Zachary Berry
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The West Wing Wheels: John F. Kennedy

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Drive down Pennsylvania Avenue with the United States Presidents in this 10-part series

The West Wing Wheel

From Lincoln to Ford, the United States automotive industry has been greatly affected by the Presidents of the United States. Pardon the pun. However, cars have also had a profound impact on the presidents themselves. As the most powerful person in the country, the President of the United States needs a powerful set of wheels to get around. Each president of the 20th and 21st century possessed his own fleet of personal vehicles.

Sorry George. Only real presidential vehicles.

Sorry George. Only real presidential vehicles.

Over the years, the United States Presidents have owned some very interesting automobiles. From a 20th century electric car, to a car that drove on water, presidential cars are among the most cool and quirky in our country’s extensive history. In this installment of The News Wheel, I will examine the presidential vehicles of 10 of our country’s most famous and infamous leaders. So let’s explore the personal cars of the Commander in Chief with “The West Wing Wheels.”

John F. Kennedy: 35th President of the United States (1961-1963)


Now when I mention John F. Kennedy and cars in the same sentence, I’m certain images of a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible and a horrific scene in Dallas come to mind. I would be remiss if I did not mention the car that JFK was assassinated in. And I swear we’ll get back to it. However, that wasn’t the only car Kennedy drove in, and to save this entry of “The West Wing Wheels” from becoming too macabre or depressing, I think it’s important to talk about some personal vehicles that Kennedy owned and cherished.

In 1961, Ford was developing the third generation of its Thunderbird line of vehicles. The first entry in the generation was the 1961 Ford Thunderbird Convertible. The new vehicle was designed with a unique spear-like styling throughout the body of the vehicle. Due to this sleek design, the styling was nicknamed the “Bullet Bird.” It is speculated that Ford chose this unique design to resemble popular depictions of a spaceship.

A new style wasn’t the only thing that made this Thunderbird unique. The 1961 Thunderbird was larger and heavier than previous models. Its V8 engine thundered with the energy of 300 horsepower.

This beauty caught the eye of Kennedy, who purchased a Thunderbird for himself. He loved the 1961 Thunderbird. In fact, he loved it so much that his inaugural parade featured 50 identical Thunderbirds all lined up in a row.

JFK's Thunderbird did not include Fuzzy Dice. Photo: Pete Stephens

JFK’s Thunderbird did not include Fuzzy Dice
Photo: Pete Stephens

Kennedy wasn’t the only one who loved the 1961 Thunderbird. The powerful convertible was selected to serve as the pace car during the Indianapolis 500. The first year it was available, 70,000 1961 Ford Thunderbirds were purchased by the public.

Kennedy’s love of Thunderbirds continued into his presidency. He also owned a 1963 Thunderbird. This one was a hardtop instead of a convertible.

Now that we’ve talked about an amazing Thunderbird, it’s time to return to more somber topics. Yes, the 1961 Lincoln Continental was the car that Kennedy was in when he was assassinated. There’s more to the story of the car than just that, though. The Continental has a long history both before and after the assassination.

lincoln continental

A car fit for Camelot
Photo: Alvintrusty

The 1961 Lincoln, codenamed the SS-100-X, was assembled at the Wixom, Michigan, Ford plant in January of 1961. However, additional features and customizations were requested for the vehicle. Enter Hess & Eisenhardt, a coachbuilder located in Cincinnati.

Hess & Eisenhardt added several modifications to the vehicle, such as extending its length by 3.5 feet to allow for more passengers and inserting a hydraulic rear seat that could be raised by 10.5 inches, which allowed for the beloved president and his wife to wave at the audience.

What wasn’t included in the car were extensive safety upgrades. The midnight blue Continental was built during a time when something like the president getting shot in his car seemed unlikely. Unfortunately some of the most unlikely things are the ones that actually happen.

After the assassination, conspiracy theories emerged surrounding the event. Everything from the assassination being a mob hit to it being orchestrated by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was suggested. Some of the theories have even incorporated the Continental itself in some way.

We're pretty sure the 1961 Continental will be a clue in the next National Treasure movie.

We’re pretty sure the 1961 Lincoln Continental will be a clue in the next National Treasure movie.

After being involved in such a horrific chapter of American history, you would probably think that JFK’s 1961 Lincoln Continental would be retired from service.

And you would be wrong.

No, the Continental carried the president around long after JFK’s assassination and well into the term of our next president: Lyndon B. Johnson.

We are now halfway through “The West Wing Wheels.” To read about the conclusion of the 1961 Lincoln Continental, stay tuned for the next installment about President Johnson. Or if you’d rather, treat yo self to last installment’s chronicles of Truman’s Chryslers.




Source: LA Times, Forbes, Jalopnik,,