Would a bubble-top have saved Kennedy? More answers from the strange story of JFK’s Lincoln limo

The Continental’s low-slung, angular lines and rear-hinged “suicide” doors were a bold departure at the time for Lincoln styling and seemed to personify the fresh-faced Kennedy and the new frontiers he espoused for the country.

UPDATE at 12 p.m. Nov. 22, 2019: This story was originally published May 5, 2013. We’re bringing it back to observe the 56th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.

President Barack Obama’s hulking black limousine — all 15,000 pounds of it — reportedly carries onboard systems for fresh oxygen. It carries bottles of the blood of the president’s type: AB negative. It also carries an ungainly nickname: “The Beast.” Or, as Matt Anderson, curator of transportation for The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., describes it: “A tank with a Cadillac badge.” The blast-resistant car rolls on tires reinforced with Kevlar. The rear doors are 8 inches thick and as heavy as the massive, main-cabin door of a Boeing 757.

In contrast, the open-top car that President John F. Kennedy waved from on a sunny day in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, could not have been more different. That car was fashioned from a stock 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible — retail price $7,347 — that had rolled off the assembly line at parent company Ford’s plant in Wixom, Mich.

In June 1961, U.S. Secret Service agents pose on retractable stands on President John F. Kennedy’s new plastic-topped Lincoln Continental limousine outside the White House, after its delivery in Washington. The car has three roof combinations, a rear seat that can be raised and lowered, retractable foot stands for Secret Service men, two two-way radiotelephones, and a master control panel for power accessories. (Henry Burroughs / AP)

The Continental’s low-slung, angular lines and rear-hinged “suicide” doors were a bold departure at the time for Lincoln styling and seemed to personify the fresh-faced Kennedy and the new frontiers he espoused for the country. The car was as glamorous and camera-ready as he was.

“All of a sudden, here was this very clean, striking, and clear-cut design that did without fins,” says Robert Cumberford, the automotive design editor for Automobile magazine and a former car designer. “It was interesting technically in that it was a unit-body without a separate chassis frame, so it could look long and low and still have room inside. I think it’s the best looking Lincoln since the 1941 model.”

The White House leased it from Ford for a token of $500 a year and sent it off for $200,000 in modifications by elite custom coachbuilder Hess and Eisenhardt in Cincinnati, Ohio. (The firm’s other high-profile clients included the Queen of England.) In the process, the car gained Secret Service codenames – SS-100-X and X-100 – and the grille of a 1962 model, so it appeared right up to date.

This June 1961 photo shows President. John F. Kennedy’s Lincoln Continental limousine. The limo was the first presidential car equipped with a transparent roof for all compartments and has other options including fabric roof covering, or use as a convertible, as well as combinations for the rear, middle and front compartments. (Ford Motor Company / AP)

Its most radical equipment was a six-piece roof system composed of clear plastic panels that were stowed in the trunk and a rear seat that could be hydraulically raised more than 10 inches for better visibility of its occupants. There were two radiotelephones, akin to walkie-talkies or CB radios rigged to telephone handsets. The car’s most notable extra was its length, three-and-a-half feet of it, gained by cutting it in half and extending the rear passenger compartment to create more room and to fit a middle row of forward-facing jump seats that folded away when not in use.

Presidential limos, then and now

The Kennedy limousine, a modified 1961 Lincoln Continental, had virtually no safety features. Barack Obama’s modern limo, called “the Beast,” is a mix of car, truck, and tank. It is full of features auto experts speculate about but the Secret Service refuses to discuss. Here are some of the features of both:

Completely exposed

On that fateful day in Dallas, those jump seats were occupied by Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie. Amidst the noise and excitement, an elated Mrs. Connally looked back at Kennedy and famously told him, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” He would be pronounced dead less than 30 minutes later.

Moments before the first gunshot rang out in Dealey Plaza, the limousine made the sharp left turn onto Elm Street. The pair of flags mounted on the front fenders of the long car billowed in the breeze.

Kennedy waved to bystanders from the open convertible’s back seat. Jacqueline Kennedy, regal-looking in a pink bouclé suit, sat beside her husband. A bouquet of red roses given to her earlier at Love Field lay between them on the button-tufted seat.

Pres. John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Texas Gov. John Connally begin the motorcade from Love Field to downtown Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. (Tom Dillard / Staff photographer)

Even the weather seemed expertly choreographed. The midday sun illuminated the limousine – a calculated effect, thanks to the silver metal flakes mixed into the car’s Presidential Blue Metallic paint, designed to gleam under bright lights. That shade was specified instead of traditional black because it looked crisper and more defined in black-and-white photographs and on television.

When three shots rang out at Dealey Plaza, Kennedy and all of the passengers in the limousine were completely exposed. The decision had been made that morning to not put on the car’s plastic bubble top. What the public did not know was that the top was neither bulletproof nor even bullet-resistant. (A Secret Service agent on detail that day reportedly described the top as bulletproof in a Nov. 29, 1963, FBI summary report. Gary Mack, curator of Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, says, “I can only guess that Secret Service personnel may not have wanted another agency to know about the characteristics of the top. I cannot imagine he didn’t know it was not bulletproof.”)

There was no protective armor cladding anywhere on the vehicle. Mack says that for all of the car’s upgraded features, it served mostly as an “expensive, fancy limousine.”

1/2Pres. John F. Kennedy’s limo speeds toward Parkland Hospital moments after he was shot in Dallas, with Secret Service Agent Clinton Hill jumping into the back seat, on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. (Justin Newman / AP)
2/2President Kennedy slumps down in the back seat of the limo after being shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy leans over the president as Secret Service agent Clinton Hill rides on the back of the car.(James W. “Ike” Altgens / AP)

Kennedy’s Lincoln sensationally dubbed the “Death Car” in a 1964 Associated Press story, was hastily rebuilt after the assassination. Project name? The Quick Fix. The logic was straightforward, according to Henry Ford curator Anderson. “It takes four years or so to get one of these done, from the original planning to its delivery to the White House. They simply didn’t have the time to build a new car. The president [Lyndon B. Johnson] needed a limousine; this was the simplest, most effective way to do it.”

Of course, the rushed makeover would fuel later conspiracy chatter. According to Mack: “The crime scene was the car — and the car left.”

A team that included Ford engineers, Hess and Eisenhardt, the Secret Service, the Army Materials and Mechanics Research Center, and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. stripped the car down and improved almost everything. Discarded pieces of the original car were destroyed to prevent them from falling into the hands of ghoulish collectors.

The most important change: The car’s body was armored with titanium, where there had been no armoring before, and the new roof was nonremovable. All of the windows were now bullet-resistant and composed of five layers of plate glass with polycarbonate vinyl sandwiched between each one. Even the wheels were lined with aluminum rims, an early version of today’s run-flat tires.

High-tech for the ’60s

A memo dated May 1, 1964, from Hess and Eisenhardt co-founder Willard C. Hess detailed the revamp in glowing terms. “It has been stated that this is the finest, most fabulous custom car ever built for Presidential service.” He went on to write: “The car is an electronic masterpiece with some 5,000 feet of wire and with so many electrical circuits and pieces of electrical equipment that the bodybuilder found it necessary to convert the glove compartment into a fuse and circuit breaker panel.”

The original customized 1961 Lincoln limousine (code name: X-100) that John F. Kennedy was later assassinated in. The car, a joint venture between Ford and partner Hess & Eisenhardt, is shown here being delivered to an unknown destination with sections of its removable bubble roof panels laid out behind it. The panels could stack into the trunk of the car. (The Henry Ford Museum)

The high-tech – for the time – features included two radio phones, a dial telephone, an AM-FM radio, a public-address system, an electronic siren, and remote-control door locks. The car gained 17 percent more power with a new hand-built, high-compression V-8 engine. And with all of the added weight – the car now tipped the scale at 9,800 pounds, up from 7,822 – the team installed “the largest passenger-car air-conditioning unit ever built,” the 1964 memo said. The ventilation system filled the trunk and was capable of producing three cubic tons of conditioned air, which was “sufficient for an average house.”

The final price tag for project Quick Fix was an estimated $500,000. The car went through extensive road testing and was delivered to the White House and LBJ’s fleet in late spring of 1964. But Johnson insisted on one important change: the color. The revised car had been repainted the same shade of Presidential Blue Metallic. “Johnson insisted that they drop that color,” says Anderson, “because he thought it would be too directly associated with the assassination and bring back painful memories. So, they went to a standard black.”

The limousine that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in on a trip to Dallas was sent back to Ford and partner Hess & Eisenhardt to rebuild and improve its safety and design. The project started around Dec. 1963 and was dubbed the “Quick Fix.” These photos show the process and the rebuilt car on display in front of Hess & Eisenhardt’s headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio before it was sent back to the White House.(The Henry Ford Museum)

Johnson rode in the car at his 1965 inauguration. Two years later, it was revised one more time; its right-rear door was tweaked to permit a roll-down window. The rear decklid was also reinforced after the 6-foot-four president allegedly dented it by standing on it once.

Improbably, the car stayed in service through President Richard Nixon’s administration and into 1977, Jimmy Carter’s administration’s first year. It was retired late that year and returned to Ford. The automaker donated it to The Henry Ford museum, where curator Anderson says it remains one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., displays the customized 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible the president was riding in when he was assassinated. (Jessica J. Trevino / Detroit Free Press)

“I see a lot of folks who are parents with children, or, more often now, grandparents with children, talking about the car and where they were when they heard about the assassination,” Anderson says.

On Nov. 22 each year, some people leave flowers near the car.

“People are always surprised,” Anderson says. “They expect these cars to have all sorts of James Bond-type gadgets in them. But this car — even the later Reagan car — had less sophisticated electronics than what the typical driver today has on his smartphone.”

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