Kennedy's limo was woefully unprotected

Kennedy's limo was woefully unprotected

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DALLAS — President Barack Obama’s hulking black limousine — all 15,000 pounds of it — reportedly carries on-board systems for fresh oxygen. It carries bottles of blood of the president’s type: AB negative. It also carries an ungainly nickname: “The Beast.” Or, as Matt Anderson, curator of transportation for The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., describes it: “A tank with a Cadillac badge.” The blast-resistant car rolls on tires reinforced with Kevlar. The rear doors are 8 inches thick and as heavy as the massive, main-cabin door of a Boeing 757.

In contrast, the open-top car that President John F. Kennedy waved from on a sunny day in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, could not have been more different. That car was fashioned from a stock 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible, retail price $7,347, that had rolled off the assembly line at parent company Ford’s plant in Wixom, Mich.

The Continental’s low-slung, angular lines and rear-hinged “suicide” doors were a bold departure at the time for Lincoln styling and seemed to personify the fresh-faced Kennedy and the new frontiers he espoused for the country. The car was as glamorous and camera-ready as he was.

“All of a sudden, here was this very clean, striking and clear-cut design that did without fins,” says Robert Cumberford, the automotive design editor for Automobile magazine and a former car designer. “It was interesting technically in that it was a unit body without a separate chassis frame, so it could look long and low and still have room inside. I think it’s the best looking Lincoln since the 1941 model.”

The White House leased it from Ford for a token $500 a year and sent it off for $200,000 in modifications by elite custom coachbuilder Hess and Eisenhardt in Cincinnati, Ohio. (The firm’s other high-profile clients included the Queen of England.) In the process, the car gained Secret Service codenames SS-100-X and X-100 and the grille of a 1962 model, so it appeared right up to date.

Its most radical equipment was a six-piece roof system composed of clear plastic panels that were stowed in the trunk and a rear seat that could be hydraulically raised more than 10 inches for better visibility of its occupants. There were two radio telephones, akin to walkie-talkies or CB radios, rigged to telephone handsets. The car’s most notable extra was its length, 3{ feet of it, gained by cutting it in half and extending the rear passenger compartment to create more room and to fit a middle row of forward-facing jump seats that folded away when not in use.

On that fateful day in Dallas, those jump seats were occupied by Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie. Amidst the noise and excitement, an elated Mrs. Connally looked back at Kennedy and famously told him, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” He would be pronounced dead less than 30 minutes later.

Moments before the first gunshot rang out in Dealey Plaza, the limousine made the sharp left turn onto Elm Street. The pair of flags mounted on the front fenders of the long car billowed in the breeze.

Kennedy waved to bystanders from the open convertible’s back seat. Jacqueline Kennedy, regal-looking in a pink boucle suit, sat beside her husband. A bouquet of red roses given to her earlier at Love Field lay between them on the button-tufted seat.

Even the weather seemed expertly choreographed. The midday sun illuminated the limousine — a calculated effect, thanks to the silver metal flakes mixed into the car’s Presidential Blue Metallic paint, designed to gleam under bright lights. That shade was specified instead of traditional black because it looked crisper and more defined in black-and-white photographs and on television.

When three shots rang out at Dealey Plaza, Kennedy and all of the passengers in the limousine were completely exposed. The decision had been made that morning to not put on the car’s plastic bubble top. What the public did not know was that the top was neither bulletproof nor even bullet-resistant. (A Secret Service agent on detail that day reportedly described the top as bulletproof in a Nov. 29, 1963, FBI summary report. Gary Mack, curator of Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, says, “I can only guess that Secret Service personnel may not have wanted another agency to know about the characteristics of the top. I cannot imagine he didn’t know it was not bulletproof.”)

There was no protective armor cladding anywhere on the vehicle. Mack says that for all of the car’s upgraded features, it served mostly as an “expensive, fancy limousine.”

Kennedy’s Lincoln, sensationally dubbed the “Death Car” in a 1964 Associated Press story, was hastily rebuilt after the assassination. Project name? The Quick Fix. The logic was straightforward, according to Henry Ford curator Anderson. “It takes four years or so to get one of these done, from the original planning to its delivery to the White House. They simply didn’t have the time to build a new car. The president (Lyndon B. Johnson) needed a limousine; this was the simplest, most effective way to do it.”

The high-tech for the time features included two radio phones, a dial telephone, an AM-FM radio, a public-address system, an electronic siren and remote-control door locks. The car gained 17 percent more power with a new hand-built, high-compression V-8 engine. And with all of the added weight, the car now tipped the scale at 9,800 pounds, up from 7,822. The team installed “the largest passenger-car air-conditioning unit ever built,” the 1964 memo said. The ventilation system filled the trunk and was capable of producing 3 cubic tons of conditioned air, which was “sufficient for an average house.”

Improbably, the car stayed in service through President Richard Nixon’s administration and into 1977, Jimmy Carter’s administration’s first year. It was retired late that year and returned to Ford. The automaker donated it to The Henry Ford Museum, where curator Anderson says it remains one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

“I see a lot of folks who are parents with children, or, more often now, grandparents with children, talking about the car and where they were when they heard about the assassination,” Anderson says.

On Nov. 22 each year, some people leave flowers near the car.

“People are always surprised,” Anderson says. “They expect these cars to have all sorts of James Bond-type gadgets in them. But this car even the later Reagan car had less-sophisticated electronics than what the typical driver today has on his smartphone.”


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