How the Popemobile Works

A Dossier of Holy Rollers
This was Pope John Paul II's second pilgrimage to Poland (in 1983). The popemobile is passing in front of the PZPR (Polish United Workers' Party) building in Warsaw.
This was Pope John Paul II's second pilgrimage to Poland (in 1983). The popemobile is passing in front of the PZPR (Polish United Workers' Party) building in Warsaw.
(Forum/UIG/Getty Images)

Not all popemobiles have come from the same mold (and plenty weren't even white -- that's a recent trend). According to Jalopnik, there weren't rigorous standards for popemobiles until Pope John Paul II was shot right in St. Peter's Square and the Vatican realized the need for better security. Until 1981, an unofficial popemobile was often slapped together by whatever country the Pope happened to be visiting and the gesture was graciously accepted for the duration of the stay [source: Wojdyla]. An assassination attempt on one's own home turf, however, could understandably inspire one heck of a "Come-to-Jesus" meeting, and from then forward, an official rig from the Vatican fleet accompanied papal travel at all times.

The first Mercedes-Benz popemobile, a Nürburg 460, was given to Pius XI in 1930. Mercedes followed up 30 years later with a 300D Landaulet. The 1960s saw four new popemobiles, though: a 1964 Lincoln Continental (for stateside travel, of course), a 1965 Mercedes 600 Pullman, a 1966 Mercedes 300 SEL Landaulet and a 1967 Mercedes 300 SEL.

In the 1970s, things got a bit more interesting as popemobiles began to vaguely and gradually resemble more modern versions. When a Polish cardinal took the lead (we know him as John Paul II) he helped design a rolling throne based on an FCS Star (a Polish truck that was mostly used for firefighting, but looks more like a troop transporter). The FCS Star was groundbreaking for its elevated platform and broad white exterior panels. A modified Ford Transit truck continued this theme.

Then Mercedes jumped on the white truck trend in 1980, providing a G230 truck with a glass-enclosed rear platform and a Peugeot truck followed suit in 1981. The year 1982 saw three new popemobiles: a Seat truck, a Range Rover (noteworthy for being the first bulletproof popemobile design) and a Leyland heavy-duty truck for travel around the United Kingdom. A GMC Sierra and another Mercedes limo (the first to be fully armored) rounded out the decade.

There have been bigger time spans between new cars in more recent years. The 1990s were rather uneventful: yet another Mercedes limo (a drop-top, this time!) and a bus furnished for a trip to Mexico. In 2002, the Vatican received a Mercedes ML 430, fully bulletproof with the now-standard glassed-in platform. Along came a Fiat Campagnola in 2004, but that was limited to Vatican City travel due to its lack of enclosure. Then in 2007, the Vatican requested a popemobile that could be converted from full-security to open-air. A Mercedes G500 SUV was modified with a folding windshield and handrails so the Pope could catch a nice breeze.

Pope Benedict XVI (who resigned in February 2013) was very concerned about the environment, so in 2012, he had an alternative popemobile modified from an electric Renault Kangoo Van ZE. The Renault's glass chamber wasn't bulletproof, but the Pope used it mostly when vacationing in Castel Gandolfo, a coastal town about 15 miles (24.1 kilometers) from Rome, where security protocol was a bit less severe [source: Torchinsky]. And at the end of 2012, Mercedes brought in the latest popemobile (described on the previous page). What a sweet gift -- and just in time for Christmas, too!

Though a bit cumbersome to summarize, the confusion about official and unofficial popemobiles can lead to some entertaining lore. One popemobile urban legend tells the story of a humble fourth-generation Volkswagen hatchback. Before Pope Benedict XVI was elected, he owned a VW Golf he'd bought new in 1999. (See? Popes do love VWs!) When he took the papacy in 2005, he sold it. So the famous Golf was never an official popemobile, popular to contrary belief -- it was owned by the cardinal, not by the Vatican, and it didn't come close to satisfying a popemobile's (rather flexible) security checklist. Even though the little Golf was eventually acquired by an online casino for publicity purposes and then relisted for sale in February 2013, chances are slim that it'll land back in the former Pope's driveway. For one thing, he probably can't afford it anymore (the casino is hoping to get at least £127,000); for another, he's 85 years old now and really hasn't had the need to drive himself anywhere for almost 10 years. It's been centuries since anyone else has left the papacy, so there's no precedent for how a former pope gets around town. We'd guess the Vatican can probably spare a gently-used Mercedes limo and a driver.

Author's Note: How the Popemobile Works

When I started researching this story, I was surprised to discover that "popemobile" is actually the preferred term for the official papal transport. I'd heard the word before, of course, but always assumed it was a tongue-in-cheek, colloquial term. For lack of anything better to call it, I suppose. But really, how ... undignified. Even the simple term "Presidential Limo" has a lot more panache (even if it does sound like the name of a fly-by-night chauffeur service).

Can't Mercedes come up with one of their super-clever combinations of letters and numbers? The outgoing PB-XVI could get a model year upgrade to PF-I -- or something like that, anyway. It just seems like the Vatican -- no strangers to gilding the lily -- could do a little better ... but that's enough pontificating, for now.

Related Articles


  • Davies, Alex et al. "Check Out the Cutting Edge Mercedes That Will Protect New Pope Francis." Business Insider. March 13, 2013. (March 13, 2013)
  • Davies, Alex. "Pope Francis Used to Ride the Bus to Work Instead of Taking His Limo." Business Insider. March 13, 2013. (March 13, 2013)
  • Dowling, Joshua. "Pope-mobile goes electric." Sydney Morning Herald. Sept. 6, 2012. (March 18, 2013)
  • McCann, Jaymi. "From people's car to Popemobile: Old VW Golf set to sell for £100,000 because it once belonged to Pope Benedict." U.K. Daily Mail. Feb. 22, 2013. (March 10, 2013)
  • Okulski, Travis. "What's Gonna Happen to the Popemobile?" Jalopnik. Feb. 11, 2013. (March 10, 2013)
  • Palmo, Rocco. "On Day One, Pope Rides the Bus and Pays the Bills." Whispers in the Loggia. March 14, 2013. (March 17, 2013)
  • Torchinsky, Jason. "This Is The First Electric Popemobile." Jalopnik. Sept. 26, 2012. (March 10, 2013)
  • Undercoffler, David. "Pope Benedict XVI gets new Popemobile from Mercedes-Benz." Los Angeles Times. Dec. 12, 2012. (March 10, 2013)
  • Wojdyla, Ben. "The Evolution of the Popemobile." Jalopnik. Sept. 26, 2008. (March 10, 2013)

More to Explore