Top 10 World Leaders' Cars
All heads of state need wheels that match their stature. Here are ten of the best
Rarely has a British Prime Minister been more closely associated with a car. Love her or loathe her, you couldn’t doubt Margaret Thatcher’s loyalty to the Rover P5B saloon. She used one during her election campaign in 1979 and was seen stepping out of a then seven-year old example as she arrived at 10 Downing Street following her landslide victory. The cars were so popular in Whitehall that, when production ended in 1973, the final few were earmarked for governmental use. In some instances, cars were put into storage and registered at a later date.
AutoFact: The P5B was also popular with Royalty. HRH Queen Elizabeth II still owns an Arden Green ’72 saloon, which is currently on display at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon.
Daimler Sovereign Series III
A fascinating British governmental internal memo from 1979 relates how there were already plans to move away from the Rover P5Bs of old within months of Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister. Thatcher’s Daimlers naturally received armour-plating which, we’re told, stretched to bomb-proof under-car reinforcement. They were also tomato-resistant, as proven by a visit to Liverpool in the early ’80s that began badly and nosedived thereafter. There was the obligatory telephone and suchlike, but not much in the way of bling. One car later turned up in a banger race, complete with Thatcher-like dummy in the back.
AutoFact: One of Thatcher’s Daimlers featured in the biopic The Iron Lady. It appeared in several scenes with Meryl Streep as the former Prime Minister.
The Pope had one, as did John Lennon, and the German government still uses 600s to ferry around visiting dignitaries. However, the state has never actually owned one (they’re loaners). Outside Germany, however, it’s a different story. There once was a time when no self respecting tin-pot dictator would be seen dead without one. All told, 182 Pullmans were sold in Africa, and that’s before you consider the ultra-exclusive Landaulet version (aka the sniper’s favourite). Ugandan leader Idi Amin had several, acquiring two in 1976 alone. Jean Bédel Bokassa ordered a fleet of 600s to celebrate his self-appointment as Emperor of the Central African Republic.
AutoFact: A one-off Pullman was customised by Germany’s B+B Auto-Exclusive for King Khalid of Saudi Arabia. It featured a 1930s-styled nose and running boards.
Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL
The 1980s saw many world-leading Mercedes loyalists switch over from the 600 to the W126 S-Class saloon. The long-wheelbase, 5.6-litre V8 560 SEL version proved especially popular. The factory offered long-wheelbase versions, armour-plating and all manner of other mods for ‘special customers’, while there was briefly a thriving aftermarket in tailoring cars to suit the whims of dictators and drug lords. President Augusto Pinochet of Chile had cause to hold the model in great esteem. In September 1986, his motorcade was ambushed by members of the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front. His bullet resistant Merc, however, emerged largely unscathed.
AutoFact: Saddam Hussein had 560 SELs equipped with loudspeakers, hidden microphones and even flamethrowers.
During the 1960s, Chrysler targeted people of influence as a means of promoting its standalone flagship brand. Unfortunately, while the likes of the Rat Pack were early adopters, the Imperial line became more firmly associated with tyrants such as Spain’s General Franco. Indeed, production was moved there in 1964 after subcontractor Ghia and Chrysler had a falling out (something to do with ‘creative accounting’). Barreiros of Madrid subsequently built a further ten Crown Imperials for the Spanish elite, with Franco accounting for two of them to go with his existing fleet. Each car cost a rumoured one million pesetas.
AutoFact: President de Gaulle of France had a Ghia-built Imperial which had a phone, a TV and a bar. It was a gift from Franco.
Forging the brilliant name, one that is hard for occidental tongues to get a grip on without imagining 1970s Blaxploitation thrillers, the Hongqi has been a Chinese staple since the first car was made in 1958. After being impressed by the ZIS limousines on a visit to the USSR in 1949, Chairman Mao decreed that the People’s Republic of China needed – and this is perhaps a literal translation – a ‘Top Person’s Car’ of its own. Seven years later, and with a little help from the Soviets, a plant was established and work began on this brave new world: the romantically named CA72.
AutoFact: In 2009, Hongqi unveiled its newest car, the R5, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Rolls-Royce Phantom. Much hilarity (and legal action) ensued.
Cadillac Series 62
World leaders, for the most part, love glitz and glamour. It helps detract the masses from the fact that most are charisma vacuums with unlikable (in some instances, homicidal) character traits. And few cars have ever been as ostentatious as the 1959 Cadillac in any of its many guises. Marshal Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia was a particular fan of chrome and tail fins. The former WW2 resistance leader used a ’55 Caddy convertible as his personal runabout before ordering a custom-built Fleetwood, which was completed by Ghia midway through ’59. Other Cadillac-loving autocrats included Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania.
AutoFact: Ghia also built a Cadillac for Prince Aly Khan. Legend has it that he gifted it to Rita Hayworth in an attempt to woo her back after their marriage foundered.
Maserati Quattroporte V
You have to hand it to Silvio Berlusconi. If nothing else, ‘Mr Bunga Bunga’ has style. Scroll back to 2005 and the then Prime Minister was the only head of state in the world to use a Maserati Quattroporte as his official state car. This was at a time when Danish, Greek, Dutch, Spanish and (naturally) German government leaders had either Mercedes S-Class saloons or Audi A8Ls. You could call it one-upmanship but consider this: Berlusconi didn’t order one car, he ordered 19. Each was armour-plated and bullet-resistant.
AutoFact: Maseratis were also favoured by the Defence Ministry. There were several on its books.
Charles de Gaulle will forever be associated with the Citroën DS. For reasons too long and, well, too French to go into, the President survived an alleged 30 assassination attempts. What’s more, two were made while he was travelling in a DS. On August 22 1962, De Gaulle and his wife were being driven from the Élysée Palace to Orly Airport on the Avenue de la Liberation when a dozen OAS gunmen opened fire on the presidential DS. The Citroën’s hydropneumatic suspension ensured the car remained level and drivable despite two burst tyres, and de Gaulle’s chauffeur was able to speed away.
AutoFact: In 1971, French President Georges Pompidou commissioned Henri Chapron to build a pair of four-door Citroën SM-based convertibles for use by the state.
Joseph Stalin was an unlikely car enthusiast, but it was he who initiated production of state limousines in the 1930s, even though he owned several decidedly non-Russian Packards himself. Indeed, there is a story, much bandied about in the western media, that the ZIS-110 was built using obsolescent machinery from the Packard 180 production line. This equipment was, we’re told, sent to the USSR when this historic firm had no more use for it. The thing is, there is no corroboratory evidence to back this up. Instead, it would appear that the ZIS-110 was ‘designed’ by reverse engineering a 1942 Packard Super Eight.
AutoFact: Tatra gifted ‘Uncle Joe’ a one-off Sodomka-bodied T600 on his 70th birthday.
Pictures courtesy of Rota Archive