Driven by Tragedy: Remembering the Assassination of President Kennedy

On the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, the limousine in which he died remains a popular — albeit somber — exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum
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President John F Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie Connally ride together in a convertible limousine in Dallas. Several stops later President Kennedy and Governor Connally were shot in the limousine. // Photograph from Getty Images

In groups of three and four — many of them older adults — they stop to gawk at the long, black limousine parked at the Henry Ford Museum’s exhibit of presidential vehicles.

“That’s not it,” says a man in a wheelchair. “It was a convertible.”

The woman pushing him assures him that this is indeed the very same car, only rebuilt with added armor, including a hard roof. “They installed that top,” she tells him, “so the next president wouldn’t get shot.”

Nearby, a woman shakes her head slowly and says loudly to a companion: “They should destroy it, not keep it. A man died in that car.”

Always one of the museum’s most viewed exhibits since it first went on display in 1981, the “X-100” — or, more formally, the “SS-100-X” — is the 21-foot Lincoln Continental in which Kennedy was shot 60 years ago.

But you wouldn’t recognize it. Instead of being retired and stored as a crime scene in 1963, the Kennedy limo was rebuilt and returned to service for Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.

“It’s still got the same VIN number, the same frame,” says Matt Anderson, curator of transportation for The Henry Ford. “Pretty much everything else on the car was rebuilt, redone, replaced — you name it.”

Before that fateful day in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, the vehicle was just a 1961 midnight-blue Lincoln Continental assembled by Ford Motor Co. at its Lincoln plant in Wixom. The Hess & Eisenhardt Co., a custom shop in Cincinnati, built an extension into the middle of the car that lengthened it by 3.5 feet. This allowed custom touches like jump seats, but little protection. Ford leased the car to the Secret Service for $500 a year.

They called it a “parade car,” exposed to the public, Anderson says. “Before 1963, presidents were largely unprotected. Afterward, cars are essentially armored tanks that look like Lincoln limousines or Cadillacs.”

Roy Kellerman, a Secret Service agent who was assigned to protect the president that day, sat in the front passenger seat but could not get to the wounded president while the car was under fire from a sixth-floor window of a nearby building. Blocking his way was a metal bar to support the removable “bubble top” — unused that day — plus two jump seats where Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, were sitting. The governor also was wounded.

According to the Warren Commission: “Had the vehicle been so designed it is possible that an agent riding in the front seat could have reached the President in time to protect him from the second and fatal shot. … However, such access to the President was interfered with both by the metal bar some 15 inches above the back of the front seat and by the passengers in the jump seats.”

While shots were still being fired, the only Secret Service agent to reach Kennedy was Clint Hill, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s chief bodyguard, who rode on the running board of the follow-up car.

Tragically immortalized on the Abraham Zapruder film, the back of the long limo serves as a silent stage moving through both Dealey Plaza and American history. It displays a bloody ballet of bullets and the pas de deux of the two persons nearest the murdered president: his wife and Hill.

The film shows Hill leaving the follow-up car after hearing a gunshot. He rushes toward the presidential limo and tries to climb on the back but stumbles when the limo lurches forward. He must run a few more steps to catch up and vault upward when the car slows down.

The 21-foot Lincoln Continental JFK was shot in 60 years ago is still one of the Henry Ford Museum’s most popular exhibits. // Photograph by Brad Ziegler

To the Warren Commission, Hill recounted hearing a second blast. He witnessed its result and then saw Jacqueline Kennedy climb from the back seat toward the trunk. The president “had slumped noticeably to his left. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up from the seat and was, it appeared to me, reaching for something.”

That something turned out to be a piece of her husband’s head.

One JFK aide, David Powers, witnessed the scene from the follow-up car and said Jacqueline Kennedy “would probably have fallen off the rear end of the car and been killed if Hill had not pushed her back,” according to the commission. “Mrs. Kennedy had no recollection of climbing into the back of the car.”

One of many curious details about the car is its chain of custody immediately after the assassination. In his book The Death of a President, author William Manchester paints the quiet scene at Love Field in Dallas after Air Force One flew off with the new President Johnson and the corpse of his predecessor: “In this hush, broken only by the creaking of gears, a crane hoisted SS 100 X aboard a C-130 cargo plane.”

Upon its arrival in Washington, D.C., agent Sam Kinney drove the limo from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House garage. In the book The Kennedy Detail, former Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine describes the trip: “The smell of death permeated the interior. … [Kinney] couldn’t bear to look in the review mirror to the empty, untouched, still blood-covered seat in the back.”

In a Ford Motor Co. memo of Dec. 18, 1963, a company executive writes of seeing the car two days after the killing: “When I returned to the garage, the unit was no longer under guard. The Secret Service had cleaned the leather upholstery the day before, but underneath the upholstery buttons, dried blood was still in evidence.”

The vehicle was shipped first to Ford in Dearborn, and later to Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati, to be dismantled and rebuilt. Johnson didn’t like the color midnight blue because it evoked the Kennedy era and aura, so he had it painted black. As Manchester writes, “The Service rebuilt the Presidential Lincoln in which Kennedy had died, adding a souped-up motor, two and a half tons of new steel plating, three-inch glass and bullet-proof tires, but Johnson rarely used it.”

After the car was returned to the White House, a corporate press release from Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury Division described such a modification as routine.

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“Revamping of White House limousines has been the rule, rather than the exception,” the release says, adding that rebuilds were done for cars of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower — not mentioning that none of them were murdered in their cars. (The limos of Eisenhower and Roosevelt also are on display near the JFK car.)

Years later, Nixon had a hatch built into the limo’s roof so he could open it and be seen by crowds. But why didn’t the government keep the car as it was on that fatal Friday?

“Everybody is shocked that they didn’t,” Anderson says. “I’m shocked at that. You would’ve thought it’d be locked away in a warehouse or perhaps destroyed.”

The Detroit Free Press reported on Dec. 17, 1963, that this decision to rebuild the limo “apparently mean[s] that the Secret Service has rejected proposals for placing the car in the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village.”

Theodore Mecke Jr., then a Ford vice president for public relations, told a Chicago newspaper at the time that “the Kennedy death car never will be placed on exhibit at the Museum.” Fourteen years later, the car was retired; in 1981, it was installed at the Henry Ford Museum.

Ten years ago, the limo drew an emotional crowd on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder. Anderson says the memorial “was one of the most amazing days” in his 12-year tenure at the museum. “Folks lined up to the outside of the museum just to spend a few moments with that vehicle. They were leaving cards and flowers.” Some visitors wept.

Henry Ford Museum officials have discussed and declined suggestions that the JFK car be retrofitted to its original appearance, because, paradoxically, that would make it a replica of itself.

“It’s something real right now,” Anderson says. “And I think the fact that it had all those changes is really a part of the story.”


This story is from the December 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition