Fifty years later, visitors still pay their last respects.
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 week, 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. It is an automotive icon, a death car, and a historic artifact.
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.