Friday, November 22, 2013

On the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, we visit his limousine in the Henry Ford Museum

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Of course, we talk about cars here, not controversy and politics, but there was obviously a car at the center of this incident: that infamous blue 1961 Lincoln SS-100-X limousine convertible.  You may or may not be aware that that car still exists.  It is one of the cornerstone displays at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.  I’ve been to that museum on a number of occasions, and Kennedy’s limousine shares space with some other very amazing automotive artifacts from throughout history.

That Lincoln still looks familiar, yet somehow different.  You might think the car would have been retired or scrapped after that incident, but it wasn’t.  Soon after Kennedy’s death it was sent back to coachbuilder Hess & Eisenhardt and up-fitted with an armor-plated top, more power, and a darker blue paintjob. The parade car continued to be used by presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter until it was finally retired in 1977. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look at that car and think about what it went through.

The Kennedy limousine isn't the only item in this collection that has huge historical significance. They actually have the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre in 1865. They have the Lincoln limousine next to which Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981. And they have a huge collection of historic weapons, steam engines, and industrial equipment. They call the Henry Ford Museum "America's Greatest History Attraction," and with these types of artifacts on display, they make a valid claim.

The General Motors bus that Rosa Parks famously refused to go to the back of is another major display. The first time I went to the museum it was really grubby and dilapidated, but now they have it beautifully restored and in its own display area. Even without the Rosa Parks angle, it is an exceptionally nice old city bus. But when you put it in the context of the racial inequality of 1955 Montgomery, Ala., it is much more significant.  You can actually sit in the bus and take pictures if you want.

Of course, there are plenty of other great planes, trains, and automobiles in this museum for your viewing pleasure. Some of the cars include Henry Ford's 999 racecar, a '48 Tucker, a spectacular 1930 Bugatti Royale, the first ever Mustang, the famous Goldenrod land speed record car, and several more significant presidential limousines. Look through this blog, and you'll see that I go to a whole bunch of car shows. But there are several cars that I would never have a chance to see in person if it weren't for this amazing collection.

The permanent vintage aircraft exhibit is better than many air museums, with a Ford Tri-Motor, a Spirit of St. Louis replica that was donated by Jimmy Stewart, a dead-wringer Wright Flyer, a 1926 Fokker Tri-Motor, and a 1920 Dayton-Wright racing plane that looks, for lack of a better term, scary as hell.  These are all in very cool displays, some mixed with cars or statues or other complimentary embellishments.  It’s probably hard to put a bunch of huge planes in a building and make them easy to look at, but the people that put this museum together somehow made it happen.

Trains? Yeah, they have those, too. Everyone’s favorite seems to be the #1601 Allegheny steam locomotive engine. It is one of the biggest trains ever built, and that bigness makes you feel a little like Edith Ann in her rocking chair. The literature said that it used so much coal that no person could ever shovel it in fast enough, so a conveyor belt was needed to keep it fed. It really was huge. It was used to haul coal from West Virginia to Virginia over the Allegheny Mountains in the 1940s, and was retired to the museum in 1954, where it hasn’t moved since. When it was driven into the building, the door had to be enlarged just to park it in there. It is one of only two Allegheny locomotives left in existence.

Other items of note in the museum include Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion aluminum house, a restored diner/lunch counter, an old Best Western Motel room, and a large tractor display. Of course, no one can forget the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile either.

So on this significant day, I present to you below a (somewhat blurry--sorry!) photo slideshow from my last visit to the Henry Ford Museum.  There is some pretty incredible stuff in there, so you might be surprised at what you see.  Here’s a link to a nicer version.

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