By John Gunnell
It’s been 50 years since my high school principal announced over the PA system that President John F. Kennedy had been killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. Those who experienced similar announcements the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, will never forget the quiet days after the shooting and the scenes of JFK leaning on his wife, Jackie, in the back of his specially built presidential parade car. That car, now housed in The Henry Ford museum, may be one off the most valuable historic vehicles in the world today.
“Though I’ve covered a lot of auctions for Old Cars Weekly over the past two decades, JFK’s SS-100-X Lincoln is one vehicle where I simply can’t imagine what sort of the price it could fetch if The Henry Ford were ever to put it up for sale,” advised Gregg D. Merksamer, publicity chairman for the Professional Car Society (professionalcarsociety.org). “There may be no other car whose historical significance is acknowledged so universally. So long as they’re old enough to remember Dallas, even members of the general public who know little or care little about cars will remember it vividly.
“The only car that remotely compares might be the Austrian-built Graf und Stift in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914,” Merksamer suggested. “I believe that car remains on prominent display in Vienna’s Military Museum, owing to its central role in the event that sparked World War I. As for head-of-state cars at the same level of recognition that have actually gone to auction, the Adolf Hitler Mercedes 770K parade car that fetched a record price in the ’70s ($153,000 in 1973) might serve as a guide, if you can somehow adjust for the growth of the old car hobby, in addition to inflation.”
Experts such as William Siuru Jr. and Wayne Lensing have researched the history of the SS-100-X for nearly a half century. Siuru wrote the book “Presidential Cars and Transportation” that Old Cars Weekly published in 1995. Lensing owns Historic Auto Attractions (www.historicautoattractions.com) in Roscoe, Ill., which includes cars owned by all U.S. Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack H. Obama. Lensing owns two other Kennedy Lincolns himself and displays them and the 1956 Cadillac that followed the SS-100-X in Dallas in his “Day in Dallas” exhibit hall.
The SS-100-X presidential car (the Lincoln’s Secret Service code name) in which JFK was killed began assembly at the Lincoln plant in Wixom, Mich. in January 1961. Hess & Eisenhardt of Cincinnati, Ohio, was responsible for the special “limousine” conversion, although the SS-100-X is more accurately described as a “parade car.” It could be transformed from a four-door convertible into a semi-closed or full-closed car with several detachable protective bullet-resistant canopies and roofs.
The well-known professional car builder chopped the factory-built Lincoln four-door convertible in half, reinforcing it and extending it 3-1/2 feet. Many other modifications were planned by Ford and by Hess & Eisenhardt, with both companies sharing engineering responsibilities. The White House introduced the car to the public in June 1961. The car was registered to Ford and the automaker leased it to the Secret Service for the nominal price of $500 per year.
A standard 1961 Lincoln had a retail price of $7,347. According to former The Henry Ford museum curator Randy Mason’s book “The Saga of the X-100,” the changes and upgrades made to the car cost nearly $200,000 in 1961 (or approximately $2.2 million in 2013 dollars). The car’s special features included the removable steel and transparent plastic roof panels; a hydraulic rear seat that could be raised 10-1/2 inches to elevate the president; a massive heating and air conditioning system with auxiliary blowers and dual control panels; dark blue broadcloth lap robes with gray plush linings and hand-embroidered presidential seals housed in special door pockets; four retractable steps for Secret Service agents; two steps on the rear bumper for additional agents; flashing red lights; a siren; a blue mouton rug in the rear compartment; lamps that indicated when the door was ajar or the steps were out; dual flagstaffs and spotlights; auxiliary jump seats for extra passengers; two radio telephones; and interior floodlights.
A number of changes were made to SS-100-X both before and after the Kennedy assassination, many of which it retains. In 1963, the grille was replaced with a 1962 Lincoln Continental unit and sombrero-style wheel covers like those of the 1957 Lincoln Premiere were added. Trunk lid grab handles for Secret Service agents were also installed.
The day president Kennedy died, Willard C. Hess felt it in a personal way. Tom McPherson, a personal friend of Hess, has done extensive research on the car that included interviewing Hess, as well as Hess & Eisenhardt employees, White House employees and former Secret Service agents.
“The trail of SS-100-X following the assassination if fairly clear,” McCall recently wrote. “According to Secret Service records, at approximately 1:09 p.m. on November 22, the presidential limousine and the Secret Service security vehicles departed Parkland Hospital and returned to Love Field (in Dallas). They did not stop, but were driven directly to the C-130 Hercules (military airplane) assigned to take them back to Washington. At 3:35 p.m. the C-130 carrying the vehicles departed Love Field. The transport plane carrying the presidential limousine landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 8:05 that evening and was driven, with a police escort, directly to the White House garage at 22nd and M Streets NW.
“There the car remained in seclusion with high security while Federal Agents and Secret Service investigators examined it extensively,” McPherson continued. “On Dec. 20, 1963, SS-100-X was ‘released’ by the White House and was subsequently driven by a Secret Service agent back to the Ford Motor Co.’s Engineering Research Division in Dearborn, Mich. Ford Motor Co. returned the car to Hess & Eisenhardt. The (limousine) company accepted delivery of the SS-100-X at its Rossmoyne plant on Tues., Dec. 24, 1963.”
According to McPherson, the Secret Service agents tried their best to clean the interior and did a pretty good job, but there were still signs of the trauma when it arrived at Hess & Eisenhardt.
Hess then went to Washington himself. “We had worked on that car,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1991. “We had a personal pride in it.” Hess felt that if the president had used the removable bubble top, he might not have been killed.
Hess was named a consultant to the Warren Commission, which was appointed by President Johnson to investigate the assassination. In 1964, Hess spoke to the Cincinnati Rotary Club and described the SS-100-X as “The most fabulous automobile built in this decade,” yet it is said that the tragedy of the assassination lingered in Hess’s mind for many years afterwards.
After the assassination, the SS-100-X was technically impounded as evidence. Soon thereafter, a committee of 30 people discussed plans to modify the car and return it to the White House. Ultimately, six representatives from the Secret Service, Army Materials Research Center, Hess & Eisenhardt and Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. made a plan to rebuild the SS-100-X. The work started in December 1963 and included completely re-armoring of rear passenger compartment and the addition of a permanent non-removable top with transparent armor. According to Merksamer, the “glass on its own reportedly cost $125,000 in 1964 dollars to fabricate.”
During this “quick fix,” the engine was also replaced with a hand-assembled, high-compression unit providing approximately 17 percent more horsepower. Other changes included the addition of a second air conditioning unit in the trunk, the addition of secret electronic communication devices, reinforcement of some mechanical and structural components to accommodate the added weight of other changes, a complete re-trimming of the rear compartment and a new paint treatment in Regal Presidential Blue Metallic with silver metallic flakes.
In 1967, the SS-100-X underwent additional Hess & Eisenhardt modifications including the revision of the air conditioning system and additional armor. The entire car was taken down to bare metal to remove dents and repaint the body. In the following 10 years, other minor modifications were made as well. Front bumper guards were added and their built-in red flasher lamps were replaced with red lights in the grille. During President Richard M. Nixon’s administration, the large one-piece glass roof was replaced by one that had a smaller glass area and a hinged panel to permit him to stand during parades.
The SS-100-X remained in the White House fleet until 1977, and was occasionally used by presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter.
Hess & Eisenhardt was sold to the O’Gara Cos. in 1982. It operated the O’Gara Hess & Eisenhardt Armoring Co. In 1985, Hess invited a group of people who had worked on the car to his home in Wyoming, Ohio, to view a replica of the SS-100-X and reminisce about his firm. Charles Eisenhardt, Hess’ partner, died in 1988, but retirement was far from Hess’ mind. He continued to lecture on the cars of his company until he passed away in 2000. His son, J. Daniel Hess, said, “He didn’t work — his work was his hobby and his life.”