November 22, 1963:
The big, blue Lincoln Continental---variously called "SS 110 X" and "X-100"---was, in fact, the military command car of the President of the United States in his role as Commander-in-Chief of all US armed forces on land, at sea, and in the air.
It literally entered the public consciousness of the world with a bang, actually at least three, and maybe more, of them. The number of shots fired that Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 in Dealey Plaza at Dallas, Texas is still a matter of controversial dispute, but there is no disagreement that the car in which the 35th President of the US, John F. Kennedy, was killed that fateful, sunny day has subsequently become one of the most famous military AND civilian automobiles in history, perhaps even the most famous such car.
It is thus both fitting and proper to inquire about the car that was the very focus of the end of the sole Kennedy Presidency to date: How did it come to be in Dallas that most terrible of days for the United States? What happened to it later? Where is it now? These are all questions that are answered herein.
Historically, automobiles have been used to convey all the Presidents of the 20th and 21st Centuries, and one---Franklin Delano Roosevelt---even had one built for his own, special needs as a driver who could not use his feet to drive. Hence, his car was hand-driven in all respects, and today it can be seen at his Presidential Museum at Hyde Park, NY (where this writer viewed it in 1969), near the wooded roads on which he used to drive it.
FDR, too, was the first President to be shot at by an assassin while in a car (in Miami, FL, in 1932) when Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was killed instead in what many today view as a mob-inspired "hit" akin to that which many increasingly also feel accounted for JFK as well.
It was in late 1959 that the former American picture publication Look magazine published an article that this writer remembers reading as a boy by a retiring US Secret Service chief who stated that the easiest way to kill a US President would be by using a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight from a high building while the Chief Executive was riding in a motorcade I remember recalling this accurate prophecy when I myself saw JFK in person---not yet President-Elect, but only as the Democratic Party nominee---in the summer of 1960 when he came riding down Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore, sitting alone atop the rear seat of the car on the trunk.
At the time, such a thing would've been considered both unthinkable and impractical, but we have all learned to live with it many times over since that long-ago period.
In fact, even that time, as it later developed, a bitter youth would assume the rather unlikely mantle of being both a US Marine and (later) a practicing Communist---Lee Harvey Oswald---stated his desire to kill then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who used a bubble-top limousine to prevent just such a possibility.)
Only one American President in the 20th Century-Jimmy Carter of Georgia---walked to his Inauguration, while the rest, including John F. Kennedy, rode in a limousine. By early January 1961, as JFK began his fabled first "Hundred Days" in office as President, the old 1950 "bubbletop" used by his predecessor, Ike, had over 100,000 miles clocked on its odometer, and it was decided that a new Presidential limo was needed for the younger, more vibrant Chief Executive in the Oval Office of the White House.
According to a letter sent to this writer on Oct. 20, 1987 by the Office of Public Affairs of the US Secret Service, "The limousine is described as a 1961 Lincoln Continental. The vehicle was designed and built by the Ford Motor Company, principally at its Research and Engineering Center in Dearborn, Michigan. The vehicle, after completion, was leased by the Secret Service from the Ford Motor Company..." but there is much more to the story than that, however.
Since 1977---for the past three decades---it has been on display at the celebrated Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village at Dearborn, where, according to Curator of Transportation Randy Mason, "It was removed from government service." The facility publishes an interesting periodical entitled the Herald which, in 1982, Mr. Mason published an article entitled Three Special Lincolns.
He described therein the genesis of the car he calls the X-100: "AT a cost estimated at nearly $ 200,000. Ford...and Hess & Eisenhardt, custom automobile builders of Cincinnati, Ohio, hand-crafted a magnificent dark blue, 21-foot-long, open parade car to be dubbed 'X-100' by the Secret Service."
The production, four-door convertible---which weighed 5, 215 pounds---was then priced retail at $ 7,347 (!) as equipped, with Lincoln then being the sole manufacturer of a convertible sedan.
It was decided by Ford and the Secret Service to convert the car for JFK's usage, and it arrived at the White House in Washington, DC in June 1961 from the Wixom, Michigan Lincoln assembly plant. Its modifications raised the weight to 7,800 pounds, and it was 3 ½ feet longer as well.
Equipped with a 430 cubic-inch V8 power plant, X-100 had a 156-inch wheelbase, "A series of removable steel and transparent plastic roof panels that could be installed in various combinations...and a partition between the driver's compartment and the rear seat" that "could be removed when a totally open car was desired..."
Leased by Ford to the Secret Service for a purely nominal fee of $ 500 a year (!), the limousine had a "hydraulically-operated tear seat that could be raised 1 ½ inches to give the gathered crowds a better view of the President and his guests..."
As noted also by Mr. Mason---tragically, in the light of actual events---"It was a very special car for a very special purpose...the emphasis was on visibility rather than protection, a trend that had been encouraged by the Eisenhower Administration..." that was to prove fatal to JFK in Dallas.
The night before his death, President Kennedy said to intimates how easy it would be to kill him or, indeed, any top public official of any nation, as long as the would-be assassin was prepared to lose his own life in the attempt. Ironically, only Oswald among American assassins since 1963 did lose his life, while James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Arthur Bremer, Sara Jane Moore, Lynette Fromme, and John Hinckley, Jr. all survived their attempts.
Even more ironically, many, many witnesses in Dealey Plaza that day in Dallas actually saw Oswald in a window of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, also armed with a very visible rifle, as he---like the rest of the expectant crowd there---awaited the arrival of John F. Kennedy's massive Lincoln Continental parade car. None thought, however, of asking a policeman, in the words of author Jim Bishop in The Day Kennedy Was Shot, "Say, who's the man up there with the gun?" Most assumed that he was just part of the official "security" detail for the President's political campaign trip to Texas in preparation for the 1964 Presidential election just under a year away.
In fact, the President's motorcade that day was a mere five minutes from being completely over, and as it came into Oswald's view, the driver was preparing to speed up, take off and go under a nearby railroad underpass to finish the last leg of its journey to the city's Trade Mart, where the President was to deliver to a waiting luncheon crowd.
Jim Bishop described the scene: " The big Lincoln swept out into the top of (Dealey) Plaza (see map), sunbeams spangling off the fenders and sides. From Elm to Commerce (streets), from the old courthouse to the overpass, attention was on that automobile. (Driver William) Greer was down to 11 miles an hour, and he made the turn wide, into the center of Houston (street).
"(Agent Roy) Kellerman, at his side...looked ahead to the depository. The car could have gone straight down Main, which would have kept it in the middle of the Plaza, but it could not have made the turn up onto Stemmons Freeway without inching over an eight-inch concrete curb that separated main from Elm It was easier to turn right to Elm, and go under the trestle and up onto Stemmons Freeway..."
In the jump seats behind the two Secret Service agents were Governor John Connally of Texas and his wife, Nellie: behind the gubernatorial couple were the President and Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, all four of them enjoying the terrific welcome being given them by the cheering Dallas crowd that they surveyed from X-100.
As for JFK, Bishop asserted, "He must have seen the old, gray turreted courthouse on his left as Greer made the turn, and he could not have avoided seeing the faded old Depository above the windshield...The car glided noiselessly across Houston (street)...Oswald could have fired all four (rounds) into the face of the President at this moment...Why not fire now? No one knows.
"No one will ever know. It is possible that he feared that a missed shot would cause Greer to slam the car into high speed, running out of sight straight on Houston behind the Texas School Book Depository...he was facing marksmen. If he missed, would he have time for a second shot before Greer could make the heavy car leap out of sight?"
The assassin thus elected to wait for a rear shot at the President, after a left-hand turn away from the building in which he perched. "In this instance, the car could not back up into the Secret Service car behind it. There was insufficient room on Elm to make a U-turn: the forced move was to continue ahead toward the underpass, exposed to the rifle with the telescopic sight..."
This was what, in fact, now happened, and at 12:30 PM the gunman opened fire, with the events of the next six seconds becoming the most debated in the American nation's history.
In the car itself, both Kennedy and Connally males were wounded, and the latter survived to win reelection the next year, serve in a Cabinet under JFK's 1960 rival, Richard Nixon, run for President himself in 1980, and then endure bankruptcy.
As for JFK, the known and agreed upon medical and ballistic facts are that bullets tore through his back and windpipe, and blew a four-inch-square hole in the right top of his skull, the latter shot killing him almost instantly.
Bishop recorded the grisly scene as Mrs. Kennedy witnessed her husband's death at his side: "Shock froze the mind of Mrs. Kennedy. She saw a flesh-colored piece of her husband's head turning in air to drop behind the car...Mrs. Kennedy began to climb out on the trunk of the automobile," while Greer and Kellerman decided they were under fire, the occupants were hit and they were on their way to nearby Parkland Hospital to seek medical aid.
"The car leapt ahead out of the parade line with Jackie Kennedy still precariously on the trunk."
In his book The Death of a President, author William Manchester told what happened next, as seeing Mrs. Kennedy's predicament from the follow-up car, Agent Clint Hill raced to the rear of what Manchester called SS 100 X to board it and help her: "The back of the Lincoln was equipped with metal grips on the trunk for agents and a step on each side of the spare tire. Clint had his fingers in the left grip and his toe in the left step 2.6 seconds after the last shot; he had just begun to surge up when Greer rammed the accelerator to the floor.
"The Lincoln's 8,000 pounds of steel sprang forward, dislodging Clint's foot. He was dead weight and dragging. Desperately, he tightened his fist on the grip. His other arm flailed at nothing. Mrs. Kennedy pivoted toward the rear and reached for him: their hands touched, clenched, and locked.
"It is impossible to say who saved whom. Neither remembers...She drew him up, and he, vaulting ahead, pushed her down until she tumbled back into the car. The window beside her had been raised a few inches. Clint anchored his left hand there, hooked his right foot on the opposite side of the car and spread-eagled his body across the back of the Lincoln. With his powerful muscles he could hold on now, whatever the speed.
"It was small consolation to him; from the street he had seen Kennedy's head wound. He knew it was mortal, knew the Secret service had failed; and in anguish and frustration he hammered the trunk with his free hand."
The reader should remember, too, that all of this grisly, horrible, amazing drama unfolded in and on the Lincoln before literally thousands of bystanders.
When the car arrived at Parkland Hospital, the bodies of President Kennedy and Gov. Connally were removed for medical care, while the Secret Service, Dallas motorcycle policemen and Kennedy White House aides cleaned the gore, carnage, and debris from the car's interior, and the horror it had witnessed, thus effectively defiling the crime scene.
The car was temporarily removed from service, as it came under the intense scrutiny of the Warren Commission---named by the new President, Lyndon Johnson---charged with the official government investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy.
On Dec. 12, 1963, however, the car was released to be rebuilt by Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati to armor the entire car to prevent another such tragedy in the future, since---incredibly!-it had been decided to keep the vehicle in government service. According to Mr. Mason's 1982 research, this plan was called the "quick fix," or "Project D-2," and entailed the following:
"Complete armoring of the vehicle's rear passenger compartment, including both opaque and transparent surfaces; the addition of a permanent, non-removable top (or 'greenhouse') to accommodate the transparent armor; exchange of the original engine for a hand-built, high-compression unit with about 17% greater power; addition of a second air conditioning unit in the trunk of the vehicle, necessitated by the fixed top and immovable side windows; addition of certain electronic communication devices; reinforcement of some mechanical and some structural components, such as the front wheel spindles and door hinges, to accept the added weight of the armor; and complete retrimming of the rear compartment to eliminate the damage that had been caused by the assassination ."
Completed May 11, 1964, the newest version of X-100 now weighed almost a full ton more (!), and the improvements cost more than $ 500,000 with the bullet-resistant, Pittsburgh Plate Glass alone estimated at $ 125,000.
Asserted Mr. Mason, "There were 13 pieces of glass altogether (including the windshield) ranging in thickness from 1-1 13/16 inches...the rear roof section was the largest piece of bullet-resistant, curved, cast glass produced up to that time. It weighed approximately 1,500 pounds...The bullet-resisting feature was achieved by sandwiching polycarbonate vinyl between each of five layers of plate glass. The principal opaque armor added...was titanium steel, the most traditional armor plate...made from a steel alloy containing a large amount of the element titanium.
"Very difficult to work with, titanium resists all normal methods of cutting and forming. The titanium armor used in X-100was in the form of 3/8-inch plate and cost $ 13,572 in 1964."
The car was also equipped with 1.8-inch-thick HY-100 steel plate to guard the vehicle's rear area against grenade and mine explosions, while flexible, 12-ply nylon fabric was employed, too. "To provide a catcher's mitt effect for projectiles," and is "Found in the back of the front seat, the rear doors, the center body pillar, and the rear quarter panels," explained Mason.
He noted, also, that the car's fuel tank-when filled with "Safom," an open pore foamed elastomer made from a polyester type urethane-can be pierced by a randomly fired projectile and still not catch fire or explode. Bullet resistant tires were added as well, and the car was returned to accommodate President Johnson.
In the 1986 book by authors Lester and Irene David entitled Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Folk Hero, it was revealed for the first time that another Kennedy couple unknowingly rode in the very same vehicle in which the President had been slain less than a year earlier, in a truly macabre incident not hitherto known.
RFK---the late President's younger brother, 1960 campaign manager, and US Attorney General---had resigned from the Johnson Cabinet to run for the US Senate in New York. According to the Davids, "Near the end of the campaign, without knowing it, Bobby rode and joked in the same blue Lincoln convertible in which his brother was riding when he was murdered in Dallas.
"The unreported incident occurred on the Sunday before election day, when President Johnson came to New York. Air Force One landed at the Republic Aviation Corporation airfield in Suffolk County, where it was met by Bobby, Ethel (Kennedy), Averill Harriman, and Nassau County Executive Eugene Nickerson. The President was accompanied by Lady Bird Johnson and Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent who had flung Johnson onto the floor and covered him with his own body when JFK was shot.
"The group moved to the shining Lincoln, which was parked nearby. It had been rebuilt, the upholstery changed, and a bubble top installed; the appearance had been so changed that it was unrecognizable..."
There followed a 90 minute ride through New York that must've been tedious for both the Kennedys and the Johnsons, as RFK and LBJ were well known to hate each other. "Bob never knew he and his wife were riding in the death car," asserted the Davids. "Nobody in the President's party told him; perhaps no one had noticed."
Considering Johnson's predilection to know and control everything in his sphere (he once told an Army officer, 'They're all my helicopters, son!') this last statement is hard to believe. To, Bobby had his own sources within his former government, and maybe he, too, knew, but kept silent.
The Davids recorded that their source for the story was County Executive Nickerson, one of the car's 1964 occupants, in an oral history interview done for the John F. Kennedy Library at Columbia Point, Boston, where it is on deposit today.
Not only JFK's successor and brother rode in the new, "improved" SS 100 X, but also---again, surprisingly---his 1960 rival for the Presidency, Richard M. Nixon, who, on Nov. 22, 1963, had been in Dallas on business representing one of his law firm's clients, Pepsi Cola.
Nixon succeeded LBJ to the Presidency himself on Jan. 20, 1969 and had requested yet another alteration to X-100, stated Randy Mason: "The elimination of the huge, one piece, bullet resistant glass roof in favor of a smaller glass area combined with a hinged panel that would allow the President to stand during parades," i.e., a trap door or, more properly, a hatch.
By this time, too, the air conditioning system had been upgraded yet again, as well as "The addition of roof mounted grab handles."
Mr. Mason wasn't without humor, either, and noted another upgrade that tickles this writer's funnybone: "In response to President Johnson's one time caper of jumping on the rear deck lid and causing it to collapse, the deck lid was reinforced with fiberglass to accept the weight of the 210 pound man without damage. The entire car was stripped to bare metal, all dents were removed, and the car was repainted."
Somewhat in defense of the irrepressible LBJ, it should be noted that several pictures exist showing both RFK and Nixon standing on cars to receive crowds in their respective 1968 campaigns, though.
Gerald R. Ford, a member of the Warren Commission, succeeded the resigned Nixon as President, and the car was retired in the era of the man who defeated him for re-election, President Jimmy Carter.
And so, for the last three decades since 1977, the famed JFK "death car"---X-00 or SS 100 X, take your pick of names-has rested serenely as a retired museum piece in the late President Ford's home state of Michigan, itself mute testimony to a happening from which the United States never really recovered its equilibrium, a military command car that was at history's very epicenter for a brief, tragic moment in time.
Ⓒ 2017 International Historic Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.