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A Brief History of the Popemobile

From sedan chair to Mercedes-Benz

(Chris Wallberg/dpa/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

As a far as nicknames for a head of state’s mode of transportation, the popemobile is up there with the best. And how the pope gets around says a lot about both the position and whoever is the head of the Catholic Church at the moment. But as popes have changed over the years, so have their rides.

The first “official” popemobile is often considered to be a Mercedes-Benz Nürburg 460 Pullman given to Pope Pius XI by the German car manufacturer in 1930. Designed especially for the pope, the car was built for a king: as a stretch model, it was longer than typical Nürburg 460’s and was complete with silk carpeting and embossed doves decorating the interior, James Foxall reported for CNN in 2013. Ever since, the papal fleet and Mercedes have had a close relationship, with the manufacturer donating 12 different cars to the Vatican over the years.

But even as the papal garage got more and more crowded during the 20th century, the popemobile didn’t become standard-issue for getting the pontiff through crowds until the late 1970’s. Historically, the pope traveled by way of an extravagant sedan chair carried atop the shoulders of a squad of uniformed footmen called the sedia gestatoria. While ornate, it wasn’t exactly convenient or fast. Ultimately, it was abandoned after Pope Paul VI’s death in 1978, Foxall writes.

Since then, the popemobile has become a way for the pope to see his followers as he travels through city streets around the world. Popemobiles are often retrofitted to include raised platforms and glass canopies to give the pope and his followers a better view of each other during public processions, with different features depending on the place and situation.

While most popemobiles are kind of goofy-looking, in sticky situations they can be the pope’s last line of defense, with bulletproof glass and heavy armor becoming standard features after Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981. Because the modified cars can weigh as much as three tons and must navigate crowds at a crawl, these popemobiles require special transmissions designed to keep the heavy vehicles moving, Tom Grünweg wrote for Der Spiegel in 2011.

However, while the popemobiles that shuttled Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI through the crowds almost looked like fish tanks, Pope Francis I has tried to eschew the bulletproof glass as much as possible, saying it keeps him from connection with his people, Laura Smith-Spark reports for CNN.

"It's true that anything could happen, but let's face it, at my age I don't have much to lose," Pope Francis I told the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia in 2014."I know that something could happen to me, but it's in the hands of God."

Ever since, the pope has tried to stay out of the “sardine can” as much as possible. As Abby Ohlheiser reports for The Washington Post, Pope Francis has avoided the bulletproof popemobiles as much as he can, opting instead for open-air or semi-protected vehicles to greet the faithful (and occasionally accept a pizza). However, this does present a headache for security forces looking to protect the dignitary. As the United States government prepares for Francis’ first official visit, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have warned that his desire to be close to his flock could make him a target for terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS.

While details about how protected Francis’s U.S. popemobile will be are confidential, it won’t be a Mercedes-Benz: Vatican officials recently announced that for this trip at least, the Holy Father’s popemobile will be an American-made Jeep Wrangler.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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