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The Kennedy Presidential Limousine as it currently looks, including modifications completed during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. THF.91101

November 2012

Curators Explore Museum Icons: Eleventh in a Series

Kennedy Presidential Limousine

As curators, we devote much of our time and energy to studying objects—who made them and why, when and where they were made, and how they represent certain ideas, events, and people. When we decided to choose and write about 12 iconic objects from our collection for this year’s Pic of the Month feature, we had to consider what makes an object truly iconic. In the end, we came up with three criteria that we felt needed to be present in every one of our choices: national significance, uniqueness to our institution, and resonance to museum visitors.

Using these three criteria, we explore what is iconic about the Kennedy Presidential Limousine.



MORE:  Kennedy Presidential Limousine


If you were born before the mid-1950s, you probably remember with stunning clarity the exact moment you heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. You might recall where you were, the time of day, and perhaps even the clothes you were wearing. Psychologists call these exceptionally vivid memories “flashbulb memories,” as if the shocking nature of the event and the extreme emotions elicited by it set off a brain mechanism that “froze” that moment in time like a camera flashbulb illuminating a photographic image.

Today, an assortment of images and first-hand accounts help us recall that singular event on November 22, 1963. But perhaps nothing is as powerful or visceral as encountering the actual car in which President Kennedy was riding that day.

This vehicle began as an idea back in 1957, when the bulbous styling of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1950 “Bubbletop” Lincoln was looking decidedly old-fashioned. President Eisenhower’s “Bubbletop” had also seen hard use, logging over 100,000 miles in its seven-year existence. For the third time (beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1939 “Sunshine Special”), Ford Motor Company was asked to design an up-to-date Lincoln Continental fit for the President. By 1961, when Kennedy’s presidential limousine was finally built, the company had both adopted new razor-edged, slab-sided styling and had just introduced the only four-door convertibles on the market. These sleek, modern features seemed perfectly suited to the ceremonial car for a young, forward-thinking President who had just taken office.

After its assembly at Ford’s Lincoln plant in Wixom, Michigan, the limousine was sent to Hess & Eisenhardt, specialty vehicle manufacturers in Cincinnati, Ohio. They customized and modified it, installing—among other features—steps and hand holds for Secret Service agents, removable roof sections, a hydraulic rear seat to elevate the President, and interior floodlights to illuminate the President at night. The car had no armor plating or bullet-proof glass because, at the time, the emphasis was on visibility, not protection. During customization, the car was also extended 3 ½ feet in length and painted a deep metallic blue. It was delivered to the Secret Service in mid-June 1961—almost five months after President Kennedy had taken office.

The limousine’s stretched length, sleek styling, blue color, and open design are evident in this October 1963 image of President Kennedy riding with Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. THF.208720

President Kennedy used this limousine in many parades, but none was more fateful than the one in Dallas, Texas, in late 1963. The President had decided to campaign in Texas for the 1964 election. People advised him to skip the trip, as they believed many Texans were incensed by his stand on Civil Rights. It was a warm November day when President Kennedy and his First Lady, Jacqueline, arrived in Dallas. The President decided to forego the protective roof piece so he could wave to the cheering crowd. All seemed well until, suddenly, gunshots rang out. Everything changed.

After the assassination, a task force of Secret Service agents and other government officials decided that it was more efficient to modify the existing limousine than to build an entirely new one. The car was radically altered for increased protection, including armor-plating the rear passenger compartment, installing a permanent non-removable top, and adding fixed bullet-proof windows. President Lyndon B. Johnson also insisted that, this time, the car be painted a traditional black.

Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon used this vehicle as a primary parade vehicle, while Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter kept it as a backup vehicle if needed. It is interesting to note that a special trap door was later created in the roof so President Nixon could stand up during parades. The limousine was finally retired in 1977, and returned to Ford Motor Company, who had leased it to the Secret Service back in 1961. Ford Motor Company donated it to The Henry Ford the following year.

As citizens of a democratic nation, we expect access to our leaders, which is, unfortunately, not always possible. This vehicle reminds us of the continual tension between Presidential visibility and protection.

But the Kennedy Presidential Limousine symbolizes more than that. It offers a direct and tangible link to our collective past. Despite more recent interpretations of Kennedy’s presidency, our collective memory tends to resist change because the recounting of shared memories offers us a way to connect with each other. So, although it has been documented that President Kennedy faced obstacles, revealed shortcomings, and displayed more than one judgmental error during his Presidency, he is most remembered for his energy, enthusiasm, and optimism. He is remembered for instilling in Americans—especially young Americans—a sense of boundless possibility and for inspiring the best in all of us. Through the enduring power of a single object, both our individual and shared memories live on.

Created for the 1960 presidential campaign, this button has, over time, become symbolic of our shared memories of President Kennedy. THF.47207


-- Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life


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