You would not be blamed for assuming the Lincoln Continental used by President Kennedy on that horrible day 50 years ago was immediately retired. You would, however, be wrong. The Lincoln that saw the assassination of one leader and the near death of another remained in service. Why?
In today's dollars, the stretched 1961 Lincoln Continental used in presidential motorcades — including the parade in Dallas where President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed — would cost $1.5 million. Rather than replacing the limo, the government spruced it up and used it for another 13 years.
It's a somber day across the nation as we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. But one of the more curious things about that day is what happened with the limousine Kennedy, a fan of Continentals, and and his wife were riding in afterward.
First, let's start with the car's origins. 1961 was a pivotal year for Ford, its Lincoln brand and the Continental itself. It was the first model year for a major redesign that introduced signature design quirks: Suicide doors and the now-famous egg-crate grille. (A persistent rumor around Detroit is that Lincoln considered bringing back the egg-crate grille for its recent new products, the MKZ and MKC, but they seem to be going with the eagles' wings style for now.)
The Continental's design, overseen by designer Elwood Engel (who'd later become Chrysler's design chief and had a hand in many of the company's 1960s muscle cars), was originally meant for a redesigned Ford Thunderbird, but instead it helped solidify Lincoln as an American luxury leader and positioned the brand separately from Ford's other brands. The American government would be one of the Continental's first buyers; in a deal that would make any A-, Z- or X-plan lessee rage with envy, Ford leased the 1961 model to the White House for a mere $500 a year.
According to The Henry Ford, the Dearborn, MI, museum where the limo has been stored and is currently on display, it was built as a regular Lincoln Continental convertible in Ford's Wixom, MI, plant but customized by Hess & Eisenhardt, a coachbuilder in Cincinnati. (The top photo above is the finished product arriving at the White House for the first time.)
Hess & Eisenhardt cut the Lincoln in half and stretched its length by 3.5 feet. Then they added a host of state-of-the-art (for 1961, remember) gizmos, including: Removable steel and transparent plastic roof panels, a hydraulic rear seat that could be raised 10.5 inches (for president and first lady waving-to-the-crowd purposes); an enlarged heating and A/C unit with additional control panels; four retractable steps and two rear bumper steps for Secret Service agents; two radio telephones; and indicator lights when the door was ajar.
Code-named "X-100" by the Secret Service, a grille from a 1962 Continental was added later, as well as wheel covers from a 1957 Lincoln Premiere. This configuration would be what America saw on the day of the assassination.
After the assassination, it didn't take long for the government to figure out what to do with the limo. A regular Continental would have been $7,347, already a pricey sum for 1960s standards. Modifications brought the value up to $200,000. Matt Anderson of the Henry Ford tells the New York Daily News that the government was too thrifty to let the car go.
Why wasn't the car quietly removed from the motorcade, or destroyed? It was simply a matter of time and economic constraints, says Matt Anderson. "The short answer was expediency," and at the time the Presidential motorcade needed vehicles. "It could take 3-4 years to design and build one of these cars from scratch."
None of the original limo's components were bulletproof prior to the assassination, including three different roofs used for the convertible. That immediately changed.
Code-named "Project D-2," the limo was taken back to Hess & Eisenhardt, but this time overseen by a six-person committee (down from an original 30-person group) made up of U.S. Army representatives, Secret Service, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and H&E themselves. They began work on December 12, 1963 — less than a month after JFK's death — and completed work that following May.
The rear of the car was completely re-armored and a permanent, non-removable top with glass armor was added. The engine was also re-tuned to give it 17% more power. Another A/C unit was added, more electronic communication devices were added and structural points were reinforced to accommodate all the new materials. It was also given a new paint job, from midnight blue to "regal Presidential Blue Metallic with silver metallic flakes that glitter under bright lights and sunshine." The car was tested in Cincinnati and Dearborn before being used again.
Those modifications brought the car's value up around $500,000, a cost shared between Ford, Ford's suppliers and the government. Even then, subsequent presidents would add their own customizations — though none of them used the limo on a regular basis. Per the Daily News:
Lyndon B. Johnson insisted that the rear window could be raised or lowered. During his time in the car, Richard Nixon asked for a hatch to be built into the roof, so he could stand and wave from the vehicle. Both of these modifications remain on the car today.
The Henry Ford also notes that even more security features were added, including a conversion of the right rear door, which had been 1 -3/16-in. bullet-proof glass, to drop-glass actuated by heavy duty power regulator assembly; reinforcement of deck lid with fiberglass to accommodate additional weight; and additional grab handles on the roof. Perhaps the most visual change is the addition of red headlights in the grille.
After going through Johnson, Nixon and Ford, the limo was retired in 1977 and returned to its figurative home in Dearborn. One piece of the car, however, is not there: The windshield, riddled with bullet holes, is at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
[Source: The Henry Ford]
[Photos via AP]