Famous Death Cars

HAIL TO THE CHIEF: The fatal day in Dallas, and the last time a president rode in open limos.

If you’re squeamish, if you couldn’t sit through "Last House on the Left," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or "Saw II," you probably want to stop reading this story about “death cars” right now. But if, like me, you’re fascinated by what might have happened to these historically important vehicles — which played a part in the final scenes of some of our most beloved celebrities — then by all means read on.

John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln

President John F. Kennedy was shot dead in X-100, to use the Secret Service designation of a presidential limousine specially crafted by Hess & Eisenhardt of Cincinnati. A standard limousine was cut in half, reinforced, and extended 3.5 feet, becoming a parade-ready convertible in the process. The car (which cost $200,000 to build) was leased to the White House by Ford (for $500 a year), and it was first used in June of 1961. Presidents wanted to be seen in those days, though Nov. 22, 1963 put an end to open limos.

After Kennedy’s assassination, X-100 was impounded for evidence, then returned to the White House, which in “Project D-2” converted it again, this time to an armored closed car. In that form it was used by Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter, retiring in 1977. Today, it’s in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., though many people walk right by it because it doesn’t look like the car in the Zapruder film (or in "JFK," for that matter).

James Dean’s 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder

Dean, like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, had what The Byrds called “a worship of speed.” But those guys survived their misadventures behind the wheel. In what could have been a scene from "Rebel Without a Cause," Dean was out speeding in the silver Porsche (number 130) On Sept. 30, 1955 when, near Bakersfield, Calif., on what is now State Route 46 he collided with a 1950 Ford Tudor driven by a young man with the unlikely name of Donald Turnupseed. The latter survived; Dean, then 24, didn’t.

After Dean’s death the remains of his car were bought by customizer George Barris for $2,500, who lent it to the California Highway Patrol as part of a driver safety demonstration. The car was believed to be jinxed: Parts of it were sold off, and a driver whose car had the Porsche engine installed crashed fatally. Others suffered serious injuries loading and unloading the car, and one died. The car eventually disappeared from a truck in 1960. The Volo Auto Museum (which exhibited a passenger side door from the car) offered $1 million for the rest of the Porsche, but it’s unlikely to have survived.

Hank Williams’ 1952 Cadillac Convertible

Unlike the others in this story, the author of “Cold, Cold Heart” and numerous other country classics did not perish in a car crash — he merely expired in the back seat of one at age 29. And even that is in dispute. Williams was being driven to gigs by Charles Carr, a 19-year-old college student. The two touched down in Charleston, W. Va.; Birmingham, Ala.; Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tenn., where a doped-up Williams went into convulsions at the Andrew Johnson Hotel. He may have actually died there, but Carr loaded him into the back of the Caddy for a long drive to a gig in Ohio. Carr finally checked on Williams — who’d been awfully quiet for a long time — somewhere in West Virginia and found him cold to the touch.

The ’52 Caddy was put to practical use — Hank Williams Jr. drove it during his high school years. Today, the light blue convertible is, appropriately enough, in the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Ala. (Williams’ hometown) along with the Nudie suit the singer was wearing when he died. The founder of that museum had rotated the tires on the car a week before Williams died. Williams reportedly loved his Cadillacs as much as Elvis did, but the latter expired inside Graceland. (Check out the video of Jesse Winchester’s fine “Just Like New” for the last word on Elvis and Cadillacs.)

Princess Diana’s 1994 Mercedes-Benz S280

Princess Diana was riding in this car on Aug. 31, 1997 when driver Henri Paul, escaping paparazzi, slammed into a pillar in the middle of the Pont d’Alma tunnel in Paris. His speed was said to be somewhere north of 60 mph, double the limit. The car, not surprisingly, was subjected to extensive forensic examination, first in France and then, after 2005, in England (London’s Metropolitan Police had custody). There was much speculation, including that the car had been damaged in an earlier accident or had an all-important computer chip stolen, but the evidence points to driver error. In 2008, a bizarre story emerged that the Etoile Limousine, the Paris-based company that owns the car, was going to auction the remains (by now in two halves) to the highest bidder. “It’s worth a great deal of money,” owner Jean-Francois Musa told the Mail on Sunday. As far as I can determine, the Benz wasn’t actually auctioned. Princes William and Harry said at the time they’d like the car disposed of “privately and discreetly.”

1959 Cadillac: The Death Car Legend

This story doesn’t involve a celebrity, but it’s fascinating anyway. One of the lowest-mileage 1959 Cadillac Eldorado coupes is an innocent-looking white car that was the scene of a murder that same year. A prominent injection molding tycoon in Rhode Island, Maurice Gagnon, was burglarized, and then resisted efforts by the arrested thugs to stop him from testifying against them. Not getting satisfaction, they kidnapped the owner and — when he still wouldn’t give in — murdered him in the car. They abandoned the car (which had only 2,216 miles on it) in New Hampshire, but were soon caught because they left a string of evidence a mile wide. The car was held as evidence for 15 years as the appeals process meandered on, but it was eventually released and is now quite infamous. Or famous, if you prefer it that way.

Other Death Cars

According to a persistent urban legend, there are cars that — hosting a death, either by murder or suicide — could never be successfully cleaned of a strong odor. “Vroom with a view,” as it were. In one version, a young man does away with himself in a brand-new 1929 Model A Ford. Try as he might, a used-car dealer is unable to eradicate the smell, despite reupholstering the vehicle and fumigating. Eventually, the car is junked. An urban legend indeed. It reminds me of the jail I visited once in Jim Thorpe, Pa., where seven of the pro-union Molly Maguires’ were hanged. One of their number promised to haunt the place, and his handprint is still there in Cell #17, despite numerous attempts to paint over it. I’ve seen the print, and hereby nominate the whole thing for ... The Twilight Zone.

Here's everything you need to know about the Kennedy limousine, though there's information and videos on all these cars online: