing and development, and also incorporates many of the top aspects of Cadillac's 'regular' cars – such as signature design, hand-cut-and-sewn interiors, etc," Ms Krell said.

The legislation creating the Secret Service was on President Lincoln's desk the night he was assassinated and ever since agents have been tailing US presidents. In 1907, the agency acquired a steam car known as "The Incomparable White" to follow Theodore Roosevelt's horse-drawn carriage.

For much of the century, chauffeurs from the White House drove presidents until the Secret Service took over the driving responsibilities after Roosevelt's death in 1945.

Bulletproof limousines only arrived in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated less than two years after the assassination of John F Kennedy, who rode through Dallas in a convertible.

Joe Funk, a retired agent who drove Bill Clinton, says Mr Obama may feel strangely isolated inside his new wheels. "I think he will be surprised about how when he's in the limo, it's a cocoon," Mr Funk said. "The everyday noises will be gone, and he will be totally isolated in this protective envelope."

"The other side of the coin is that he can have any communications worldwide at a moment's touch."

Some presidents find out about the world by chatting with the agents.

"Every day is different, just like every person," he said. "Sometimes they get in the car and they have a lot on their mind. Other times, they are interested in sporting events, in doing the crossword puzzle, interested in the feedback."

Ken Lucci, who uses two Reagan-era vehicles in his limousine company, said modern cars are extremely tough.

"They [the Secret Service] expect a prolonged attack, and they expect an attack a lot more violent than with a weapon you can hold in your hand."

Sorry, sir, your room is taken

The mystery guest who is keeping Barack Obama from staying in the official US government guest house has been revealed as the former Australian prime minister John Howard. Mr Howard will be at Blair House on 12 January the night before he, Tony Blair and President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia are awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George Bush. The Obamas, who had to be in Washington in time for the new school term, moved into a suite in the Hay-Adams hotel across the street.