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.
1912 Baker Electric Victoria, used by five first ladies of the United States. THF67884
You might imagine that the White House was an early adopter of the automobile. We think of the presidency as being on technology’s cutting edge. Furthermore, when you realize that progressive Theodore Roosevelt’s term (1901-1909) coincided with the automobile’s rise, it seems natural that the Chief Executive would have made prominent use of the day’s foremost invention. But Roosevelt held fast to the reins and refused to give up his horse-drawn vehicles.
It’s not that Roosevelt avoided cars altogether. He certainly took the occasional car ride while in office, but he refused to bring autos into the presidential transport fleet. This was the era when most people still viewed the automobile as a plaything for the wealthy. It would have damaged Roosevelt’s populist image to have him seen barreling down the street in a motor car. And so it was left to his successor, William Howard Taft, to motorize the White House.
William Howard Taft campaign button. THF155488 Taft did so with gusto, converting the mansion’s stables into a garage and filling it with a White steam car, two gasoline-powered Pierce-Arrows and a Baker electric in 1909. It’s interesting to note that Taft played no favorites when it came to fuel. (The question of which fuel – gasoline, steam or electric – was optimal wasn’t quite settled.) And it seems no coincidence that the Ohio-born Taft favored two carmakers, White and Baker, based in Cleveland.
While the President preferred the White steamer, First Lady Helen Taft chose the Baker as her personal vehicle. Mrs. Taft was not content to be chauffeured around Washington – she drove the Baker herself. Her use of an electric car was perfectly in keeping with the trend for marketing electrics toward prosperous, status-conscious women. Three years later, Mrs. Taft traded in the 1909 model for a new 1912 Baker electric valued at $2000. Records indicate that only $809.50 was paid, so either she received a generous trade-in credit or Baker thought the publicity was worth a substantial discount (or, perhaps, a little of both).
That second Baker, a Victoria model with a gracefully curved body, boasted a top speed of about 30 miles per hour and a range near 50 miles. The little car became a White House fixture. When Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency in 1913, his wife Ellen and their three daughters drove the Baker. And after Ellen Wilson’s death in 1914, President Wilson’s second wife, Edith, also made use of the Baker. When Warren Harding took office in 1921, First Lady Florence Harding inherited the Baker electric. (The Hardings, like the Tafts, were Ohioans and perhaps took a little Buckeye pride in the Victoria.) And after President Harding’s death in 1923, Calvin Coolidge assumed office and new First Lady Grace Coolidge took to the Baker. By this time, though, the 1912 Baker was outdated in appearance and propulsion. The Baker electric was retired in 1928, and soon thereafter made its way to The Henry Ford.
Our Baker has now gone back to Cleveland, its city of manufacture. For the next year, it will be on loan to the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The loan begins just as the nation’s political spotlight turns to Cleveland with the Republican National Convention, scheduled for July 18-21, 2016. It’s quite fitting: the convention is a major milestone on the road to the White House, and that’s a road the Baker has traveled many times before.
If you’ve visited Henry Ford Museum, you’ve probably seen our collection of Presidential vehicles, which includes a 1972 Lincoln limousine used by Ronald Reagan (notably on the day in 1981 when he was shot by John Hinckley). If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about how this car was originally built, you’re in luck. We recently discovered in our collections a series of detailed photographs documenting the original construction of the Reagan limo by Ford's Special Vehicles Engineering Department, mostly covering the period between August 1970 and October 1971. The early stage image shown here was taken on August 19, 1970. Explore more than 130 additional photos taken during the construction of this historic vehicle by visiting our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
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.
Clint Hill is a former Secret Service agent who was in the presidential motorcade on November 22, 1963, as John F. Kennedy was shot. On May 16, 2016, The Henry Ford will host Mr. Hill, who will talk about his work with five presidents: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. While this evening event is sold out, you can still hear some of Mr. Hill’s stories in a video oral history he made at The Henry Ford during an earlier visit in 2013. We’ve just digitized these clips, including one tale of the unusual issues that arise when presidential motorcades are showered with confetti. We’ve gathered all 11 clips in an Expert Set within our Digital Collections for easy viewing.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager 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.