Many people know that The Henry Ford has in its collection the presidential limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This limousine is currently on display in Henry Ford Museum.
But our Kennedy-related collections encompass much more than this limousine. They include materials that relate to such topics as his presidential campaign, inauguration, vision for a New Frontier, media coverage of his assassination, and the public commemoration after his death.
While we already had many Kennedy-related collections, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination gave us the unique opportunity to expand upon these collections. In keeping with our interest in highlighting innovation stories at The Henry Ford, this new collecting focused on President Kennedy as a social innovator—that is, the ways in which his impact radically altered the status quo in our society. Using this approach, we focused our recent collecting upon the following topics:
Kennedy’s unprecedented use of the medium of television to influence public opinion
The reinforcement of the Kennedy image in popular magazines
President Kennedy’s establishment of a Peace Corps
Kennedy’s stepping-up of America’s space program to eventually land a man on the moon
Here is a sampling of our collections relating to Kennedy’s presidency, his role as a social innovator, and his enduring legacy.
Using giveaways like this campaign bumper sticker, Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy launched an exhaustive campaign in 1960 against Republican opponent Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. Despite charges that he lacked experience and that his Catholic background would hurt him, Kennedy eventually won the very close 1960 election.
On January 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s swearing-in as 35th President of the United States was followed by an official parade up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. As shown in this photograph, President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline rode in a 1949 Lincoln that had served Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. The presidential limousine we generally associate with President Kennedy was not completed until June of that year.
From the outset of his presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy seemed to understand instinctively how to harness the power of the new medium of television to influence public opinion. The first televised debate between Senator Kennedy and Vice-President Nixon was considered a key turning point in the 1960 Presidential election. As President, Kennedy also held live televised press conferences, like the one shown on this souvenir card.
Americans were enchanted by the Kennedy family and they wanted to know more, always more. Photographs and feature articles of young President John F. Kennedy and his attractive family fostered a sense of intimacy between the Kennedys and the American public—and, of course, sold magazines. Life and Look magazines, the popular documenters of American life at the time, often featured behind-the-scenes photo-essays of President Kennedy and his family.
Kennedy viewed his vision for a Peace Corps as an opportunity for young Americans to spread hope and goodwill across the world while also serving as a new weapon against the Cold War. By 1964 this program—which had been established March 1, 1961—had received an all-time high of over 45,000 applications. In 1966, less than three years after President Kennedy’s tragic death, Look magazine commissioned Norman Rockwell to portray Kennedy’s Peace Corps legacy for the cover of its June 14, 1966 issue.
President John F. Kennedy’s vision to explore the "new frontier" of outer space was an overt Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union, which had launched the first man into outer space on April 12, 1961. Kennedy’s bold vision for a stepped-up space program—that would land a man on the moon before the decade was out—ignited the public’s imagination. Americans cheered every new achievement. This souvenir card shows President Kennedy awarding NASA's Distinguished Service Medal to the first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, three days after his successful space flight on May 5, 1961.
From the moment of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, reporters struggled to make sense of exactly what happened and how events unfolded in ensuing moments, hours, and days. Our collection of teletype dispatches, newspapers, and magazines reflect how breaking news of this tragic event was reported and how it changed over time.
Stunned and disillusioned Americans embraced commemorative items relating to President Kennedy after his death. These items, including books, magazines, phonograph records, and this postage stamp, helped people mourn and enabled them to re-connect with their charismatic—and now deceased—leader. Commemorative items recalling the optimistic era when John F. Kennedy was President and Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady are still popular today.
Check out these and many more of our Kennedy-related collections via the links below:
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, was in third grade when President Kennedy was assassinated. She would like to thank Cynthia Read Miller, Curator of Prints and Photographs, and Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts, for their assistance in writing this blog post.
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.
This year’s show field focuses on one-off custom-bodied Lincolns. After Ford Motor Company purchased Lincoln in 1922, Edsel Ford further defined it with superior styling and elegant custom coachwork. Long one of America’s elite luxury cars, Lincoln served as the official vehicle for presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush.
This isn't the first time the Bubble-Top has been on display outside of the museum. In 2012, The Henry Ford proudly exhibited our Bubble-Top in England during the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth.
What else should you know about the Bubble-Top?
Built for President Harry S. Truman in 1950, and used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson also used this car as a spare until its retirement in 1967
Assembled by the Ford Motor Company in Detroit
Special bodywork done by Raymond Dietrich, Dietrich Creative Industries, Grand Rapids, Mich
Engine: V-8 L-head
Displacement: 336.7 cubic inches
Weight: 6,500 pounds
Total of 10 limousines built at a cost of $500,000
President Eisenhowser added the distinctive plastic "bubble-top," which is removable so presidents could be seen during parades in all weather
A folding bug shield protects the president's face when standing during parades
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.