21-foot custom limo used by pope during 1965 trip to U.S. now a collector's item

21-foot custom limo used by pope during 1965 trip to U.S. now a collector's item

The Seattle TimesMarch 2, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    LeMay — America's Car Museum

    Where: 2702 East D St. Tacoma, Wash.

    Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

    Admission: $14; $12 seniors, student, military; $8 ages 5-12, free for children 4 and younger and members

    Information: Lemaymuseum.org, (253) 779-8490

SEATTLE — What's black and white and silver and has a trunk the size of your college dorm room?

Here's a hint: It was used by a Roman Catholic pope and by a bevy of American astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

The answer is 21 feet long and sitting in a Tacoma, Wash., museum, where it will remain for at least a couple of months.

Shiny black with gleaming white sidewalls and chrome trim, the Papal Continental is an elongated 1964 Lincoln Continental customized for Pope Paul VI's 1965 visit to New York City — the first time a reigning pope ever came to the United States.

In later years, it was used by the city of Chicago to carry dignitaries in parades.

The vehicle is on loan to the LeMay — America's Car Museum, which opened in June.

Museum officials say the limo's owner is a Seattle-area car collector who prefers to go unnamed but who has loaned other vehicles to the museum. Published accounts indicate he bought the papal limo at auction in 2011 for $220,000.

By today's standards, any '64 Continental would seem huge. But this one was supersized by the Chicago design firm Lehmann- Peterson, which specialized in stretch limousines.

The car was given an extra 34 inches of midsection, which boosted its passenger space and lengthened its wheelbase to 160 inches — 55 inches longer than that of today's Honda Civic. In order to let the pontiff stand up and view the waving throngs, the limo's roof was made removable, and a bullet- resistant upper windshield and a similar panel behind the passengers were added.

A special seat could be cranked up to give the pope a better view. There also was extra lighting, a PA system, and external step plates and hand rails for the Swiss Guards protecting the pope.

Security would have been on the minds of those planning the pope's 14-hour U.S. visit two years after President Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas in an open-top Continental.

It would be 16 more years Pope John Paul II was shot and seriously wounded while riding in an open Fiat Campagnola in St. Peter's Square. Subsequent "popemobiles" have featured bulletproof windows, although they are sometimes left open, at the pontiff's direction.

The papal limo in Tacoma sports four small flags along the hood, including those of the United States and the Vatican, and special tube lighting to illuminate them.

Three years after Pope Paul VI's visit to the United States, the Vatican asked to have the car sent to South America for the pope's visit to Bogota, Colombia. Because of the city's 8,600-foot altitude, the limo's engine needed major modifications to allow it to run on aviation fuel.

After the papal visit, the car was on loan for years to the city of Chicago as a parade car. It carried a variety of dignitaries, including astronauts from four Apollo missions.

It has changed hands several times since then, including spending 16 years as part of a French collection of state vehicles.

It was moved into LeMay — America's Car Museum — in late February.

The museum is the realization of a dream by the late refuse-collection magnate Harold E. LeMay, a longtime car collector who died in 2000. His widow, Nancy LeMay, sits on the museum's board.

David Madeira, museum president and CEO, said the institution "is at the center of our country's love for everything auto."

"From transporting Apollo astronauts to carrying the pope, this car has carved a special place in American history," he said.

The museum now has more than 300 vehicles on display.


If you go

LeMay — America's Car Museum

Where: 2702 East D St. Tacoma, Wash.

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Admission: $14; $12 seniors, student, military; $8 ages 5-12, free for children 4 and younger and members

Information: Lemaymuseum.org, (253) 779-8490

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