They come from across the country to southeast Michigan. Their hushed voices fill a hallway. They take turns stepping toward a railing along the right side of a display, where they stop and stare with solemn faces. They stand not before a casket, but a 1961 Lincoln Continental.
The vehicle is the presidential motorcade car that carried President John F. Kennedy to his death in Dallas. On exhibit at The Henry Ford, a history museum in Dearborn, Mich., bouquets of flowers are often placed near the rear right side of the car where Kennedy sat when an assassin's bullets took his life on Nov. 22, 1963.
As the nation prepares to observe the 50th anniversary of his death later this month, the Lincoln has again become a focal point for curiosity seekers and somber reflection.
The reaction the Continental elicits from visitors is not unlike the first one to death: Momentary disbelief. Visitors try to reconcile the car of their memories with the car parked in front of them, and there's good reason they're confused. The car looks nothing like it did 50 years ago. Conspiracy theorists could have a field day with the discrepancies.
Then, it was painted midnight blue. Today, it is black.
Then, it was a convertible. Today, a permanent roof has been installed.
Then, the front grille contained ordinary side-by-side headlights. Flashers were installed along the bottom. Today, the headlights function as the flashers, white on the outside and red on the inside.
The truth is that, as Kennedy's death altered the course of the country, it also altered the course of the car. As a result, this '61 Lincoln Continental is perhaps the most innovative, maligned, reconstructed, historic, macabre, timeless, patriotic, overhauled, antiquated, well-traveled, visited vehicle in American history. An automotive icon. A death car. A historic artifact.
It was literally driven out of one era and into the next. Historians have said America's innocence died with Kennedy. That may be a cliché, but in one small way, it's also true.
Since William Taft converted the White House stables into a presidential garage in 1909, vehicles used in presidential motorcades had always been stock vehicles. Small modifications were made, but at their mechanical guts, they were the same cars driven by ordinary citizens. Following the Kennedy assassination, they became specialized armored behemoths.
The '61 Continental was, at once, the last of its kind and the first of a new breed. And unlike Kennedy, its journey did not end in Dallas.
This is the stock '61 Lincoln Continental convertible. (Photo: Ford Motor Company).
It was a great time for cars in America.
Production of new cars had been halted during World War II, and automakers returned to the marketplace in the 1950s with some of the most elegant and ambitious vehicles ever made. A new American culture was created, and it revolved around the car.
On June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation that created the Interstate Highway System, which connected the country like never before. What better literal vehicle to traverse the open continent than the new Lincoln Continental, which had just returned to production after an eight-year hiatus.
"It was absolutely a great cruising car," said Bob Kreipke, Ford's corporate historian. "Very comfortable, very spacious. ... People say those were big old boats and stuff like that, but those were gorgeous cars, and when you went somewhere in a car like that, you traveled in luxury."
Flush with optimism, Ford opened the Wixom Assembly Plant on April 15, 1957, where it would manufacture Lincolns on the western edge of the Detroit suburbs.
Out of that backdrop, plans emerged for a new presidential limousine.
President Kennedy departs Andrews Air Force Base on Dec. 9, 1961. (Photo: AP).
Creating The Continental
Building a new presidential vehicle required a massive undertaking. From start to finish, it would take four years to conceive and build the '61 Continental convertible.
Ford designers and Secret Service officials began sketching plans in 1957. The car's creation would involve "mechanics, metal artisans, upholsters, leather cutters, painters, pattern makers, tool makers, a jewelry maker, electricians, steel shapers ... stylists, engineers and many others," according to Ford documents.
Plans were finalized. Ford began building the car at Wixom Assembly on March 3, 1961.
Months earlier, the same hands that built the Lincoln along the assembly line had pulled levers for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy had won bellwether Michigan's 20 electoral votes by two percentage points, almost exclusively on the strength of burgeoning middle-class voters in greater Detroit.
When the workers were finished, a custom-body firm, Hess & Eisenhardt, took their brand-new creation and butchered it, literally cleaving it in half.
Engineers transformed a stock vehicle into one fit for the president. Over two months, they lengthened the car by 41.3 inches, which allowed for the addition of two jump seats in the midsection. They raised the height of its fold-up roof by 3.3 inches, a necessity mandated by what politicians called "top hat dignity." Under the hood, they added a special transmission that could sustain "parade pace" speeds for hundreds of miles and installed a heavy-duty fuel pump.
Visibility had been emphasized throughout the Continental's design. Rear seats could be mechanically raised, allowing the president to be more easily seen by onlookers. Designers concealed door handles in long, straight bodylines.
The car's sharp-cut rectangular frame made the humped, rounded figure of the 1950 Lincoln limousine used by Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy look like a relic of a quaint era. At a cost of $195,000, Ford and Hess & Eisenhardt had made a presidential automobile for the space age.
One of the final touches was the paint job. Designers selected midnight blue, a minimalist color that Crayola had added it to its spectrum only in 1958. Under the sun, it shone a deep, metallic blue. In the dark of night, it appeared black.
The motorcade of President Kennedy makes its way along Main Street in Dallas. (Photo: AP).
The Trip To Dallas
Shortly after the car joined the White House garage on June 14, 1961, Kennedy left a standing order that the roof be left off the Continental so long as weather permitted, a desire he reiterated during a trip to Tampa, Fla., four days before the assassination.
Rain showers cleared the Dallas area by mid-morning on Nov. 22, 1963, and Secret Service agents made the decision to leave the roof off the limousine as they readied it for a 45-minute motorcade from Love Field to the Trade Mart, where Kennedy was scheduled to deliver a speech to local businessmen.
In the years that followed, the decision to travel through the heart of a hostile city without a roof would be scrutinized by the Warren Commission, but neither the bubbletop nor vinyl one were bullet proof or even bullet resistant.
The limousine, which used the code names X-100 and 100-X as designated by the Secret Service, had traveled aboard a C-130 military transport aircraft from Houston, where Kennedy had been the previous afternoon. At 11:40 a.m., Air Force One arrived with the president and his entourage after a short flight from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth.
Fifteen minutes later, the two left Love Field together.
Though the Trade Mart and Love Field were separated by only three miles, trip organizers crafted a more circuitous route through downtown Dallas. "We had a motorcade wherever we went," Kenneth O'Donnell, the president's assistant, later testified before the Warren Commission. "It would be automatic," he said, to travel "through an area which exposes him to the greatest number of people."
The procession included 12 cars and at least 15 motorcycles ridden by Dallas Police Department officers. Secret Service agent Bill Greer drove the X-100, heading west along Main Street, north onto Houston Street and then, at 12:30 p.m., left onto Elm. They were five minutes from the Trade Mart.
Secret Service agent Clint Hill jumps on top of the '61 Continental after shots are fired. (Photo: AP).
After The Shooting
Hours later, the X-100 retraced the steps of the deceased president.
From Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was whisked in the frantic minutes following the shooting, the limousine and '55 Cadillac received a police escort to Love Field, where they drove aboard the C-130 and were flown to Andrews Air Force Base. Upon arrival, agents took the cars to the Secret Service garage in Washington, D.C.
Investigators spent a month with the Continental, finding skull and bullet fragments, cleaning upholstery and removing the windshield. In late December, they released the vehicle to an uncertain future and a cacophony of skeptics. A 30-person panel convened to decide its fate. It shouldn't drive again. It should be crushed. It should be warehoused.
But the federal government of the United States of America did not have another presidential limousine. Developing one could again take years. Macabre as it may be, it was faster to just rebuild the one the already had.
The '61 Continental survived, but underwent massive changes.
Secret Service agents shipped the car back to Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati, where engineers encased its body in armor and titanium plating and added the permanent, bulletproof roof. The gas tank was filled with a plastic foam that minimized the risk of explosion if bullets were fired into the tank. Bulletproof windows five layers thick were installed.
The roof ramped up the temperature in the rear seats, so a second air-conditioning unit was installed at the back of the car. With all the armor, the car's weight had ballooned from 7,822 pounds to 9,800 pounds, so a more powerful engine was put under the hood.
Lyndon Johnson had borrowed J. Edgar Hoover's car during his first months in office. When the Continental returned to service on May 11, 1964, Johnson was appalled. For all the transformation, the car was still painted midnight blue.
He feared the color would forever be tainted by the events in Dallas, forever linked to Kennedy's death. He ordered the Secret Service to paint it black.
The '61 Lincoln Continental sits on display at The Henry Ford. (Photo: AOL Autos).
Continental returns home
The 1961 Lincoln Continental served five of the nation's presidents over 16 years at the White House garage.
It loomed large over Johnson, who hated using the X-100 because of its link to Kennedy's death. Before it was used during his inauguration in January 1965, the Associated Press labeled it the "death car."
Over time, Kennedy's shadow over the vehicle would fade; The presidential tug between visibility and security continued.
Johnson wanted the ability to roll down the window so he could wave to onlookers during motorcades. A specialized motor was needed to handle the weight of the thick, bulletproof pane. Nixon had a hatch installed in the roof, so he could stand and be seen by crowds. Both updates essentially negated the countermeasures and armor installed after the assassination.
The Continental would spend the remainder of its years in the background. It traveled with Johnson to Vietnam, with Nixon to China, with Ford to the Soviet Union. It made its final foreign trip with President Carter in May 1977, carrying him around London and Newcastle for an economic summit.
Retirement awaited upon its return, and the car was given back to Ford, from which the federal government had leased the car for $500 a year.
The car that traveled the world returned to the place of its birth.
The Wixom Assembly Plant, where the car was originally built, is about 30 miles from Dearborn, where the Lincoln remains today. The factory observed its own 50th anniversary in 2007, the same year Ford decided to shutter its doors at the height of the recent recession.
Ford's world headquarters, where sketches of the presidential vehicle were first drawn in 1957, is about two miles down Oakwood Boulevard from The Henry Ford museum.
Inside the museum, there's a vintage Holiday Inn road sign displayed and an original McDonald's arches, two artifacts of Americana from the car culture's heyday. Nearby, sunlight streams in from two windows and falls upon a spot in a hallway, where the 1961 Lincoln Continental sits parked in permanent repose.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.
Sources for this story included: Ford Motor Company documents and archives; an interview with Bob Kreipke, Ford corporate historian; The Henry Ford archives; an interview with Matt Anderson, transportation curator at The Henry Ford; U.S. Secret Service archives; National Archives; Federal Election Commission records; Crayola's history website.