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How the Popemobile Works

        Auto | Unusual Cars

Any Color You Like, as Long as It's Vatican Mystic White

Most armored cars go for subtlety and try to blend into the crowd, but the popemobile happens to be pretty conspicuous. Although the Pope seems awfully exposed in his greenhouse-like glass bubble, those windows and body panels are bulletproof. And the entire underbody is bombproof, too. (And all those rappers in armored G-Wagens think they're important.) Mounted on the back of a Mercedes M-Class SUV, the current version of the Pope's transport chamber is boxed-in with larger glass panels than its predecessor. Another new feature for the 2012 model is that the Pope is illuminated -- literally -- by lighting that's integrated into the roofline that casts downward on His Holiness. A swanky white leather interior lends a heavenly touch, and the seat is embroidered with the papal coat of arms. The throne itself is mounted on a hydraulic lift for easy entry and exit.

It takes a lot of power to haul around a heavy armored vehicle, so a ML430 V-8 engine sits under the hood, and while the Pope's motorcade usually travels at ceremonial, parade-like speeds, it's capable of reaching 100 miles per hour (160.9 kilometers per hour). That level of customization carries a hefty price tag, but it doesn't cost the Catholics anything. The end result is a gift to the Vatican from Mercedes, a long-standing tradition. At a cost of about $500,000 (plus nine months of design and assembly) it's a rather pricey present -- but that kind of publicity just can't be bought.

And what happens when the Pope's busy schedule requires tighter turnarounds or an intercontinental jump, and a typical road-bound vehicle just won't cut it? The official popemobile is schlepped around to accommodate the Pope's travels. So Mercedes lowered the chassis a bit, to make it easier to pack up and move around the world [source: Undercoffler].

The current popemobile was built in 2012; but the previous popemobile had been in service since 2002. They have a lot of common features, however, which help illustrate what the Vatican has come to expect for its official papal transport. Mercedes has been the Vatican's supplier of record since the 1930s. They have a distinct advantage in this type of market because Mercedes is actually equipped to armor vehicles at the factory (and they're in limited company -- not many carmakers would be able to make a return on this kind of investment by servicing the secular population).

Security requirements being what they are, popemobiles are made to resist assault or ambush, a Mercedes specialty. It's an impressive feat, especially considering all that glass. Popemobiles are easily recognized for the telltale bulletproof glass platform on the back, where the Pope can be seen by onlookers, but that's not a guarantee since there have been exceptions to the rule. Oh, and we should mention that only the official popemobile gets the papal seal on its doors.

Popemobiles are generally finished with a lovely, regal red carpet to class-up the Pope's entries and exits, and a white leather interior. Mercedes even has an official exclusive paint color -- Vatican Mystic White. No official specs on rim size or in-dash electronics are available ... but even still, the most recent of popemobiles have definitely evolved in style.