BY GERRY MILES
The first thing you notice about it is its size. It’s huge.
The second thing you notice is how spotless it is. Stretching some 22 feet or so long, it is an expanse of black, shimmering paint with whitewalls that appear to be 4 inches wide and painted on with a brush.
It is regal and stately, yet nothing about it portends to be presidential without the flags of state upon the fenders to distinguish it.
It is a 1965 Lincoln Continental limousine, which was modified by Chicago coach builders Lehmann-Peterson, specifically for President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Yet, in its relative anonymity, it draws in the curious for a quick peek, then a longer look and then a turn behind the wheel of automotive history. Soon, the front doors open, before the rear suicide doors reveal the presidential sitting room upon wheels in the back. Without today’s blackout windows to obscure the passengers, one can easily see a push button phone that looks like it came straight off a desktop in the 1950s, a crystal liquor decanter and glasses in the console, and glass that separates the driver from the rear conversation.
For its largesse, it’s notable for its Spartan accommodations. The differences of today’ cars to this timeless traveler from 1965 are startling.
There’s the large but skinny steering wheel and the shifter on the steering column. The only thing that differentiates this dash from any others is an engraved plaque noting it was “especially built for LBJ.” The only other markings, besides the Lincoln hood ornament, is a small fender badge proclaiming Lehmann-Peterson made it presidential.
The heating controls are manual and rudimentary by today’s standards. So, too, are the door release levers save the large grab handle to close the heavy doors. Simple toggle switches raise and lower the locks and windows. A solitary AM radio is the lone radio and the only sign of creature comfort.
A piece of what appears to be Plexi-Glass — similar to what you’d find in a taxi cab — separates the front bench seat from the rear where the original Lincoln Continental was stretched about 36 inches. The additional room provides for two rear-facing smaller bucket seats that bookend the center console with the Motorola phone/radio and out of sight liquor decanter. The glass partition slides back and forth manually.
Where LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, presumably sat, as well as other heads of state, is a leather bench seat. No contoured buckets that recline or foot rests that you can find in a Maybach or the upper line Lexus of today. In a day when purchasing a “special edition” of a production vehicle finds the name painted and stitched into every available surface, the LBJ Limo is also devoid of special stitching or presidential seals.
The key attraction is always the White House phone, says the car’s owner, John Lawlor, who portrays himself as a collector of collectible items and ephemera and “stuff” of all sorts.
Lawlor, who’s long been a vital part of the automotive show “Car Talk” on National Public Radio as the so-called “spiritual, technical and menu advisor” to Click and Clack, as well as WBZ radio and WCVB’s “Chronicle” jumped at the chance to own this car.
“It’s a piece of history of the American presidency,” stated Lawlor. “They don’t make these any more and I’m sure that with security concerns and such you won’t ever be able to buy a presidential limousine once it’s retired in today’s world.
“Besides,” Lawlor added enthusiastically, “this is not just a car parked in a museum. This is a car that can be driven and has been on the roads. It’s a rolling piece of history.”
Lawlor raved about the limo’s ability to ride and drive with cars much younger with as stiff a chassis.
After the car was basically cut in half, Lehmann-Peterson added thicker panels and steel to make it structurally sound and stiff. Although it weighs in at 6,000 pounds, it has no armament.
Under the hood sits the engine of a muscle car in a 430 cubic inch V-8 that generates 390 horsepower, giving it the get-go that belies its size.
“It handles like a sports car,” Lawlor said outside his garage. “There’s not a creak, nor a groan from its body. It’s amazing. And it hangs in a corner like a car half its size and weight on the bad Boston roads,” said Lawlor.
“Cars from this vintage had lots of ancillary noises, such as the air conditioning cycling on and off, and when the transmission would shift could be vague,” explained Lawlor.
“Not in this car. Everything is immediate from the car. It tracks well. There’s no mystery steering either from the era where you’d aim in the general direction you’d want to go. If you hit a bad bump, nothing breaks loose. It’s amazing.”
A body shop in Chicago, Lehmann-Peterson made about 40 editions of similar Lincoln Continentals Lawlor said. “The White House got 15 of them. Robert McNamara got one and Cabinet members each got them, too. The difference between those and this is that they had a black and white TV in a walnut cabinet in theirs,” Lawlor said.
Lawlor also got some additional history in what he says is one of only two versions of this presidential limousine left in existence.
When he examined his historical purchase, he also found a bottle opener from an establishment in Texas, a presidential pen in its wrapping for official signings, a pop-up bar with crystal decanters and crystal glassware, an LBJ tie tack, an inaugural key chain, a program and an invitation to LBJ’s inauguration.
“Everywhere I looked, after it was taken off the truck, it just oozed history,” added Lawlor. “You can’t beat this.”
Lawlor also learned that the deep black paint is just that … deep.
While having some touch up work done recently, he learned that cars such as this that were in constant service were constantly painted over.
“Apparently when they used these cars, they’d work in parades and they’d often open the front doors as a means of crowd control,” explained Lawlor, “to push the crowds back.”
“With people leaning in and looking often their belt buckles and bags and such would scratch the doors and they’d repaint them. They were never stripped and repainted. No one really knows how many coats of paint the limo has, but it’s a lot.”
As connected as LBJ is to JFK for the tragic events in Dallas, this presidential limo has one thing that the Kennedy car didn?t have. Rear air conditioning.
“JFK’s car didn’t have rear AC and that was a key reason I was told for the top being off his car that day in Dallas,” Lawlor explained. “This car has rear AC.”
Oddly enough, JFK’s car from Dallas was not immediately retired from service before it was put on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan where it sits today.
After the assassination, JFK’s car was immediately retrofit 13 weeks later with a new bubble top and extra armor and remained in service for presidents LBJ, Nixon, Ford and Carter.
President Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental Limousine, which was called the SS X-100 by the Secret Service, was built by armored coachbuilder Hess & Eisenhardt.
“The other thing that makes this car remarkable is that you can see everything in it,” Lawlor said. “Some of the windows of the cars at the Ford museum have windows that delaminated and you can’t see in them. And they don’t run and can’t be driven to my knowledge.
“I’ve got the original White House phone with the extensions and push buttons still wired up. That’s unheard of. Sometimes you can get a collector car but some of the items may have been removed or were taken by other collectors. Everything here is original.”
For Lawlor, this ranks as tops of his varied and wide collection.
“There’s no way to put a value on something like this,” understated Lawlor.
“It’s like that TV commercial, owning something like this, that’s a working, functioning piece of American presidential history is truly priceless.”