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April 9, 2013

News & Features

Catholic Church all for evolution — of popemobile

New York Times News Service

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Pope Francis rides through the crowd and blesses a baby on Palm Sunday in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. The new pope prefers an open-air popemobile, a departure from the bullet-proof vehicle used by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. (Gregorio Borgia / The Associated Press)

As the newly installed pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis will often be seen greeting the world from the back of a rather peculiar vehicle. It's taken many shapes over the past three decades, but the classification is one we've become pretty accustomed to: the popemobile.

More than half of the world's population is under 30, according to the United Nations, so the majority of people who've seen a pope — in person or on TV — have probably never seen him riding in another vehicle. Popemobiles may not be hot collectibles (and are unlikely to headline future Barrett-Jackson auctions), but they are a fascinating part of vehicular history.

While the pope is considered infallible, he still has to travel like the rest of us terrestrial beings — except that the automobile of the highest-ranking Catholic is a pure-white vehicle topped by an armored glass display case and wearing a license plate that translates to Vatican City 1.

The original popemobile wasn't a car at all, but a plush sedan chair carried by 12 footmen in red uniforms. Pope John Paul II rushed headlong into modernity in 1978, retiring that richly upholstered ride, the sedia gestatoria, in favor of motorized versions built on several different chassis.

One of the early models was a Fiat Campagnola, another a Mercedes Gelandewagen, and, in a show of magnanimity toward his native Poland, one of his popemobiles was a Polish-made FSC Star. With its beefy military look, that one may well have been intended as a thumb in the eye of an Eastern bloc power structure resentful of church influence.

Of course, popes of the sedan-chair era rode in automobiles, too, just not the pope-on-parade type we're used to now. In years past, popes were passengers in what were basically lay versions of the limousines favored by banana-republic dictators, the first said to have been a 1930 Mercedes-Benz Nurburg 460.

The first popemobile thought to have an open top with a rising throne rear seat was a 1960 Mercedes 300D Landaulet. That was followed by a 1964 Lincoln Continental Lehmann-Peterson and Paul VI's 1965 Mercedes 600 Pullman.

Popemobiles from the John Paul II papacy onward have melded limo or truck bodies with sedia gestatoria utility, creating the familiar white jewelbox. Papal mobility in the past 30 years has been provided by a 1979 Ford Transit, a 1981 Peugeot 504, a 1982 Seat, a 1982 Range Rover, a 1982 Leyland truck, a 1984 GMC Sierra, a 1997 Mercedes S500, a 2002 Mercedes ML430 and a Mexican bus. The newest popemobile is a slick-looking Mercedes G-Class jeep.

Perhaps Francis will call for popemobiles to switch to electric or veggie fuel power.
But the real trick would be a popemobile using magnetic levitation, like some rail systems, allowing His Holiness to hover above the ground as his procession glides by.

Can the Vatican's motor pool decline the offer of Mercedes-Benz executives, who, it was reported recently, hoped for an audience in order to suggest upgrades for future popemobiles? Why can't the popemobile be a Renault? A Ferrari?

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