Bambino’s ’48 Lincoln is more than just a car for Texas man
Story by Brian Earnest
Photos by Della Moyer
Lonnie Shelton will never fully understand what possessed him to do it. He jokes about it being fate or some sort of divine intervention. Maybe it was just being in the right place at the right time.
Maybe it was the ghost of the Bambino giving him a little push from behind.
Whatever it was, Shelton, an accomplished muscle car collector from Pampa, Texas, could not get the 1948 Lincoln Continental out of his head. The beautiful Lincoln had once belonged to Babe Ruth — it was, in fact, the last car the Babe ever owned, and very likely the last car he drove before his death on Aug. 16, 1948.
But as far as Shelton was concerned, the car was out of sight and out of mind, even as it sat for many years in the Texas Museum of Automotive History in Dallas. This car should have been a celebrity in the automotive world, he figured. It should have been up there with any Elvis Presley Cadillac, Steve McQueen sports car or JFK limousine. Shelton was a huge car buff and he didn’t even know about the car until he stumbled upon it accidentally. Why was this historic and wonderfully original machine not getting the star treatment?
Somehow, he had to have it and make things right.
“I really couldn’t envision what I was going to do with this car … but I think there has been some destiny involved with it,” he concludes.
The saga began more than three years ago when Lonnie and his wife, Marilyn, went to Dallas to take care of their grandchildren for a few days. Such trips usually involved going to ball games, visiting the zoo and other such fun stuff. This particular trip included what Lonnie figured would be a brief stop at the Texas Museum of Automotive History, which he had never seen before.
“So we go to this old car museum, and we’re walking around and I’m telling all the kids about the cars, and we come around this curve and see this ’48 Lincoln Continental,” Shelton recalled. “Now, I would never even look at a Lincoln Continental. I’m a muscle car guy and a ’48 Lincoln is just not my thing, but standing next to the car is a silhouette … you know, one of those cutout things, and it’s a silhouette of Babe Ruth. So I said, ‘Let’s go over there and look at this,’ and I started reading about the car and everything and I was just in awe. I couldn’t believe it!
“I found a guy who worked there, and I asked him, ‘Sir, is this thing for real?’ He said, ‘What do you mean is it real?’ I said, ‘Did this thing belong to Babe Ruth? How come nobody ever hears about this car? This is a piece of American history.’ He said, ‘Well, we’re a non-profit, and we don’t have any money to spend on advertising. I guess anybody who hears about it, it’s through word of mouth.’
“I said, ‘People need to know about this car. It’s a 1948 Lincoln, Model 57, two-door hardtop, and the thing is just immaculate.’ So anyway, I talked to him awhile and he let me step over the ropes and look at it, and I just came away amazed at what I saw.”
Three years later, last summer, Shelton was on the phone with a man who had some vintage Dodge Charger parts for sale.
Unbeknownst to Shelton, the man was also the curator of the Dallas museum where the Babe Ruth car was still resting. The two eventually struck up a conversation about things other than Charger parts, and when the topic moved to the museum, Shelton brought up his continued fascination with the Babe Ruth car. “Finally he says, ‘I don’t know if this means anything, but are you interested in the car?’” Shelton said. “I said probably not, it probably wasn’t really in my realm of possibilities. Then he said, ‘Believe it or not, the gentleman who owns that car contacted us less than 48 hours ago and wants us to help him sell it.’ I said, ‘You gotta be kidding! How much do you want for it? He said, ‘I don’t know. Let me talk to the gentleman and we’ll get back to you.’”
Before he could learn any more about the car or who owned, it, Shelton was told he would have to come to the museum and sign a privacy agreement stating he would not disclose the owner’s identity or any of the details of the negotiations. “I said, ‘Well, let me go talk it over with my wife,’” Shelton said. “After I thought about it for a while, I told her, ‘You know, I’m just dumb enough to go back to Dallas and talk more about that car!’”
After some negotiations that lasted most of an afternoon, the two sides reached an unlikely deal and before he knew it, Shelton was driving home to Pampa with the Babe’s Lincoln in tow.
“That’s when things started going crazy,” Shelton laughed. “I bring the car back and get back home and the rumors start flying about me buying this car … Everybody is harassing me: ‘What are you buying an old Lincoln for? What are you gonna do with that?’ I said, ‘I know, I know, I don’t understand it all myself, other than just me being infatuated with this car belonging to Babe Ruth.’”
The stunning Regal Blue Continental was actually one of two Lincolns given to Ruth by Ford Motor Co. following his playing career. Following his retirement in 1935, the legendary Yankees slugger spent much of his time as a champion for youth, making hundreds of appearances around the country and driving his Lincolns (he was also given a 1940 Lincoln-Zephyr) to various functions as a champion of the national pastime. In 1947, he was even named a national director for American Legion baseball.
“He still had baseball blood flowing through his veins,” Shelton said. “The latter part of Babe Ruth’s life is really unique and a lot of people don’t know a lot of about it, and how he was so committed to kids and focused on kids.”
The Babe apparently racked up some serious miles in his blue Continental in the few months he had it before his health began to fail. The car has more than 81,000 miles on it, even though it has sat in museums and private collections for almost all of its life.
Following Ruth’s death from cancer, his widow Claire sold the car to a New York museum, “and they took it all around the country and it was shown in a lot of different places,” Shelton noted. “You’d pay 2 bucks or 3 bucks to see Babe Ruth’s car … Then in 1976 it was sold to a private collector in Minnesota and it went into a private collection and kind of fell off the radar at that point. Then in ’88 it was sold again to a gentleman in east Texas and he had it for several years until he loaned it to the museum in Dallas so it could be seen. Basically, it’s been in museum care all its life.”
The idea that Ruth probably spent a lot days behind the wheel of the Continental, hopping from one youth ballpark and function to another, clearly has Shelton enraptured. The fact that the car is in such pristine shape, and the ’48 Continental was such a beautiful automobile to start with, have made it a once-in-a-lifetime machine, even for a jaded high-end car fanatic.
“I’ve had a pot load of muscle cars. I’ve always loved cars, and always had cars,” Shelton says. “But this was not the kind of car that was on my radar. You want to talk ’Cudas, or Boss Mustangs, or Hemi cars or Six-Pack cars, I’ve owned all those. We can talk all day about those… but I had a lot to learn about a ’48 Lincoln.”
Before he could even become intimately familiar with the car, however, Shelton and his new purchase began generating a lot of local buzz in Pampa. The car was shown in a newspaper story, photographed in a minor league baseball park in Amarillo. The Lincoln then made an appearance at an Amarillo Sox game and before he knew it, Shelton had a calendar filling up with requests for his car.
That’s when, he says, everything started to finally make sense. Shelton was a baseball and car guy, he loved kids, and he had somehow been chosen to continue Babe Ruth’s work with children’s causes. The car would be a tool to raise money for charities, which the Sheltons decided would be the Scottish Rites Hospital For Children in Dallas, and the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
“We’ve been getting set up with Major League teams and minor league teams to take the car all over to ball parks … We’ve taken it to schools and the kids have spent the entire day going through this car! It’s been amazing to see the response,” Shelton said. “We’re going to Colorado next month … and we’ll be taking it Arizona for spring training. And we want to take the car to ballgames there. We want to put the car back in the batters box and raise money for kids. That’s what it’s all about.”
He said a pair of websites will be affiliated with the St. Jude’s and Scottish Rite hospitals to help receive donations. “We’re sorting through all of that right now,” he added.
To help showcase the Lincoln, Shelton has procured a unique see-through trailer. He saw the trailer several years ago when another car buff bought it at a Barrett-Jackson auction. The buyer rarely used the trailer, however, and willingly sold it to Shelton when he heard about the plans he had for it.
The trailer allows the car to be viewed from either side as it goes down the road, and helps with security, Shelton said. Sometimes, it seems like the trailer is almost as much of an attraction as the car.
“It’s a Pace trailer and it’s made of Lexam. It’s perfectly clear… It’s high-impact. It’s perfect,” Shelton laughed. “We’ve been driving down the highway pulling that car, and the back is black, so you can’t see the car from behind, but people will start to pass me, then just run along side me, or pass me and then drop back… They all want to see what’s inside. I had to stop for gas on our last trip and I had three cars lined up behind me and a guy pulled in with me and said, ‘I was hoping you’d stop! We want to know about that car in that trailer!’”
Of course, even if the car wasn’t associated with a baseball immortal, the 1948 Continental is still a noteworthy machine. Only 847 of the luxurious coupes were built for that model year at a hefty base price of $4,662. A total of 452 convertibles were also built for the model year.
The Continentals were powered by a V-12, 305-cid engine that could produce 130 hp. The cars are recognized as the last with V-12 power offered by any of the major U.S. car builders.
The four-wheel hydraulic brakes stopped an elegant, refined machine that rode on a 125-inch wheelbase. A hydraulic pump provided juice to the power windows. With its rear-mounted spare, skirted fenders and distinctive low roofline, the Continental was a car of prestige and privilege.
Today, the 1910-’48 Continentals (and 1939 prototype) are recognized as “Full Classics” by the Classic Car Club of America, and Shelton’s coupe may be the most recognized of them all, thanks to the recent hoopla. “It must have been in 50 newspapers and probably 100 websites,” he said. “It’s gone viral. It’s just crazy.”
Lest anybody doubt the vehicle’s authenticity, Shelton said he has “tons of documentation” proving its identity. “The Babe” license plates on either end are a dead giveaway, and a subtle trinket inside is even more proof. “Babe Ruth was raised in a catholic orphanage and he had some Catholic roots,” Shelton noted. “Well, stuck into the headliner right above the rearview mirror is a St. Christopher’s pendant that was in the car when Claire sold the car to the museum, and it’s still in the car… That pendant belonged to Babe Ruth according to all the paperwork I got.”
So far, Shelton has had to do very little work on the Lincoln. He suspects the paint was “professionally” touched up and a few nicks and stone chips might have been fixed at some point in the past. Shelton hasn’t done anything other than check things over, keep it clean and replace the car’s two water pumps. He’s only driven the Continental about 26 miles — just enough to get a feel for it and make sure it is running right.
“Mechanically, it purrs like a sewing machine,” he said. “It does have an overdrive … I drove it about 45 miles an hour, then got it up to 55, and it handles fine, but it does feel like you are in the Titanic. The suspension is not like anything in modern car, you kind of float. You wouldn’t want to fall asleep with it… And the hood sticks out there about 6 miles. It’s a very heavy car. I need to weigh the car and see what it does weigh, but there is more chrome on that car than there is metal in most new cars
“I’ll say this, it is a fun experience to ride in it.”
At age 61 and “semi-retired,” Shelton can’t hide his excitement over the possibilities that might come with owning “Babe’s Lincoln.” If he was looking for his next challenge in life, he seems to have found it. Raising money for charity and sharing his new treasure with the world could become his new full-time job.
“I feel honestly like destiny was involved,” he says. “This was just never a car was I was looking for, and there is no way I would ever end up with a car like this.
“But I just feel like if Babe is up there looking down, he’d be proud of how we’re using his car.”
Want a detailed guide to help identify American cars from 1946-1975? Check out our Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975 by John Gunnell.