Ford Motor Company was approached by the Vatican in 1965 to provide a vehicle in which to transport Pope Paul VI during a visit to New York City that October. It was an unprecedented occasion—no sitting pope had ever visited the United States before—and Ford was determined to meet the challenge. The automaker approached George Lehmann and Bob Peterson of Chicago. The two men had specialized in “stretching” and customizing Lincoln Continentals since 1962, and their firm had earned a reputation for the high quality of its work. Lehmann-Peterson did not disappoint, rushing a special car to completion in fewer than two weeks.
The papal Lincoln was lengthened to 21 feet (from the standard 18). Step plates and handrails were added for security personnel. Additional seats, arranged in a vis-à-vis (i.e., face-to-face) layout, were placed in the rear compartment. Supplemental interior lighting and a public address system allowed the pontiff to be seen and heard by the crowds, and an adjustable seat—capable of being raised several inches—further improved his visibility. A removable roof panel and added windscreen allowed the pope to stand and wave when conditions permitted.
Pope Paul VI Pictured Visiting New York in 1965 / THF128756
Pope Paul VI spent a whirlwind 14 hours touring New York on October 4, 1965. He gave a blessing at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, met with President Lyndon Johnson at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, addressed the UN General Assembly, and led an outdoor mass at Yankee Stadium. The pontiff ended his tour with a visit to the Vatican exhibit at the New York World’s Fair.
The modified Lincoln returned to Chicago where it served as a city parade car for visiting dignitaries. In 1968, the Vatican called once again, this time requesting the car’s use during a papal visit to Bogotá, Colombia. The car again performed flawlessly, despite Bogotá’s high altitude and the engine modifications made to the vehicle as a result.
Apollo 13 Astronauts Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell in a Parade, Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1970 / THF288386
The car went back to Chicago and soon carried a new series of dignitaries. Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders—the first men to orbit the Moon—were paraded in the car on a visit to the Windy City in January 1969. Seven months later, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins enjoyed a similar honor. The crews of Apollo 13 and Apollo 15 would later have their own parades in the Lincoln.
Seven feet, seven inches tall, this limousine was designed to make a grand entrance. And it wasn’t short on style, either. Even the chauffeur’s compartment was done up in leather and mahogany. The owners gazed at the world through French plate-glass windows or shut out prying eyes with silk curtains. They enjoyed an umbrella holder, a hat rack, a flower vase, and interior electric lights to illuminate them all.
This 1910 ad for the Rambler limousine promotes luxuries such as a mahogany ceiling, a mirror, a clock, a cigar case, and a speaking tube so the owner could talk to the chauffeur. / THF83353
The Rambler, like many luxury cars, published a magazine for owners. Many issues emphasized the company’s quality construction methods. / THF83351
Rambler Magazine showed workers putting finishing touches on a body in 1911. Before Henry Ford developed the moving automotive assembly line in 1913, cars were built like this—on sawhorses. / THF83356
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Early car buyers knew what motor vehicles should look like--carriages, of course! But automobiles needed things carriages didn’t: radiators, windshields, controls, horns, and hoods. Early automakers developed simple solutions. Brass, often used for carriage trim, was adopted for radiators, levers, and horns. Windshields were glass plates in wood frames. Rectangular sheet metal covers hid engines. The result? A surprisingly attractive mix of materials, colors, and shapes.
Although the Stevens-Duryea Company claimed its cars had stylish design, most early automakers worried more about how the car worked than how it looked. / THF84913
To build a car body, early automakers had to shape sheet metal over a wooden form. Cars made that way, like this 1907 Locomobile, often looked boxy. / Detail, THF84914
Some early automobiles looked good. But even the attractive ones looked like an assembly of parts, like the Studebaker shown in this 1907 ad. / THF84915
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
In 1937, Ford Motor Company president Edsel Ford lobbied to obtain a government contract to provide a presidential limousine for FDR’s use. He wanted to regain a presence in the White House Garage and particularly to have Ford Motor Company’s prestige Lincoln division as the primary choice for presidential conveyance. Edsel Ford also knew that FDR liked his company’s cars.
Roosevelt, who was beginning the second of his four presidential terms, personally owned a 1938 Ford V-8 convertible coupe for his use at The Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, along with a 1936 Ford V-8 Phaeton convertible at his home in Hyde Park, New York. Both cars were equipped with special hand-operated controls so that FDR, whose paralytic illness prevented the use of his legs, could drive the cars himself.
Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln division delivered, in November 1939 and at a cost of $8,348.74, a current model K series chassis, to the Buffalo, New York, coachworks firm of Brunn & Company. There the four-door convertible, equipped with a 150-horsepower 414-cubic inch V-12, was further modified to meet U.S. Secret Service requirements. Brunn’s modifications added another $4,950 to the limo’s total cost.
The car was built with forward-facing jump seats, wider opening rear doors, reinforced extra-depth running boards and a pair of step plates above the rear bumper. It had strategically-placed handles for the Secret Service agents, as well as a Federal Electric Company police red light and siren combination with dual driving lamps and flag staff holders on the front. Another feature was that the roof was made extra tall so that the President, who had limited mobility and used a wheelchair, could enter and exit the car without difficulty.
Although coachbuilder Herman A. Brunn, owner of Brunn & Company, thought the car looked terrible with that extra tall top, the limo was finished and sent to Washington as ordered. In the end, it seems Mr. Brunn was right. According to Ford Motor Company internal memoranda and telegram communications, the car was returned to Brunn & Company’s Buffalo plant in the summer of 1941 to have its top replaced with one of standard height. Global events forced even more significant changes to the limo that December.
President Roosevelt preferred open cars whenever the weather permitted – and sometimes when it didn’t. (THF208655)
The First Presidential Car to Acquire Its Own Personality Within a few weeks after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the White House Garage delivered the 1939 Lincoln K series limousine to Ford Motor Company’s plant in Alexandria, Virginia, on the waterfront across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. The car was shipped to the Lincoln plant on West Warren Avenue in Detroit and, upon its arrival, Lincoln workers began to disassemble the limousine, readying its wartime armor and additional modifications requested by the Secret Service.
Workers removed the Brunn body and altered the car’s chassis. Its suspension was beefed up with heavy-duty shock absorbers and additional leaves in the springs – to handle the added weight of armor plating and thick bullet-resistant glass. Likewise, a modified windshield frame was installed to accommodate the thicker windshield glass. When the Brunn body was reinstalled, it received a new 1942 model H series Lincoln front end clip (fenders, grill, and front nose cap piece), which gave the car a crisp, more modern look.
A more powerful generator was installed, with new wiring harnesses. Cooling was improved by making the radiator tank top an inch thicker, adding three-and-one-half inches more to the core than was standard, and a larger fan was put in for additional engine cooling capacity. The cowling also had wider side vents installed to let more of the engine’s heat escape.
The whitewall bias-ply tires were replaced with the first generation of what are now referred to as “run flat tires,” which enabled the big limousine to continue to travel a short distance to safety if the tires were shot out. The two spare tires were put into reworked special front fender wells, in painted metal tire covers that didn’t need to be bolted into place and allowed for rapid tire changes.
Other body modifications included one-and-one-eighth inch thick nine-ply glass; a special rear-mounted antenna for radio equipment; and steel plating in the doors, firewall, kick and quarter panels, floor, transmission hump, and gas tank. The doors received three-sixteenths inch steel armor plating. Including the weight of the armor and the bullet-resistant glass, each modified door weighed almost 200 pounds. Stronger latches and striker plates were installed to handle the heavier door weight.
A bullet-resistant divider was installed between the front and rear seats. It included fold out bullet-resistant side glass screens for use when the convertible top was down. Another bullet-resistant screen could be added behind the rear seat when the top was lowered, and then stored in the trunk when not in use. When the door windows were down, a spring-loaded flap covered the slot in the top of the door to stop things from falling inside and jamming the windows.
When the Lincoln originally was delivered in 1940, it was painted a dark midnight blue with russet trim. Now the car was repainted in black, with chrome trim and brightwork. The rear step plates, grab handles, and wider running boards were reinstalled after the repainting was finished.
Detroit plant workers also added new running/fog lights to the front bumper, along with flag staff holders. The Federal Electric Company police red light and siren were reinstalled on the left front fender. By the end of the second week of April 1942, the car was ready to ship back to the Alexandria plant for delivery to the White House Garage where it could resume its presidential duties.
At an unknown time after the car’s 1942 retrofitting, an unidentified member of the White House Press Corps gave the limo the sobriquet it retains today: “Sunshine Special.” Although the exact reason for the nickname is lost to history, it may have been due to FDR’s well-known love of riding with the top down – sometimes even when the weather recommended against it.
President Harry S. Truman aboard “Sunshine Special” near the end of the car’s service life, circa 1949. (THF208667)
Sunset for “Sunshine Special” Following FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, “Sunshine Special” served his successor, Harry S. Truman, for another five years. The White House put out bids for a new presidential limousine in the spring of 1949 and, that summer, officials met with representatives from Ford Motor Company to discuss the contract. This would be the largest single order ever placed for the White House fleet.
In the early summer of 1950, nine custom-built enclosed 1950 model Lincoln Cosmopolitan limousines, produced by the Henney Motor Company of Freeport, Illinois, were delivered to the White House Garage. A matching four-door Lincoln Cosmopolitan convertible-bodied limousine, modified at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, shop of master coachbuilder Raymond Dietrich, was also delivered. The Dietrich seven-passenger Lincoln was fitted with a Hydramatic automatic transmission purchased from General Motors and then modified to mate with the 337 cubic-inch V-8 engine. Per the order’s specifications, none of the limousines were armored.
Upon delivery of the fleet of Lincoln Cosmopolitan limousines, older White House Garage vehicles were shipped back to their manufacturers or sold off. “Sunshine Special” was returned to Lincoln and subsequently donated to The Henry Ford.
Rolls-Royce’s New Phantom engine, introduced in 1925, featured twin ignition with two spark plugs in each of its six cylinders. Those cylinders were cast in two sets of three, coupled by a one-piece cylinder head. Great Britain taxed automobiles based on cylinder bore. To reduce its tax penalty, the New Phantom engine was “undersquare” with its 4¼ -inch bore smaller than its 5½-inch stroke.
The Henry Ford was excited to once again welcome author and former Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, along with journalist Lisa McCubbin, to Henry Ford Museum this spring in celebration of his latest book, Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.
In honor of Mr. Hill's visit to The Henry Ford, Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson put together this overview of the presidential limousines found within on exhibit at Henry Ford Museum. Learn more below.
A presidential parade car provides two things: visibility and security. Those concepts are often at odds. The Henry Ford’s presidential Lincolns illustrate the difficult and changing balance between the chief executive’s need to be seen and need to be safe.
“Sunshine Special,” the 1939 Lincoln Model K most often associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, was the first parade car specifically modified for presidential use. Coachbuilder Brunn & Company focused more on utility than luxury, deleting armrests for maximum seating capacity and adding wide running boards for Secret Service agents. The car was not armored until Pearl Harbor, when bullet resistant tires, glass and armor plating were installed.
In 1950, Harry S. Truman took delivery of a new Lincoln with a body by Raymond Dietrich, but the car was used most often by successor Dwight D. Eisenhower. Again there was no armor, but in 1954 the limo received the weatherproof plexiglass roof that inspired its nickname, the “Bubbletop.” Security features did not extend much beyond riding steps on the rear bumper and flashing red lights at the front.
Planning for the next car started under Eisenhower, but the 1961 Lincoln Continental limo is forever tied to John F. Kennedy. Once again, armor was not considered necessary, and Kennedy preferred to travel with the top removed whenever possible. But his assassination ended the tradition of open cars. Ford and custom car builder Hess & Eisenhardt rebuilt the 1961 Lincoln with a permanent roof, titanium armor and bullet-resistant glass five layers thick.
The 1972 Lincoln limousine was the first presidential parade car designed and built as an armored vehicle from the start. Security was now of prime importance – a point dramatically underscored when Ronald Reagan suffered an attempt on his life while getting into the limo in 1981.
The Henry Ford’s presidential Lincolns were leased to the White House. As the leases ended, the cars returned to Ford Motor Company and the firm gifted them to the museum. Currently, Cadillac supplies the president’s state cars. Each is custom-built – most recently on truck platforms – and each is typically destroyed at the end of its service life.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
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.
At the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death last year, The Henry Ford honored his legacy with the help of news legend Dan Rather, best-selling author James L. Swanson, former Secret Service agent Clint Hill, and two sold-out crowds determined to remember 1,000 brilliant days, 20,000 days on.
On November 18, Rather sat with Swanson mere feet from the Kennedy Presidential Limousine, housed at The Henry Ford since 1978. One of the first to break news of President Kennedy’s death, Rather noted how three years before, Senator Kennedy won over those who saw him as too young, too rich and too Catholic with articulate idealism, self-deprecating wit, and an unprecedented understanding of politics-as-theatre.
But JFK had an additional asset – his wife. Young and chic, with a shrewd intellect and a romantic understanding of America’s past, Jacqueline Kennedy was an immensely popular first lady. The front and back covers of Swanson’s new book on JFK’s assassination shows Mrs. Kennedy wearing the shocking pink and stark black in which pop artist Andy Warhol would immortalize her image.
It was Swanson who noted the irony of Jacqueline Kennedy’s pervasive aesthetic influence, citing an essay the future style icon wrote as a college senior, in which she expressed an interest in being an “overall Art Director of the Twentieth Century”.
On November 19, it was Mrs. Kennedy’s Secret Service agent, Clint Hill, who left the museum in silence. Also standing feet from the presidential limo, Hill recalled for journalist Lisa McCubbin the friendly crowds that met President and Mrs. Kennedy in San Antonio and Houston on their first day in Texas, the unexpectedly warm welcome shown them in Dallas, and his lingering guilt over not getting to the president in time to save his life.
But Hill took no credit for potentially saving the first lady’s life, in her last moments as first lady. Hill saw Mrs. Kennedy crawl onto the trunk of the Lincoln, reaching for a piece of her husband’s skull, just before the car’s hand-built, 350-horsepower, 430 cubic inch V8 deployed it with full force toward Parkland Hospital. It’s Hill seen in the now sadly familiar images, racing forward, jumping aboard, and shielding Mrs. Kennedy from the unknown with his own body.
Touchingly, Hill also revealed many of the small, human moments Swanson alluded to the prior evening – details sadly overshadowed by decades of myth and conjecture: of a father promising a child he’d be home in just a few days; of a husband taking his wife’s hand in a jostling crowd; of a wife clinging protectively to a husband she already knew belonged to history.
By inviting Rather, Swanson and Hill to share these stories and these moments, The Henry Ford did what museums do best – ensure that nothing is lost to time as one generation fades into the next. For those whose lives were changed forever a half-century ago, it was a lovely remembrance. For President Kennedy, whose life was shaped by the heroes and glories of the past, there could be no more fitting tribute.
Justin Mularski is a writer based in Detroit. He occasionally forsakes his laptop to read of times long past, cheer for the Tigers, or make lists of home improvement projects he’ll never actually complete.