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Holy Roller: The Popemobile

Not too long ago, I did a wee post telling you all about the fancy-pants limo used by the President of the US of A, known as The Beast.  The research for this led me to odd bits and pieces about the Popemobile, so I thought that the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The Beast at least looks like a car.  The Popemobile… doesn’t.  Maybe that’s the real reason why the current pope, Pope Francis, doesn’t like it, as well as his apparent preference for keeping things simple.  And I have to say that I’d prefer to drive myself around in a Ford Focus or a Renault 4 , too, like he does, rather than sit in what looks like a glass box on the back of a ute.

Mercedes-Benz-Popemobile-01-626x416Popemobiles are a comparatively recent arrival on the scene, unlike presidential limos. Prior to 1976, the pope got carried about on a mobile armchair known as the sedia gestatoria, which roughly means “portable chair”.  Pope Paul VI scrapped the idea of being carried about on the shoulders of fellow human beings and organised a modified Toyota Land Cruiser  instead.  It used to take 12 blokes to carry it, partly because that padded throne was pretty heavy and partly in memory of the 12 disciples of Jesus… although Jesus’s preferred forms of transport were foot, rowing boat and a borrowed donkey.

Popemobiles tend to come in two varieties: open top and bulletproof.  The uncovered ones tend to get used when the Pope is on his home turf in the Vatican, with the bulletproof ones being kept for overseas trips. The bulletproof ones came in after the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981.

A number of vehicles have been modified over the years to be used as Popemobiles.  Fords, Fiats, a SEAT Panda (close cousin to the Fiat of the same name), a Kia and some British Leyland trucks have all been customised for the task, which is as close as a car comes to being consecrated.  A few other obscure vehicles have also been used over the years.  The current Popemobile is a modified Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV.  All Popemobiles have the same license plate: SCV 1, with the SCV standing for Status Civitatis Vaticanae meaning “City State of the Vatican”.

Engine: 5-litre V8, petrol fuel.  There are probably plans afoot for greener versions.

Seating: Five maximum: two in the front (one chauffeur and one bodyguard), one in the special chair and two aides in the rear cabin facing backwards and lower down where the general public can’t see them so well.  The answer to the debate over how many guardian angels you can fit in the rear of the Popemobile along with His Holiness is probably the same as the one about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  The actual chair itself has a hydraulic lift system to get it up to the top of the turret for maximum visibility.  Entrance to the seat is through the rear door, and to get into this seat, the Pope goes through the rear door, climbs up a couple of steps, sits down then presses a button to get the chair up into the right place.

Performance: Tipping the scales at 5 tonnes thanks to heaps of body armour, the current Popemobile has a top speed of 160 mph and does the 0–60 mph “sprint” in 15 seconds, assuming that there’s a clear space in front.  The usual speed while on duty is more like 6 mph.  Fuel consumption is 15 miles per gallon.

Safety and security: The bulletproof glass around the rear cabin is actually plastic glass and is three inches thick, capable of withstanding explosions. The underside of the car is protected by a bombproof steel plate half an inch thick.  Kelvar body armour lines the sides of the cabin.  The rear cabin has its own oxygen supply and air filters to withstand biological attack.  The run-flat tyres are able to be used at speeds up to 70 mph.

I did notice that the special chair thing in the rear cabin doesn’t have a seatbelt…

Safe and happy driving – and don’t forget your seatbelts!