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Riding in style: The evolution of the popemobile

Alessandro Di Meo / EPA

Images of the automobiles that have transported popes over the years.

Comes outfitted in protective bullet-proof glass. Draws a crowd wherever it goes. A driver is included; gold trim is optional.

Popemobiles also include such amenities as a handrail to let the pope easily stand and wave while in motion, a built-in stereo and arctic-cool air conditioning.

Eight popes have had their own set of holy wheels since Pope Pius XI got a stretch 460 Nurburg edition Mercedes-Benz in 1930, but the eighth, Pope Francis -- known for taking the bus to work before he was named pope -- may not want all the frills and custom built-ins that popemobiles offer. 

By retiring, Benedict XVI has passed along a white armored Mercedes SUV, which has a white leather interior with gold trim and a white leather turret that can be raised by hydraulic lift high enough for crowds to see the pope, if he wants to sit. (For longer trips around Italy, Benedict enjoyed his own helicopter.) Bullet-proof Plexiglas that's strong enough to withstand explosions surrounds the turret on three sides. There's an emergency oxygen supply built in, according to The Telegraph


"The pope must feel comfortable. People must be able to see him. People have traveled very far; they want to be able to get a good look at him," said Christoph Horn, Director of Global Communications of Mercedes-Benz, from Stuttgart, Germany. "This is about creating a comfortable and safe environment for the pope to travel in and be seen in.”

The pre-mobile
Popes didn't have to wait for the invention of automobiles to be mobile. For centuries, popes traveled by throne when going out on local outings. The popes were carried by 12 bearers (representing the 12 disciples of the church) as they moved through crowds, Ronald Rychlak, a University of Mississippi law school professor who has written numerous books on religion, said.

Daimler

The first car used by a pope.

All that changed when Pope Pius XI got his Benz. The limousine was a gift from the car company, which would provide vehicles for many popes after that.

"Usually more than one vehicle was provided, especially for the popes in the 1930s," Horn said. "They were traveling a lot, so many popemobiles were built for them."

Back then, popes traveled in limousines with open tops, he said. Over the years, more than 12 different models of cars and trucks would be provided for popes. Pope John XXIII ushered in a new era of pope cars in 1960 with a Mercedes 300D Landaulet, which had a throne that rose high in the back, The New York Times reported. His successor switched to a 1964 Lincoln model before he went back to the preferred Mercedes brand a year later.

But don't call it 'popemobile'
When popes travel abroad for state visits, it's not always possible for the vehicles they use at home to make the journey with them. Instead, customized cars are prepared ahead of the visit, submitted for Vatican approval from the country he will visit.


"The primary level of security is assigned to the host nation," Rychlak said. "If they want to have something like a popemobile for a major parade, let's say they're doing Mass at Yankee stadium or something like that, they would have to make arrangements to ship something over, or that's the kind of situation where there may be a gift made to the pope" by a major car company.

That was how the car that officially became known for the first time as the "popemobile" came into existence: Pope John Paul II had visited Ireland in 1979, and a boxy yellow Ford Transit van awaited him as his chariot. Last November, The Telegraph reported an Irish businessman had acquired the van from the Dublin Wax Museum, where it had been since the papal visit, and was transforming it into a party bus.

Many other popemobiles have stayed in the countries they were used in. In 2008, Newsweek got a peek at the popemobile Benedict used for his U.S. tour, describing it as "by far the fanciest and sleekest papal car ever built ... The papal handlers can shift their passenger from zero to 60 in less than eight seconds, but the drivers probably won't exceed 10 mph along the parade routes."

In 2002, John Paul II asked the media to stop using the term "popemobile," insisting it sounded "undignified."

A clear need for better security
John Paul II survived an assassination attempt in 1981 while in St. Peter's Square. A Turkish man was later convicted of firing the shots, which punctured the pope's car and struck him four times. John Paul II survived, but it was clear his wide-open truck wouldn't suffice to protect him. From then on, bulletproof glass has encased popemobiles, although popes have occasionally ridden around without covering for brief periods.

Arturo Mari / AP

A 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square.

Since adding bulletproof glass, popemobiles have added other necessary features, including ultra-powerful air conditioning to cool down the glass dome that popes sit in, reports The Telegraph.

Other protection measures include heavy-metal reinforcement on the bottom of the vehicle as well as the other sides, and the driver is always a trusted longtime Vatican employee. There's no partition between the pope and his driver; a microphone enables him to broadcast messages to crowds through speakers outside the popemobile.

The current weighs five tons and was just presented to Benedict last December by Mercedes-Benz.

"We work with the members of the Vatican and with the people in charge of the garages of the Vatican," Horn said. "These are all individual vehicles that are built to specifications."

The new pope's desire to get up close and personal with his faithful has presented challenges for his security detail.

"The pope's going to want to be up close hugging and touching and meeting people and that's going to be a tremendous concern for his security people," Rychlak said. "His security forces have taken him aside, or probably already have, and are going to say, 'Holy Father, you're putting us in a horrible situation if you don't go along with these things.'"

They're used to having to say that, though: Benedict didn't always like the feeling of a "shield between him and the people," Rychlak said. Most popemobiles are designed so the glass can be lowered, though.

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