10 Unusual Things about the Kennedy Limo
The Car That LBJ Kept Using
This November 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) in Dallas. The assassination remains a perennial American whodunnit with the official Warren Report (Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone) to the Church Commission (no, it was a group) to prevailing theories of intelligence agencies, organized crime, and even a loose confederacy set up by Lyndon B. Johnson. No matter which way you lean in terms of who was behind the murder, the Presidential limousine is an important icon of that tragic day and it has a surprising history.
JFK was the first President assassinated in the Presidential limousine, a customized 1961 Lincoln Continental. This was not a standard vehicle, by any means, Hess and Eisenhardt made the armored modifications necessary for a Presidential vehicle. Just to see how much work goes into a Presidential limo, the original vehicle at the time cost about $7,300 but the modifications ran over $200,000 and that was back in 1961. Technically, the Ford Motor Company remained the legal owner of the vehicle and it was leased to the Secret Service for $500 a year. While many alterations were made to make the vehicle more secure, one unusual modification made to the car was making it over three feet longer. The extension was accomplished by cutting the car in half and adding the new section which made the backseat area far roomier and suitable for use in parades.
After the tragic assassination on November 22, 1963, the car was taken by cargo plane to Washington, D.C. where it was analyzed by the Secret Service, the FBI, the Warren Commission, and maybe others. After an inspection by the FBI, the car was then driven back to the White House. This was not the only car Kennedy used that day; he had been driven in a white 1963 Lincoln Continental from the hotel to Carswell Airforce Base. Although this vehicle was named Limo 1, it was never part of the Presidential fleet. It belonged to a local car dealer and was returned to him afterward. The white Limo 1 is still a historically important car, even if it had no part in the assassination that day. It was bought and sold a few times, the last known time was in 2020. The last time Limo 1 was sold at auction it fetched over $375,000.
The original windshield of the death car was removed by the FBI and Secret Service almost immediately and replaced with a new one. The original windshield is for all intents and purposes not available for inspection. Conspiracy theorists say that the windshield might provide evidence of a second shooter. Lone-nutters (the conspiracy theory nickname for those who advocate that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone as the famous “lone nut”) say the windshield is not relevant and much of the vehicle has been replaced.
However, if Kennedy were shot with two bullets from behind, the windshield would show one thing; but if there was a second shooter who shot from the front, it might reveal evidence of a gunshot that came from the front.
Enter Chris Barry. Barry is a glass expert who was consulting with the Smithsonian about the best sort of glass to use to protect the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While he was in Washington, D.C. working with the Smithsonian, Barry was asked if would help move a piece of glass—the windshield from Kennedy’s limousine. Barry said that it was immediately evident that there was a crack in the windshield, but it was in the front, not the back, which contradicts the Warren Report which claims, “The windshield was not penetrated by any bullet.” The Warren Report offered the explanation that the lead residue that caused the crack came from one of the bullets that struck the President from behind. Barry conducted experiments and without publishing results did say that he came to believe the Warren Commission versions.
However, when the limousine was brought to Detroit after the assassination to be rebuilt, a worker there reported that he was ordered to destroy the original windshield, which had a clear through-and-through bullet hole from the front. This story has likewise been disputed. Removing the windshield from the vehicle has made its provenance and current whereabouts controversial.
In December 1963 (shortly after the assassination), the car was brought back to the Ford Motor Company in Michigan and renovated and improved by Hess & Eisenhardt, this time to the tune of $500,000. A non-removable roof was added and the paint job was changed from the original midnight blue to black. Extra reinforcements and armor were added. It has been estimated that this renovation actually replaced 80% of the original vehicle and some original parts were discarded. A small detail is the addition of two metal handgrips on the exterior of the trunk so that Secret Service detail could more easily jump aboard the vehicle if it was moving slowly.
The decision to make such extensive and costly renovations to a vehicle involved in a murder seems unusual. A new car might have been cheaper and, besides, the Presidential fleet had more than enough cars even if this one were taken entirely out of service. In fact, the Secret Service acquired additional vehicles for the Presidential fleet in the years after the assassination.
Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) who succeeded JFK to the White House after the assassination then used that very same death limousine for himself, although he alternated with other vehicles. Nixon, Ford, and Carter also road around on official events in the car in which JFK was killed. It seems bizarre that LBJ would want to ride in that limousine—after all, LBJ was there that day, in the very same motorcade just a couple of cars down. Conspiracy theorists who think that LBJ was involved in the assassination (and there are many) say LBJ used the car as a trophy. Others report that while LBJ did indeed use the car again, he favored other vehicles and found riding in the assassination limo eerie.
In 1966, LBJ traveled on the first of two trips he made to Australia to thank that nation for its support of the war in Vietnam. For the visit, LBJ had the limo transported to Sydney, Australia, as his official vehicle. Far from finding the vehicle eerie or haunting, LBJ expressly wanted to tour Australia in that specific car. Protestors enraged over the Vietnam War protested his motorcade and threw paint on the limo. Never one to pinch a penny, LBJ sent the limo back to the United States where the Ford factory to repaint the limo. The Ford team did the work in about one hour … Oh, and then they flew the limo back again to Australia on Air Force 1 in time for LBJ’s next public appearance Down Under.
It was not until 1977 that the Kennedy assassination vehicle was retired from service. Since 1979, it has been on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Before it came to rest in Michigan, it was renovated again in 1967 with a new air conditioner and more reinforcements. The extra reinforcements came because LBJ allegedly “leapt” into the car and damaged the rear deck behind the seat. LBJ was a big man, but it has never been clear why he was horsing around in the car.
The Secret Service gives code names to everything; JFK’s personal code name was Lancer. The code name for the vehicle in which Kennedy died as X-100. The addition of the X-100 came at a time when the Presidential fleet already had 10 limousines, some of which had been around since the Truman era. Some of the older vehicles had a special adaptation giving the President more headroom so he could ride around in the top hats worn in bygone eras. The X-100 was the newest and most technically advanced car in the fleet and it is why Kennedy wanted it for the Dallas event. In November 1963, X-100 was the best, biggest, and newest limo in the fleet.
The limousine contained two radio telephones, which were a major technological innovation for the time. Other technical marvels were interior floodlights, flagstaffs on the fenders with their own dedicated spotlights, and three removable roofs. The car came with the standard convertible roof made of fabric. It had another removable metal roof that could be used, and a third roof was a clear “bubble” type roof that allowed the President to be seen but protected. The roofs were modular in design and could be swapped out depending on what the President liked. Kennedy liked to be seen and considered isolating himself unpresidential. In fact, JFK did not like his wife Jackie to wear her trademark oversized sunglasses on official occasions, because it hid her face from the public. This “openness” likely caused Kennedy to want to forego the roof of the car or other protections.
The limousine had a special hydraulic seat for the President which could elevate him 11 inches above a normal seat, making it easier for the masses to see him in parades. This clearly did not work to his benefit on the day he was shot. Later on, when a permanent roof was added to X-100, Nixon had a cutout made so that he could stand up in the vehicle and wave to the crowds. Nixon apparently did not feel that it would tempting fate to stand unprotected in a car that was once involved in an assassination.
Most recently, 88-year-old Secret Service agent Paul Landis reported that on that fateful day when Kennedy was killed, he removed a bullet from the car and left it on the stretcher where the dying President lie at Parkland Hospital. That means that almost 60 years after the assassination, witnesses are still coming forward with serious evidence. On the day of the murder, Landis was the new guy on the job (his Secret Service handle was “Debut”—they had code names for each other as well as cars and protectees) and he mostly worked on the First Lady’s detail.
Although Landis says he found the bullet amid the mess and gore in the car on the tragic day, he never said anything but only placed the bullet on the blanket on the president’s stretcher. He claimed he was not trying to conceal the bullet, but rather protect it. Since he never said anything about it, he was never interviewed by the FBI and never interrogated by the Warren Commission. The bullet was found at Parkland Hospital but no one knew how to explain it. A few months after the assassination, Landis quit the Secret Service. The Landis story is disputed. Pretty much everything about the JFK assassination is disputed.
The National Archives holds thousands of documents related to the JFK assassination, but not all of them have been released to the public. Already 13,000 have been made public, but this is still not all of them. Trump promised to release these documents and released thousands… but not all of them. Biden promised to release the rest of them and he released 1,491 more… but not all of them. It’s been 60 years … what secrets are they protecting?