How one day in history transformed presidential travel from an open-air exchange into a defensive exercise
November 22, 1963, was a warm, sunny day in Dallas, Texas. President John F. Kennedy was in town as part of his early re-election campaign.As his motorcade passed through downtown, the president and first lady Jackie Kennedy waved to the crowds from their open-top Lincoln convertible. Though the Secret Service was alert, agents didn’t perceive any special threat.
In the following car was Clint Hill, one of two Secret Service agents assigned to protect Mrs. Kennedy. “We knew that Dallas was a somewhat conservative area and that President Kennedy might not be as popular there as he was other places, but it didn’t seem to be a bigger problem than going anywhere else,” said Hill.
The crowds were large, and Hill was busy making sure that he remained close to the first lady as the president’s car negotiated the streets — especially when the crowds came close or when the car stopped so the president could shake hands with bystanders.
“The situation was always the same,” said Hill. “Big crowds, open windows, people on balconies and rooftops. It was standard procedure.”
Then, at 12:30 p.m., the first shot rang out, and Hill rushed toward the president’s car. His memories of the next few moments are vivid nearly 50 years later.
“I heard these noises that came from the rear of the motorcade, and I started to look toward that noise. But I only got as far as the back of the car when I saw the president react when the bullet hit him in the neck. When he grabbed his throat, I knew he was in trouble, and I jumped and I ran. My objective was to get up on the top of the car and lie there between the president and Mrs. Kennedy and anybody who was trying to do them harm. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the car, the third shot had been fired and hit the president in the head. It was too late to do anything except protect Mrs. Kennedy and the other occupants of the car.”
President Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital four miles away and declared dead at 1 p.m.
“All the advantages went to the shooter,” recounted Hill. “We didn’t have any. I did everything I could do, but it wasn’t enough.”
Then and Now
Hill’s firsthand recollection of that tragic day in Dallas is also seared in the American collective memory. We talk of turning points, but this truly was one for the United States. Even the immediate aftermath showed how unfathomable such an event was as the Secret Service scrambled to get the vice president, President Kennedy’s body and the first lady back to Washington, D.C., as quickly as possible.
“We really didn’t know how elaborate the situation was,” said Hill. “We didn’t know if it was a lone gunman or a coup d’etat.”
With 2013 marking a new presidential term and the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, how things have changed is obvious if you just conduct a simple comparison of presidential cars then and now.
Consider, for example, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Sunshine Special. The first “official” presidential limo, this Lincoln got its nickname in the 1930s because, when President Roosevelt was in it, the top was almost always down. In similar fashion, Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental X-100 was a large luxury convertible modified for a longer wheelbase. It wasn’t bulletproof. It had a removable plexiglass top. In addition, a metal rail gave the president the ability to securely stand upright and be exposed when the vehicle was moving. Plus, the rear seat could be raised hydraulically for better visibility.
In today’s lexicon, such accessibility to a world leader — in an uncontrolled, open environment — is both shocking and would even be considered by some as point-blank reckless. But, at that time in history, there was logic and a certain naivete behind it. From Roosevelt to Kennedy, an important duty of the president was to be seen by — be accessible to — the people who elected him.
The current presidential limousine, affectionately called “the Beast” by the Secret Service, fails miserably in the accessibility department. A tank-like machine with leather upholstery, the Beast has armor-glass windows that make it difficult to get even a small glimpse of the president from within.
Neither the Secret Service nor General Motors will comment on the Beast’s presidential specs for security reasons, but Mark Burton, CEO of International Armoring Corp. in Utah, which turns luxury cars into armored vehicles, said that GM took technology to the point of “overkill” with this vehicle. The Beast can not only withstand armor-piercing bullets but gas, explosives, fire, bioweapons and just about any other threat to national security you can think of.
Common sense tells us the Beast’s technological overload is still in direct response to what happened in Dallas a half century ago. According to Hill, the X-100 also got its own bit of technological excess when it was decided that the vehicle should be rebuilt rather than retired after the assassination. “The car was sent back, redone completely and didn’t return until 1964,” noted Hill. “It was armored and bulletproof glass installed and was used then on a limited basis by President Johnson.”
The Secret Service also received a total overhaul after November 22, 1963. “The organization was completely reorganized from that point on,” said Hill. “The entire headquarters staff was revamped. A great many things were done and changed completely.”
Symbols of the Presidency
Since then, security around the president has been airtight, and all presidential limousines have followed the example of the revamped X-100, which is now on display in Henry Ford Museum, along with four other presidential rides (see sidebar at right).
Unfortunately, the Beast and future presidential vehicles will never be seen in a museum collection or elsewhere for that matter. Although the government once leased the cars for a nominal fee and returned them at lease end, it now purchases each vehicle outright and keeps them, but not as historical artifacts. Instead, the Secret Service, looking to keep the secrets of these high-tech cars confidential, uses the retired vehicles for security tests, which end with the vehicles’ destruction.
Hard to feel sorry for a machine, but the demise of these presidential wheels is tinged with a little regret, according to Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford. Anderson sees these vehicles as symbols of the American people’s relationship with the automobile and of the presidency itself.
“They tie in beautifully with the automobile in American life,” said Anderson. “They’ve become a symbol of the presidency. Most people don’t see the president in the White House; they see him when he comes to visit their town in his armored limousine. It’s a connection between the people and the president himself.”
The security measures now in place after Kennedy’s assassination equate to a safer president when en route, but they also signify an impenetrable distance between a leader and those he serves.
To see more of The Henry Ford's presidential limousines, take a look at this expert set from our online collections.
By David Szondy. The story originally appeared in the June-December 2013 edition of The Henry Ford magazine.