the view through the windshield car blog

Remembering Camelot (posted 11/22/13)

Fifty years ago, America was changed forever. Thinking about it makes me feel so damn old. And sad.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a sunny Fall afternoon in Dallas, Texas. It was a profound event which became a defining moment for people of my age and truly marked the end the 16-year 'decade' known as 'The Fifties'.

Back then, I gave little thought to a half-century into the future. If anyone had asked, I don't think I could have imagined what the world of 2013 would be like, other than some vague Jetsons-inspired flotsam involving flying cars and silver jumpsuits.

I couldn't imagine what my life would be like either. As a 20 year-old college student, it was difficult to picture myself as an old man. I figured I'd die long before then - quickly and in a tragically-cool way - perhaps sliding off a cliff at high speed in a Bocar. That would impress all my car buddies, who would toast me with something alcoholic and expensive at my gravesite.

Some of the friends whom I visualized in that cemetery fantasy are now dead. I have toasted their lives, sent condolences to their families and mourned their passing. I never expected to experience that. O tempora! O mores!

Many of my pals are still alive and I celebrate that fact. When we visit these days, we often speak nostalgically about our pasts, remembering youth, stamina and unlimited mobility. And discuss the aches, medications and limitations of our present. Mortality is more apparent to us now.

As an optimistic kid of 20, I thought I was invincible. I carried much of that feeling into my 40s. I bet 46 year-old Jack Kennedy often felt that way too.

On a sun-drenched Friday afternoon in November 1963, I was leaving a Villanova University classroom after taking a thermodynamics exam. In the hallway, the professor pulled several of us aside and whispered, "The president's been shot in Texas." He had no further details, so I hurried to the parking lot, hopped in my red VW Beetle and clicked on its cheap aftermarket radio, waiting for the vacuum tubes to warm up.

Exiting Villanova's huge parking lot, I headed for home in Northeast Philadelphia. Just as I got on the Schuylkill Expressway, JFK's death was announced. Not knowing what to do, I turned on my headlights. As did most of the other cars on the road. The Schuylkill and Roosevelt Boulevard looked like a giant funeral procession that afternoon.

Driving home, I had a flashback to an October day in 1960, when a friend and I fastened a Kennedy-for-President poster to the front of my dad's 1956 Ford Mainline Tudor sedan and we drove up Frankford Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia about 500 yards ahead of the convertible in which candidate JFK was riding. (Try breaking into a Presidential candidate's motorcade today. You'll be quickly gunned down by Uzi-wielding Secret Service agents.) It was great fun and the crowds applauded. We were the warm-up act for Jack.

After several blocks, we turned onto a side street, hopped out of the Ford and got to wave at The Man Himself.

Returning to November 22, 1963, I soon learned that Kennedy had been shot while riding in his big navy blue Lincoln. That custom open parade car will always be associated with President Kennedy. Folks of a certain age, whether or not they're 'car people', think of Jack every time they see a dark-colored, '60s-era four-door Lincoln Continental convertible.

That slab-sided Lincoln design has become one more icon of the New Frontier which John F. Kennedy promulgated. At his inaugural, he said, "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it - and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

The torch had been passed. The old days were over; the future had arrived.

Think about it: President Eisenhower wore hats and was chauffeured around town in a big 'ol bulbous black 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan limo. It made sense. Ike was a white-haired, balding, kindly-looking old guy with glasses. My friends had grandfathers like that. They wore hats and had dowdy, 10 year-old cars. And they were married to grandmotherly-looking women, like Mamie Eisenhower. They played golf and were nostalgic about the olden times - America's Past.

Then Jack Kennedy came along - what a contrast. No glasses, no hat, a full head of rich, brown hair, a hot-looking, cosmopolitan babe of a wife. He was nobody's grandfather. He was a new generation - a man who looked forward, not backward: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

JFK represented America's Future - the promise of a bold, bright, perfect tomorrow. As Alan J. Lerner's lyrics from the Broadway musical, 'Camelot', proclaimed:

In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

It only made sense that such a President would be matched up with a new kind of car - not some big old chrome-laden whale but a contemporary car with clean lines - a sophisticated car to fit the kind of guy Jack was.

The vehicle was derived from the all-new 1961 Lincoln Continental - the one with the style-setting, slab-sided design. It was called SS-100-X and was built by Ford's Advanced Vehicles Group assisted by the coachbuilder, Hess & Eisenhardt. The stretched SS-100-X had a 156-inch wheelbase and was over 21 feet long. It weighed almost 8,000 pounds but, because of its simple lines, it didn't look like a whale or barge.

It wasn't painted the usual funereal black either; the vehicle was finished in a rich, preppy navy blue. Elegant. Inside, it had a two-tone blue leather interior. Posh. They finished the car off with turbine-blade Continental Mark II wheelcovers. Classy. The SS-100-X was the first Presidential limo with air conditioning. Cool. It had several tops including a clear Plexiglas bubble top which could be left off on sunny days. Clever.

Ford Motor Company offered to lease it to the White House for $500 per month. Picture Jack, sitting in his rocking chair in that classic Kennedy pose, waving his Petit Upmann Cuban cigar around and telling some staff member, "Pay them. It's worth it." The finished car was delivered in June, 1961. The big Lincoln soon became almost as recognizable as JFK himself.

For 1,000 days, we associated John F. Kennedy and the valiant things for which he stood with the handsome man flashing a big grin and waving from the rear seat of his dark blue Presidential Lincoln. He died in that very car.

The events of November 22nd put an end to JFK the Man. His promise was unfulfilled, his administration unfinished. Objective evaluations by historians would later place him in a more authentic context and dim his halo. His human failings and his perilous health would be endlessly and sometimes almost-gleefully dissected.

Camelot was allegorical and not particularly accurate.

auto blogBut JFK the Legend was born on that November afternoon. Even when we strip away the myths, hyperbole and the what-ifs, Jack Kennedy lives on in our memories as a forever-youthful, optimistic fellow, full of grand and daring ideas - pursued with "viggah," passing by in a long, soigné open car.

Don't let it be forgot
That there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot.

Writer/commentator Cal Thomas eloquently wrote, "For some, all things seemed possible with Kennedy in the White House. When he died, most things seemed impossible. There was a sense we had been robbed of hope and hope denied produces cynicism and despair, two viruses that continue to plague our culture.

Speaking as one who became a conservative and realizes that the 'myth' of Camelot was exactly that, I still miss him. Even more, I miss much that was good in American life that seems to have perished with him." Me, too.

Rest In Peace, Jack.

copyright 2010-20 - Joseph M. Sherlock - All applicable rights reserved


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