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December 23, 2023

Custom Limo for the President: 7 Strange Facts About John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental Limousine

Customization wasn’t just replacing the interior or adding additional space and seating. It went way beyond the basics of what we know as a limousine. This limo had t-tops! Not in the general sense of sports car t-tops, but it had removable steel and transparent plastic roof panels that were referred to as a bubble top. It had a hydraulic rear seat that could be raised almost 12 inches to elevate the president. Retractable steps were added on for the convenience of the secret service agents tasked with walking next to the vehicle, as well as grab handles and two steps on the back bumper for additional agents. It also provided auxiliary jump seats for additional passengers, two radio telephones, and of course, hand embroidered Presidential Seals in each of the door pockets.

This June 1961 photo provided by the Ford Motor Co. shows President. John F. Kennedy's Lincoln Continental limousine.

On Nov. 22, Dallas will again be remembered as the place where John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. Our images of him that day are forever locked with his limousine: A modified 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible. Its low-slung, angular lines and rear-hinged “suicide” doors were a bold design that personified Kennedy's fresh appeal. The press later dubbed the vehicle the “death car.”

1. The Lincoln was leased, but received six-figure upgrades from the White House.

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 can stack into the trunk of the car.

The 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. The White House leased it from Ford for a token $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.

2. The limo was stretched and loaded up with unusual features.

President John F. Kennedy (back left), Jacqueline Kennedy (back right), begin the motorcade from Love Field to downtown Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Texas Gov. John Connally is waving.

The car had a six-piece roof system composed mostly 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 radio telephones, akin to walkie-talkies or CB radios rigged to telephone handsets. The car's most notable extra was its length, 3 1/2 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 fold away when not in use.

3. The “bubble top” would not have helped Kennedy that day in Dallas.

The limo carrying a mortally wounded Kennedy races toward Parkland Hospital seconds after he was shot in Dallas.

Would the plastic bubble top have made a difference that day if used? Gary Mack, the late curator of Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, said no, it wasn’t bulletproof. In fact, there was no protective armor on the vehicle. Mack says that for all of the car's upgraded features, it served mostly as an “expensive, fancy limousine.”

4. After the Kennedy assassination, the limo was hastily put back into service.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in this car on November 22, 1963. The midnight blue, un-armored convertible was rebuilt with a permanent roof, titanium armor plating, and more somber black paint. The limousine returned to the White House and remained in service until 1977. The modified car shows the fundamental ways in which presidential security changed after Kennedy’s death.

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 The Henry Ford museum’s curator of transportation Matt 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.”

5. The rebuilt Kennedy limo was considerably fortified at the cost of nearly half a million.

The 1961 Lincoln limousine (code name: X-100) 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 December 1963 and was dubbed the “Quick Fix.”

The high-tech — for the time — features include two radiophones, a dial telephone, an AM-FM radio, a public-address system, an electronic siren and remote-control door locks. The car gained 17% more power with a new hand-built, high-compression V-8 engine. And with all of the added weight — the car now tips the scale at 9,800 pounds, up from 7,822 — the team installed “the largest passenger-car air-conditioning unit ever built.” The ventilation system filled the trunk and was capable of producing 3 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.

6. The limo stayed in service longer than you would expect and you can still view it today.

Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental in the Henry Ford Museum.

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 Anderson says it remains one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. On Nov. 22 each year, some people leave flowers near the car.

7. JFK’s limo remains part of assassination conspiracy lore.

According to the late Sixth Floor Museum curator Gary Mack, while the car was parked outside Parkland Hospital that fateful day, something strange happened. There were odd reports by some hospital staff of a man in a suit inside the emergency area who asked for a bucket of water and some towels. “And the implication was that they were going to clean out the car — clean out the crime scene,” he said. The mysterious man was never identified, but Mack says “a bucket was photographed at the left rear door of the limo before being carried toward the emergency entrance.” And yet, photographs of the car’s backseat taken by the FBI after the car was flown back to Washington, DC revealed it does not appear to have been cleaned. Perhaps only the driver’s area was wiped down?

Mack points out one more remaining mystery connected with the car: the radio transmissions. Each vehicle in the motorcade that day was patched into a radio network, and he said the Secret Service was monitoring the chatter from a room at the Adolphus Hotel. The transmissions were being fed to Air Force One and, presumably, the White House Communications Agency. “Where are the tapes? No one knows,” Mack says. “The tapes could be important if, as one of the agents in the limo confirmed, he was on his radiotelephone during some of the assassination and his microphone could have picked up the sounds of the shots.”


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