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|Not Found on eBay: The "Other" President Kennedy Lincoln Limousine, SS-297-X|
|Written by Rich Truesdell|
|Monday, 24 May 2010 21:30|
While 100-X is well known as the car in which President Kennedy was assassinated, a second 1962 Lincoln Continental with presidential connections goes on the block this August at Pebble Beach.
For many of us, 22 November 1963 is forever etched in our memories. We all remember exactly where we were when we first learned of the assassination of President Kennedy. For me, it was a third-grade classroom at Hamilton School in Union, New Jersey. A half hour later, I watched as Walter Cronkite announced that President Kennedy had died. In the years afterward, I studied the assassination, even writing my senior undergraduate term paper on the debunking of the so-called "magic bullet theory." The theory, part of the Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination, had been suggested by Arlen Specter (the same Arlen Specter who went down to defeat in last week's Pennsylvania Democratic Senatorial Primary). It held that a single bullet caused multiple non-fatal wounds to both President Kennedy and former Texas Governor John Connolly. In the course of my research, I looked over countless photos of the Presidential Lincoln Continental Limousine, which today is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
If you have a half-million dollars in open credit on your home-equity account, and you'd like to own a related piece of history, mark 13-14 August 2010 on your calendar and plan to be at the Portola Hotel & Spa and Monterey Conference Center in Monterey, California. There, RM Auctions will offer for sale the car best known as the 1962 Lincoln Continental "Bubbletop" Kennedy Sedan at their 25th annual Sports and Classics event, one of the highlights of the week surrounding the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
This is the second time the "Continental Bubbletop" has appeared on the block at an RM Auction. Back in 2005, the car sold at the Automobiles of Arizona January auction, where it was a top-10 sale at $632,500. Known simply by its Secret Service designation 297-X, the vehicle was First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's favorite when it was part of the White House pool. In addition to the First Family, other notables who have taken a ride in 297-X include Pope Paul VI, Mrs. Lopez Mateos, the First Lady of Mexico, President Lyndon Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson, Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Spiro Agnew, President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos and wife Imelda, and the Apollo astronauts and their wives. Given such a passenger list, 297-X is one of the most important parade cars in American history--and very probably the most important example available to private collectors.
The following background information is edited from the results published in 2005, when 297-X was first sold by RM Auctions.
This stunning example of the now-classic 1961 to 1965 Continental series was a radical departure from the Lincolns that preceded it. Consolidating multiple model series, the downsized 1961 Lincoln abandoned body-on-frame construction, using instead a unit-body structure combined with its now-famous front- and rear-hinged suicide doors. In the eyes of most critics of automotive design, the 1961-1965 Continental (and to a lesser degree the 1966-1969 models) is recognized as a benchmark of mid-century design, with style, refinement, and good taste replacing excessive length and otherworldly fins. The car grew out of a Thunderbird styling exercise created by Elwood P. Engel and shares many parts of its overall structure with the 1961-1963 Ford Thunderbird luxury sports coupe and convertibles. In fact, both were built at Ford's Wixom, Michigan plant, which closed down in 2007 as part of the company's Way Forward restructuring (but not before its special assembly facility was involved in the production of the 2005-2006 Ford GT).
The design, styling, and engineering process on the 1961 Continental began in late 1958. Ford management quickly accepted the plans, and the vehicle was rushed to completion to meet model-changeover deadlines for the summer of 1960. In retrospect, the rush to settle on a final design and begin production tooling was fortuitous. Frilly embellishments and styling gimmicks had made its predecessor, the Continental Mark V, the poster car for the excesses of the previous Lincolns and truly defined the term Land Yacht. With the 1961 Continental, there was simply no time to mess with the simple, clean, and elegant design created by Engel, John Najjar, and the "stiletto studio" team. From every exterior angle, the car's look is timeless. (Engel carried over much of the design to the Imperial and Chrysler Turbine Car--which looks like a radical redesign of his 1961 Thunderbird design--when he moved on to Chrysler in 1961.) The 297-X Lincoln shares its drivetrain with production Continentals, as it is equipped with Lincoln's whisper-quiet 300-horsepower, 430-cubic-inch V8 engine backed up with a smooth-shifting, three-speed, automatic transmission. Unlike the 100-X Lincoln, which rides on a stretched 153-inch wheelbase, the 297-X rides on a standard Lincoln Continental 123-inch wheelbase.
The Continental's distinctive suicide rear doors were dictated by the decision to make it smaller than its predecessors. Built on a wheelbase 10 inches longer than the new unit-body 1961 Thunderbirds, the Continental was still short for a four-door luxury car (the all-new 1961 Cadillac was built on a 129.5-inch wheelbase). Engel's Continental was distinguished by its plain but eloquent elegance. Its gently convex side panels were free of any highlights, embellished only by the thin door handles and a discrete Continental identification on the rear fender. A thin, restrained chrome strip topped the fender peaks, ending at the front and rear in almost identical profiles. The greenhouse was set midway between a vast expanse of hood and an equally vast deck lid. The 1961 grille was, some said, picked up from the 1961 Thunderbird and, for 1962, was refined with a more formal design that ran through 1964.
The 1961 Continental was one of the lowest luxury automobiles of its era, the byproduct of an innovative driveshaft lowered as far as possible to reduce the interior tunnel. This gave the interior a sense of space that belied its more compact dimensions. What isn't well known is that the 430-cubic-inch V8 and transmission were canted back at a seven-degree angle to drop the back of the transmission. Ford's designers worked with Dana engineers to develop a special universal joint at the transmission to accommodate the constant angular difference. Other challenges included fine-tuning the unit-body construction to noise, vibration, and harshness levels that met contemporary luxury-car standards (most competitive luxury cars used traditional body-on-frame structures that allowed for the use of bushings to tune-out road vibrations). To ensure the Continental's quality, each engine was dyno-tested for three hours. Each finished Continental was driven on the streets and expressways near the Wixom assembly plant before returning to have any defects corrected. Each car was then given a high-pressure water test, put on a lift to check for leaks, and given a front-end realignment before being released for delivery.
With all this as a backdrop, the Continental's stature and expression made it a natural fit with the Kennedy White House: a confident, expansive, but also generation-shifting environment that combined homegrown American success with flair, style, and sophistication. Ford Motor Company had a long-established relationship with the White House fleet. So, it was only natural that the Treasury Department's Secret Service turned to Ford to supply the automobiles that transported President Kennedy, his family, and their official guests. Ford, in turn, relied upon the experienced firm of Hess & Eisenhardt to make the numerous changes that White House fleet service required. The first White House Continental was a 1961 convertible designated 100-X by the Secret Service. Extensively modified--including a major stretch of the wheelbase to make room for comfortable jump seats suitable for dignitaries--it was the primary parade car of the Kennedy White House. Routinely flown ahead of the Presidential party to affairs of state and important events, it proved so successful in both practical and aesthetic terms that the Secret Service requested a second car.
The car that would be known as 297-X was ordered by the White House in 1961. As a 1962 model, it has the more attractive grille and front bumper that replaced 1961's electric razor grille. Built on the Continental convertible's unit-body structure but with a fixed roof, it replaced a 1950 Lincoln seven-passenger convertible acquired during the Truman administration. The 1950 convertible was modified at Dwight D. Eisenhower's suggestion in 1954 with a three-piece, removable, Plexiglas roof over the back seat, offering protection from the elements while still allowing onlookers to see the occupants at parades and functions. The 1962 Bubbletop received similar but much more sophisticated treatment from Hess & Eisenhardt, appropriate to the standard of technical sophistication and luxury of the 1962 Lincoln Continental. The dash shows the separate controls for what has been described as its "problematic" air-conditioning system, challenged on hot days when the bubbletop was in place.
The Bubbletop converts into a formal limousine with the installation of a black vinyl skin over the Plexiglas roof. When not needed, the formal cover stows in the trunk, available for quick conversion and allowing the Continental Bubbletop to be used for different purposes when it traveled with the Presidential party. Due to its constant use, the original vinyl roof was unfortunately lost while in storage. Over its years in the White House fleet, the Continental Bubbletop's luxurious and spacious interior hosted an endless stream of dignitaries, diplomats, and important guests. This Continental itself is not armored but has a number of special features carefully created by the craftsmen at Hess & Eisenhardt in Cincinnati. A full set of warning lights and sirens is integrated into the bumpers (along with flag mounts in the front fenders). The windows are made of Herculite safety glass. While in service, the car had separate two-way radios in the front and rear compartments (since removed for security reasons) and a radio telephone for the rear-seat occupants. A full partition with divider window separates the front and rear compartments, and there are dual air conditioning systems.
Highlighting the Continental Bubbletop's inherent purpose are two fluorescent spotlights mounted at the base of the divider. They are focused on the rear-seat occupants so that even at night the Plexiglas canopy could serve its purpose of letting spectators catch a glimpse of the fortunate people whose public stature and accomplishments earned them seats in this most exclusive of all limousines. Luxuriously appointed with the finest materials, the Continental Bubbletop 297-X is upholstered in black leather up front and a combination of light-blue leather and cloth in the rear. It was in the White House fleet until 1970. Ford donated the vehicle to the Henry Ford Museum in 1972. In 1985, the car was purchased by and displayed at the renowned Imperial Palace Collection before entering the private collection from which it was sold in 2005. It has been meticulously and consistently maintained, first by the U.S. Secret Service, for whom reliability and the comfort and security of passengers is the utmost concern, and later by its succession of caring owners who recognized the car's unique historical importance. Its odometer shows only 15,200 miles, although it presumably has many more than that in the belly of Air Force cargo planes carrying it on its frequent ceremonial trips abroad.
"This is undoubtedly the most historically significant car ever sold by RM," says Rob Myers of RM Auctions. "The Bubbletop might be the most important presidential car ever offered at auction. The list of dignitaries who have used the vehicle is extensive and we expect there will be considerable interest in this rare piece of American history."
Come August, one automotive enthusiast will have the opportunity to own not just a unique one-off version of the classic 1961-1965 Lincoln Continental series, a landmark American motor car, but one with historic and Presidential provenance. To this day, it remains a powerful symbol of America's Camelot Era, when America's can-do spirit was personified by a youthful president whose life was cut all too short on that fateful day in Dallas.