Cadillac One. The Beast. President Barack Obama’s custom Cadillac presidential limo goes by many names, but as famous as The Beast is, we still don’t know anything about its powertrain (rumor is it’s a diesel), armor, or even what the interior looks like. That’s why when Sony studios representatives asked if we wanted to drive their replica of the Beast from this summer’s “White House Down,” we couldn’t say yes fast enough.
But first, a little background. Starring Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum, “White House Down” is about a domestic terrorist group that’s taken over the White House and is trying to do evil bad guy things to America, much like the plot to “Olympus Has Fallen,” which opened earlier this year. Foxx plays the president, while Tatum plays the secret service agent tasked with protecting him.
Each of the four Cadillac limo replicas in the movie started life as a run-of-the-mill Chevrolet Suburban, Cyril O’Neal of Ghostlight Industries, the builders of The Beast, told us. The Suburbans were stripped of their body, stretched, and widened, and hand-built from Fiberglas. O’Neal said it was so much work that they might as well have started from scratch with two pieces of steel, rather than build their way up from a Suburban. The real Beast is rumored to be built on a chassis of the GMC Topkick, the Suburban’s big brother.
Building an accurate replica actually proved more difficult than he and car coordinator Graham Kelly expected.
“When I first got asked to do this, I didn’t poo-poo it so much, but I figured ‘oh that’s alright, it’s a Cadillac limo, alright maybe the roof is a little lower, we’ll figure it out,” Kelly said. “I’ll go and buy a stretch Cadillac and make it the right length, and off we go. We’ll have three or four of them and it won’t be a big problem. And it wasn’t until we actually started getting into this, which was actually probably a little too late, that we realized, very quickly -- it was one of those moments where you go, ‘oh my god.’”
The problem Kelly and O’Neal ran into was getting accurate info on The Beast so they could build a realistic replica. Not surprisingly, GM and the White House were no help. So the company started building a model based on the headlights, which they determined were from a current-gen Cadillac Escalade. O’Neal and his team worked backward from there, using known measurements like the 12-inch tall Escalade headlight, and Obama’s six-foot-one frame to determine the proper proportions of the car. The result is a pretty dead-on replica from the outside.
The interior was actually a bit easier to build since not many images exist of the Cadillac’s cabin. That allowed O’Neal and Kelly to use their imaginations when it came to the limo’s insides, which resulted in the car getting James Bond-like gadgets and screens. In reality, the replica’s interior is pretty basic. The driver’s compartment feels like an Escalade’s with a familiar shifter, steering wheel, and seats, with the main differences being the custom instrument panel, kill switches, and fake buttons in the center stack. The back seat looks how you’d imagine the President’s limo looking, with two forward facing seats and two rear-facing jump seats.
There’s really no way of knowing for sure what powers the real Beast, and for the purposes of “White House Down,” it really didn’t matter. Each Beast replica is powered by a Chevy LS3 V-8, mated to the standard Suburban transmission and transfer case. Yep, The Beast replicas are all four-wheel drive. As Kelly told us, apart from a single shot, all the stunts were done with a driver in the car, “We had it basically performing as a rally car on the field; it was sideways, and four-wheel drifting. It was being hit by Suburbans, it crashed through trees and vegetable gardens,” he said. Each of the hand-built replicas cost near $1 million, so you can understand why he may have been reluctant to crash one into a pool as part of the filming.
Despite all the work and money the “White House Down” crew put into building its Beast replica from the ground up, the car drives like a cobbled-together Franken-Caddy that’s been rammed by Suburbans and crashed through trees by Hollywood actors and stuntmen. Still, when’s the next time I’ll get a chance to drive the President’s limo? So I hopped in the sweltering cabin (like the real thing, the windows don’t roll all the way down) and made the most of it.
My drive of The Beast was supposed to consist of a K-turn, a 10-foot drive down an alley, followed by another K-turn. But after my first 40-point turn, I kept going. With the LS3 burbling and me behind the wheel of a presidential limo, there was no way I was stopping. Though almost every turn was a multi-step affair and I was sweating up a storm in the cabin, I didn’t care. Everywhere we went, people, pointed and phones were raised in our direction.
Driving The Beast replica was a special experience, the kind usually reserved for cars with gullwing doors, or sub-three second 0-60 mph times. Though only a handful of people in Washington and Detroit will be able to comment on the realism of the Beast in “White House Down,” it looks real enough. You can check out the Beast in action in the “White House Down” trailer below. The movie hits theaters on June 28.
Select images courtesy of Colombia Pictures.