FDR, Al Capone's armored car, and oddball procurement rules of the '40s

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Al Capones armored Cadillac, later borrowed by FDR

Al Capone's armored Cadillac, later "borrowed" by FDR

While researching a story on how civilian government vehicles are armored against bombs and gunfire, I stumbled upon this fascinating article about the first armored car used by the government. The day after Pearl Harbor, the Secret Service pressed Al Capone’s confiscated 1928 Cadillac into service to transport President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Congress to deliver his famous “infamy speech” asking for a declaration of war against the Axis Powers.

The night of Dec. 7, 1941, the Secret Service worried that German or Japanese agents might try to assassinate FDR, so they decided to drive the president around in armored cars starting the next day. But not only was finding one overnight a tall order, the government’s procurement rules made buying such a car impossible. In those days, the government was not allowed to spend more than $750 (about $10,800 in today’s dollars) on any automobile. That, of course, placed armored cars out of the government’s price range.

Al Scarface Capone

Al "Scarface" Capone

But then Mike Reilly, the agent in charge of the Secret Service’s White House detail, learned that the Treasury Department had seized one of Chicago ganglord Al Capone’s bulletproof cars after his 1931 tax evasion conviction, and decided to borrow it:

[Capone’s Cadillac] had a whopping curb weight of 9,000 pounds. [It] was green with black fenders, making it look identical to the 85 Cadillacs that were supplied to Chicago police and city officials. However, it had 3,000 pounds of bulletproof armor beneath the standard body. Its windshield and windows were made of recently developed inch-thick bulletproof glass. The car also had flashing red lights behind the grille and a real police siren. It is also believed to have been the first private car with a police band receiver.

A team of government employees and mechanics worked well into the night of December 7 cleaning and preparing the car, checking everything to make sure it would run and perform as intended to be ready for use by FDR the following day.

"I hope Mr. Capone won't mind."

"I hope Mr. Capone won't mind."

Roosevelt used Capone’s car until 1942, when the Ford Motor Co. armored a 1939 Lincoln convertible limousine the president nicknamed the “Sunshine Special.” To get around the spending limits, the government leased the car from Ford for $500 per year.

And according to David Brinkley’s book “Washington Goes To War,” FDR had a snappy response when someone told him where his new car came from: “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.” Capone probably didn’t, as he had more important things to worry about — his health and sanity were rapidly declining due to syphilis.

Make sure you pick up next Monday’s issue of Federal Times for a look at how the government armors its cars today.

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  1. A Capone purchased his cars from a LaSalle dealer named Joe Beno who moved there from Clinton, Indiana. After selling Al the car, he sent it to a South Side car shop to replace the the glas with”one inch bullet proof windws and steel armor”. He purchased both Cadillacs and LaSalles. When his money supply was depleated, he wanted to trade Mr. Beno some diamonds for the cars, A request that Beno wouldn’t buy .(I knew Joe Beno when he moved back to Clinton. He told me alot about Capone.

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