On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II went into St. Peter’s Square in Rome to bless some 20,000 worshippers. As he entered, a man named Mehmet Ali Hagca pulled out a 9mm pistol and shot the Pope four times from 15 feet away. Although Il Papa survived the assassination attempt, what resulted was a new cultural icon…the Pope-mobile.
There were Pope-mobiles before 1981, they were just not the same as they are now. Since the average age of 20th century popes is 65, the need for a motorized vehicle is obvious given the massive amounts of traveling done by them. When the Pope came to the US in 1965, Ford modified a Presidential limousine for the Pope. There was a back seat that could be raised 12 inches by a hand crank, so that the Pope could be seen through a custom hole cut into the roof. It also came complete with a PA system for addressing the crowd and flood lights.
After the assassination attempt, the modern day Pope-mobile was conceived with a bullet-proof glass room to ensure the safety of the successor of Saint Peter. There really is no one model car that is used for the Pope-mobile. Supposedly the very first one was a modified Range Rover. As the Pope travels he usually rides in a different make as provided by donations from individuals and corporations from that country. Land Rover provided the Pope-mobile in England. The Polish provided John Paul with a noiseless electric model with a rotating chair. The most common model used around the Holy See is an adapted Mercedes Benz. An armour-plated Pope-mobile with 11,000 miles on it in Great Britain was sold by auction in 2006 to an anonymous buyer for $70,500. Recently, many companies such as Audi and Volkswagen have drafted concept Pope-mobiles in an attempt to be the exclusive Pope-mobile dealer to the new Pope, Benedict XVI.
The Swiss guards inspect all Pope-mobiles before allowing the Supreme Pontificate in. Some countries are now making them not only bullet-proof, but also bomb-proof which greatly increases the cost. And no modern day Pope goes without the four-sided bullet proof glass option, though there are rare times when the windows are taken down. Both John Paul and Benedict have occasionally used an open top, but the glass room is air-conditioned regardless. Although the Pope-mobile is complete with hand rails, a former driver says he never broke 50 km per hour (31 mph).
Regardless of anyone’s differences with the Pope, his Pope-mobile remains one of the most easily recognizable cars in the world. Much more so than the lesser known Pope-cycle and Pope-copter.