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Presidential limo secrets revealed (sort of)

White House Down design crew lifts veil on The Beast

Published July 3, 2013

It’s one of the world’s most closely guarded vehicles. Secrecy and protection are its raison d’etre, so how does one go about building an exact replica of it for a not-at-all-secret movie?

Good question. The crew behind White House Down, an action blockbuster that opened this week, found this out the hard way when given the task of replicating the top-secret armoured Cadillac limo that chauffeurs the president of the United States around.

The film features Channing Tatum as a wannabe Secret Service agent visiting the White House for an interview, only to find it and the president (Jamie Foxx) under attack.

The two men find themselves seeking protection inside the president’s armoured limo, nicknamed “The Beast.”

Given that the limo has such a starring role, attention to detail was key.

The problem was getting those details.

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Cyril O’Neil, president of Ghostlight Industries, the San Fernando company that built the three Beast replicas for the film, said he began by approaching a friend of a friend in the Secret Service.

He was hoping for any kind of information about the size, weight, dimensions and interior of the vehicle. But he didn’t get it.

“He said he thought it was a really neat project and that he wouldn’t tell us a thing,” O’Neil told the Los Angeles Times.

That’s when O’Neil and Graham Kelly, the film’s action vehicle supervisor, had to get creative.

They pulled photos of the real Beast from the Internet and determined that the vehicle used headlights from a 2007 Cadillac Escalade SUV. Using that piece as a starting point, the pair were able to extrapolate the dimensions of the entire vehicle.

Other photos helped provide perspective, including several showing the actual car sitting higher than Obama, who is 6′ 1″. Another showed an agent standing next to a Beast with the door open, allowing a glimpse at just how thick the vehicle’s shell is.

Twelve weeks later, and at a cost of $200,000 each, Ghostlight had three replicas built.

To build each one, a team of 10 people first stripped a full-size Chevrolet Suburban down to the chassis. The team then hand-shaped foam body panels, which served as the molds for the fibreglass pieces that were fitted to the car.

Because the film also features interior action sequences, the same sleuthing had to be applied to the interior of the limo as well.

After all the modifications were made, each Beast weighed about 9,500 pounds and was about 23 feet long, Kelly estimated. This made for an entertaining ride during stunt sequences.

“I stunted one all over a park in Montreal. We had it drifting in a field, jumping through trees and off ramps and crashing Suburbans over it,” Kelly said. “It’s … interesting … when you’re going sideways at 60 mph.”

Not surprisingly, two of the three Beast replicas did not survive the shoot.

“It’s the stopping the going-sideways part that got hard,” O’Neil chuckled.

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