But first, the facts. And even before that, a clarification: Bongo is not from Congo. Delicious though the rhyme may be—as confirmed by Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Thorbjørn Jagland who introduced President Bongo as such during a state visit in 2001—Omar Bongo was actually born in French Equatorial Africa, a colony which later became the African west coast state of Gabon. After a career in the Gabonese military, in 1967 young Bongo found himself president of an independent Gabon, an office he would hold on to until this Monday, when he succumbed to intestinal cancer in Barcelona.
He was a true gent by the standards of African dictators. Neither facts nor rumors exist of him dining on enemies, building a Concorde airstrip in the jungles of the Congo or nurturing a machete-armed militia to decimate his country’s populace. All he did was treat Gabon and its oil riches as his personal fiefdom, being truly unable to appreciate the distinction between state funds and his checking account. Nobody knows for sure the wealth he siphoned off the Gabonese economy, but it is rumored to run into the billions of dollars—making Bongo, amongst other things, the biggest owner of real estate in France.
Although a petite man at 4'11" from the Bateke tribe, Bongo—often called “the last of Africa’s big men”—liked to live large. And large he lived when he purchased a presidential limousine a decade into his rule: he got himself a Stutz Royale.
Although Gabon is a staunch pillar of Francophone Africa, the French automobile industry at this point was half a century beyond producing Royales—the Bugatti Royale, that is, of which only six were built.
Enter a resurgent Stutz Motor Car of America—of Bearcat fame—resurrected after three decades in 1968, just as Bongo ascended to the presidency. The car they built him would prove to be even rarer than the Bugatti they’d named it after: only two were made, the other going to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.
The Royale was a stretched version of the Diplomatica, itself based on a Cadillac DeVille. It was penned by Paolo Martin, designer of James Glickenhaus’s Dino 206 Competizione and the awesome Pininfarina Modulo show car. The massive limousine was delivered to Gabon in 1977—to be promptly sent back. Why? Because according to Gabonese law, Bongo’s royal behind could not come in contact with leather. So Stutz redid the interior. Hence the velvet presidential throne:
In the equatorial heat of Gabon, the Royale would soldier on for the rest of Bongo’s three decades in power. During his August 2007 visit, French President Nicholas Sarkozy rode with Bongo in his plush limo.
Bongo’s body made it back home on Thursday to a Gabon ruled by Interim President Rose Francine Rogombé. He will be given a state funeral next Tuesday. The fate of his Royale is unknown. Perhaps it will keep carrying leather-averse royal Gabonese ass for years to come, a relic of full throttle American luxury.
And while Bongo may be gone, he lives on in cyberspace: you can still friend him on Facebook.