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There it stands in the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Mich., the car that once conveyed a president and his wife down the main streets of Dallas on a brilliantly sunny day.
Half a century later, the 1961 Lincoln Continental four-door convertible sedan seems pathetically vulnerable. The current presidential limo, U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 Cadillac, can withstand (we are told) a rocket-propelled grenade attack, poison gas, a landmine — virtually everything except a direct hit with a nuclear warhead.
By contrast, John F. Kennedy’s Lincoln didn’t even have bulletproof doors, not to mention a permanent roof.
As it turned out, the inadequately equipped 1961 Lincoln was not the only problem confronting Kennedy on his last day on Earth in 1963. His human shields did not rise to the occasion. The Secret Service chauffeur, William Greer, and bodyguard Roy Kellerman, also riding in the car, thought the first shot fired at the president, which — according to some accounts — missed, was a firecracker, and they failed to react immediately.
As William Manchester, in his book , writes, “Kellerman and Greer were in a position to take swift evasive action and for five terrible seconds they were immobilized.”
In the curious 20th Century linkage between cars and assassination, two elements combine to determine the fate of the intended victim: a durable car and a skilled and cool-headed driver. It was this combination that saved the life of Charles de Gaulle in the 1962 assassination attempt mounted by the right-wing Secret Army Organization.
A dozen men sprayed De Gaulle’s Citroen DS 19 with gunfire, killing two motorcycle guards, shattering the rear window and puncturing at least one tire. It was due to the Citroen’s superior steering and suspension that it could accelerate out of a front-wheel skid and speed away from the gunmen.
That steering and suspension, however, would have been for naught had the chauffeur panicked on the occasion, lost control of the car, or failed generally to heed the first law of chauffeurs in assassination attempts: get the car and its passengers immediately out of the site of the shooting.
Unfortunately for assassination victims, including John F. Kennedy, the opposite combination is often the case — a faulty or inadequate car and a hapless driver.
Consider the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. The royal couple was seated in a 1911 Graf & Stift touring car, with its top turned down, when its driver made a wrong turn and attempted to reverse direction. The result was the engine stalled and the gears locked. Immobilization of a car presents assassins with their greatest opportunity and it proved so in this case, when an assassin happened to be standing by.
In some cases, of course, neither the car nor the driver can be blamed, as in the 1973 assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco, prime minister in Francisco Franco’s Spanish dictatorship. The prime minister’s Dodge 3700 was blown up as it drove over a remote-control bomb planted in the street.
A more striking instance is the 1961 killing of Rafael Trujillo, then brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic — a rare instance of car-on-car assassination. A Spanish mechanic rebuilt the engines of three cars belonging to the conspirators so they could go over 125 miles per hour, enabling them to overtake Trujillo’s 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.
On the night of the assassination, one car blocked the road ahead of Trujillo, while two followed behind him. As the Chevrolet Bel Air approached the roadblock, one of the two cars behind it drew alongside and opened fire. (The other car behind Trujillo, perhaps because its occupants lost their nerve, turned around and sped back to the city.)
At this point, Trujillo’s driver suggested doing a U-turn and accelerating out of the trap, but the wounded dictator insisted on getting out of the car and fighting it out, a fatal mistake. His chauffeur, a doughty fellow worthy of a far better employer, was hit several times as he engaged in the firefight, but miraculously survived. Several assassins were wounded. Trujillo was killed.
A similar incident happened in 1922 in Ireland when Michael Collins, travelling in a convoy as Commander-in-Chief of Ireland’s National Army, was attacked in a deadly roadside ambush.
At the onset of gunfire, Collins’ aide told the driver to “drive like hell” — again, the correct move from a security point of view, and one that would likely have saved the life of the commander.
But Collins, perhaps spurred by a feeling he was not going to flee an ambush in his own country, insisted on climbing out of the car and joining the fray. Before it was over, he lay on the ground, mortally wounded.
To “drive like hell” is always the preferred option of security personnel, particularly because there is no way of knowing how many shooters may be in the vicinity. Not to do so proves dangerous, but president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt had his reasons in February of 1933.
The U.S. president-elect gave a speech seated on the back of his touring car to a crowd in Miami’s Bayfront Park, (Roosevelt liked to deliver speeches in the back of this car, a convertible, because it hid his paralysis while allowing for handshakes.). After the speech was over and Roosevelt was lifted back into his front seat, an assassin named Giuseppe Zangara opened fire.
He missed Roosevelt but inadvertently hit the mayor of Chicago and a woman who stood behind the president. The Secret Service immediately ordered the car driven away with the president-elect safely inside, but Roosevelt insisted he not leave until the two other seriously wounded bystanders were picked up and driven to the hospital in his car.
While en route, he cradled the head of the fatally wounded mayor.
If there had been another shooter in the park, this delay in leaving might have proved a deadly mistake, not unlike that made by Trujillo and Collins, but this time the sole assassin was disarmed. Roosevelt’s display of calm and compassion was exactly what his country wanted to see.
Ronald Reagan’s insouciance after he was shot in 1981 made an impression on his audience, but with a president wounded there was no question of hanging around the scene of the crime. He was hustled into his 1972 Lincoln Continental and driven expeditiously to the hospital.
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