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.
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.
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.
This month, we mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most dramatic – and traumatic – turning points in American history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. In that single instant, the perceived calm of the postwar era was shattered and “The Sixties” – civil rights legislation, Vietnam, the counterculture – began. Few artifacts from that day are as burned into public memory as the 1961 Lincoln Continental that carried President Kennedy through Dallas.
The car, code named X-100, started life as a stock Lincoln convertible at Ford Motor Company’s Wixom, Michigan, assembly plant. Hess & Eisenhardt, of Cincinnati, Ohio, stretched the car by 3½ feet and added steps for Secret Service agents, a siren, flashing lights and other accessories. Removable clear plastic roof panels protected the president from inclement weather while maintaining his visibility. The car was not armored, and the roof panels were not bulletproof. The modified limo cost nearly $200,000 (the equivalent of $1.5 million today), but Ford leased it to the White House for a nominal $500 a year.
It was a perfect marriage between car and passenger. The Lincoln’s clean, modern lines broke away from the showy chrome and tail fins of the pervious decade, and they seemed to mirror the young president’s turn toward a “New Frontier.” Kennedy used the limo many times during his thousand days in office, and it became tied to him in the public consciousness even before the tragedy in Dallas.
After the assassination, officials from the Secret Service and the FBI examined the car and removed any potential evidence, and then ordered that it be rebuilt and returned to duty. While this decision is astonishing in retrospect, it was one of simple practicality. The president needed a parade car, and it was much faster to modify the X-100 than to build an entirely new vehicle. The $500,000 project (some $3.8 million today), dubbed the “Quick Fix,” produced a true armored car. Titanium plating reinforced the doors, body panels and floor. Filters in the heating and cooling systems protected against poison gas. The now-permanent roof, fitted with bullet-resistant glass, provided a compromise between safety and visibility. In a final change, the car’s deep blue paint was replaced with a more somber black.
The rebuilt car served Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter before being retired in 1977. By then it was 16 years old and outdated in both appearance and equipment. It returned to Ford Motor Company, which in turn donated it to The Henry Ford in 1978. The limousine quickly became one of the most important pieces in the museum’s collection.
Fifty years after the assassination, the car has lost none of its power as an icon of American change. Visitors still pause to reflect on the limousine, whether they are older adults who lived through those painful November days, or young children whose parents weren’t even born when the car came to The Henry Ford.
One of the great pleasures of being archivist at The Henry Ford is the continuing ability to receive interesting collections and to meet the donors. One such person was Edward Gies, who called to ask if we would be interested in some photographs of presidential vehicles. Since we have a number of presidential vehicles in our collection, but not a large amount of support material, I said I certainly was. He said he and his wife were planning a trip to the museum and he would bring the material along. When Mr. Gies arrived, he brought a small but very rich collection not only of photographs but also of ceremonial flags that had flown on a number of our vehicles.
What made the experience even more exciting was to discover that the collection had been gathered by Mr. Gies’ father, Morgan Gies. Morgan Gies was a member of the United States Secret Service and the man in charge of the White House vehicles. He held that position for 27 years, serving five presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson. In addition to overseeing the White House fleet, he was often the driver of the presidential vehicle or the backup car.
A few split-second decisions on March 30, 1981, made that the historic day on which Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt instead of the day he was assassinated.
When Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr reacted within four-tenths of a second from the time the first of six shots were fired by John Hinkley, Jr., he took President Ronald Reagan out of direct range of gunfire. Then, just minutes later, it was Parr who realized the President had been hurt and made the decision to take him to an unsecured hospital instead of returning to the safety of the White House and its medical staff.
Listening to Jerry Parr and author Del Wilber recount the story, in Henry Ford Museum during a lecture based on Wilber's compelling book "Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan," while they stood near the actual presidential limo used that day was more than just a treat.
Wednesday night's event was just plain cool.
The free lecture required reservations, which met maximum capacity and had to be closed days before the event.
I know I wasn't alone in my appreciation. I talked with many people afterward and saw their enthusiasm as they asked Parr questions by the car, or waited to have Wilber sign their books. The place was really buzzing with a unique excitement.
As I was waiting in line to have a couple books signed, I met a woman who said her husband decided to be a secret service agent because of the events of that day. (He was just 11 at the time.) I couldn't help but wonder if the day had played out differently, would he have made that same decision. It was kind of a hit-you-over-the-head example of how certain events in history, and split-second decisions, can change our lives, collectively and individually. Cool.
Kristine Hass is a mother of five and long-time member of The Henry Ford. She frequently blogs about her family’s visits to America’s Greatest History Attraction.
Thirty years ago today, Ronald Reagan - 40th president of the United States - survived an assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr.
One of his Secret Service agents, Jerry Parr, recently filmed a segment with CNN inside Henry Ford Museum, recounting the terrifying events of that day while exploring the presidential limousine that carried them both to the hospital immediately after the shots were fired.
Today, you can see this vehicle on display inside Henry Ford Museum; due to security restrictions, it is the last of the presidential limousines that will ever be preserved (all others are now destroyed).
A few interesting facts about the vehicle itself include:
The tires feature a "run flat" design - an inner rim allows the car to continue moving if any or all of the tires are flat.
The limousine was used by five presidents in all: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
This was a fairly unlucky vehicle - it is also the car in which President Ford was riding when an attempt was made on his life.