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The Popemobile: an 80 year history

The Popemobile: an 80 year history image

Text: Martin Aguilar / Photos: Mercedes-Benz, Vatican, Sarao | posted January 12, 2015 14:45

SCV-1 through the years

For more than 80 years, Popes have ridden automobiles; specially prepared vehicles that have become the modern symbols of the Papacy whenever he visits another country.

A "popemobile" is actually an unofficial name for the vehicle that the Pope rides in; a customized vehicle used by the Pope during outdoor public appearances designed to make the Pontiff visible when going from place to place and meeting large crowds. With this, let's take a look at some of the popemobiles from the past and see the evolution of "popemobility".

Every single popemobile has a license plate that reads "SCV-1" or status civitatis vaticanae, Latin for State of Vatican City. The number 1 also indicates that it refers to the pontifex maximus. Before the popemobiles came into service, the Vatican made use of the sedia gestatoria or a ceremonial throne that carries the Popes to and from the Papal ceremonies.

Pope Pius XI receieved a Mercedes-Benz Nürburg 460 as a gift from Daimler Benz AG

It was not until 1930 when popemobiles came into existence. During that time, Pope Pius XI receieved a Mercedes-Benz Nürburg 460 as a gift from Daimler Benz AG, marking the start of the popemobile era. It features a central rear-mounted throne and custom interior with silk carpets.

Thirty years after, the successor of the Mercedes-Benz Nürburg 460 took on the role of transporting the Pope. Mercedes-Benz has once again provided the Vatican with a 300D Landaulet featuring a hard top up front and soft top in the rear, allowing the Pope to be seen by the public. The vehicle has a single seat configuration in the rear along with a two-way radio and air conditioning.

 Lincoln Continental based on the Lehmann-Peterson's prototype

In 1964, the Vatican requested Ford Motor Company to build a popemobile for Pope Paul VI's visit to New York. The American company customized a Lincoln Continental based on the Lehmann-Peterson's prototype. It features the usual throne seat in the rear that can elevate up to 12-inches.

A year after that, Mercedes-Benz built another popemobile: the Landaulet version of the Mercedes-Benz 600. The car was delivered to Pope Paul VI and features a huge folding top and rear doors. Clearly, the design trend of the popemobile was to make the Pope as exposed to the faithful as possible.

In 1966 Mercedes-Benz donated another popemobile to the Vatican: the 300 SEL Landaulet. The car is basically the same with the previous popemobiles built by the German automaker and maintains the open top design. Inside, the seat is equipped with a sliding mechanism that allowed the Pope to slide to the side, making room for a Papal aide.

When Karol Józef Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II, the world saw one of the few non-Mercedes popemobile as he visited his hometown in Poland. In 1979, Pope John Paul II opted to use a Polish-built industrial truck from FCS Star. It was developed by the truck manufaturer with the guidance of Pope John Paul II himself.

During the same year, Pope John Paul II visited Ireland onboard a Ford Transit popemobile. The design of this popemobile resembles the look of the FCS Star used by the Pope when he visited Poland. It has a huge interior cabin enclosed with large windows.

Mercedes-Benz G230 popemobile

In 1980, Mercedes-Benz provided Pope John Paul II with a customized G230 during his visit to Germany. This car would later on be the benchmark for future designs of the popemobiles. It has an enclosed transparent box-like cabin that is elevated, allowing the public to fully see the Pope.

During his Papacy, Pope John Paul II travelled a lot. In 1981, he visited France and rode a Peugeot 504 that features similar styling cues to the Mercedes-Benz G230. It also has an enclosed transparent box-like cabin fitted with a plastic cupola to protect the Pope.

Sarao Jeepney popemobile

Also in the same year, the Pope rode on the first 'jeepney' popemobile built by Sarao Motors.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II visited England and rode the first ever bulletproof popemobile from Land Rover. The exterior styling of this popemobile is also similar with the Mercedes-Benz G230 and the Peugeot 504.

Subsequently, Pope John Paul II also visited Scotland in 1982. A customized Leyland Truck was the Pope's ride during his Papal Visit. It was regarded as the most massive popemobile to be built at 24 tons.

CTK built armored popemobile

For his 1995 visit to the Philippines for the World Youth Day, Pope John Paul II paraded in an armored truck custom built by CTK Incorporated based on a Franciso Motors Anfra AUV chassis and Mazda engine. The latter has since claimed to have built the popemobile after purchasing it from CTK.

When Pope John Paul II visited Mexico in 1999, he rode a tour bus which was probably the most unique popemobile that the world has seen.

Mercedes-Benz ML430

Another notable popemobile is the Mercedes-Benz ML430 which was used by Pope John Paul II for major public appearances before his death in 2005. It features an air-conditioned and bulletproof cupola.

Mercedes-Benz G500

In 2007, the Vatican was provided with a Mercedes-Benz G500. This popemobile was used by Pope Benedict XVI during ceremonial proceedings at St. Peter's Square. It is equipped with a folding windshield and handrails.

Mercedes-Benz M Class

In 2013 Mercedes-Benz once again provided the Vatican with a new popemobile as, after all, they have become the unofficial builder of popemobiles. The customized Mercedes-Benz M Class still retains the design benchmark set by the G230.

As the date draws near for Pope Francis' Papal Visit in the country, the Vatican has released the photo of his popemobile. He will be riding a special 'jeepney' themed truck for his visit to Manila with an elevated rear deck and seats built by eCTK, though he will also be riding in a customized Isuzu D-Max when he visits Tacloban.