Papal vehicle on display in Tacoma museum

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If you go

What: LeMay — America’s Car Museum.

Where: 2702 East D St. Tacoma.

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

Cost: Adult $14; senior, student, military $12; youth (5-12) $8; children younger than 5 and members free.

Information: 253-779-8490 or LeMay — America's Car Museum.

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 museum, where it will spend at least the next 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 across the street from the Tacoma Dome.

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 purchased 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 was added, along with a similar panel behind the passengers.

A special seat could be cranked up to give the pope a better view. There's also 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, also in an open-top Continental.

It would be 16 more years before another pontiff, 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 U.S. and the Vatican, and special tube lighting to illuminate them.

Three years after Pope Paul VI's U.S. visit, the Vatican requested 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 allowing 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 about a week ago.

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.