Car safety design and vehicles for world leaders

Leaders have a real problem. To build their reputation and generate local support, they need to be seen. In the days before television, this always meant literally going out into the world. While popularity is high, the risks are manageable but, as John Wilkes Booth demonstrated, going to the theater became dangerous when access to small handguns is easy. Guns, bombs and visiting heads of state like Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria do not mix when open-topped cars are in use. In Sarajevo, the vehicle in use was a Gräf & Stift open sports car with its top folded down. The consequence was a major war.


If we come forward to 1963, John J Kennedy was driving through Dallas in an open-topped limousine Lincoln Continental SS-100-X. This might not have started another war, but it did provoke serious thought about the design of vehicles to carry heads of state through towns and cities. There has to be a compromise between allowing the public a chance to see their leaders, and the safety of those leaders from attack. The irony of the successful assassination of JFK is that there was a more secure vehicle available.

Harry Truman had commissioned a 1950 Lincoln Cosmopolitan and, in 1954, a bulletproof “bubbletop” canopy was added. If leaders are only going to be seen in public in one place, the special vehicle can easily be made available. But when television coverage is not enough to maintain the bond with the ordinary citizens, tours through large cities become necessary. This makes it more difficult to move the vehicle from one place to another. So given the precedent from Sarajevo, modern vehicle design has focused on building the equivalent of an armored troop carrier which looks like a conventional car. Leaders do not want to be accused of cowardice. It’s bad PR if they can’t boast how safe they feel in their own countries.


The Popemobile is a modified Mercedes-Benz M-Class with bulletproof glass and built to withstand bombs. It used to be the case that political and religious leaders could reinforce each other’s security. Historically, churches used to announce that Kings were appointed by God and had a divine right to rule. As a reward, churches grew rich and were protected by the state. The last hundred years has seen a loss of respect both for leaders and for religion. At best, citizens can be agnostic on whether leaders are a good thing. Some hate strongly enough to attempt to kill. This new reality has forced major design changes to reflect the new technology available to the assassins. So how do all these technologies work?

Bulletproof glass

The ideal is that the bulletproofing should leave the “glass” looking relatively normal, i.e. people standing on the pavement can see the leader on display inside the vehicle. This requires protection that does not distort the image of the leader to outside viewers. It would be embarrassing if the passengers appeared bigger or smaller than their loyal followers were expecting. Ordinary glass is not a protection against bullets.

What you now see in presidential vehicles is made up from alternating layers of glass and polycarbonate, a plastic, laminated together. The combination absorbs the impact without shattering, stopping the bullet before it reaches the last layer (assuming there are enough layers, of course). This is called controlled delamination.


The thickness of the “glass” depends on the nature of the threat you expect. The bullets fired from handguns need only an inch or so. But the bullets fired from rifles can only be stopped by substantially more layers. Here’s an unscientific test:

For the record, there’s also one-way “glass. It stops a bullet from entering but does not prevent people inside from shooting back.

The problem with all protection is weight which makes the vehicle more difficult to drive at speed if you need to make a hasty retreat. This means enhancement to the suspension, shocks and brakes. Given the habit of attackers to shoot at the tires, they must be designed to run flat up to 60 mph. The glassed compartment can also be cut off from the outside against gas attack. It carries its own oxygen supply.

Exposed bodywork armor

Attackers shoot at the hood of the vehicle hoping to disable the engine or at the trunk, aiming at the fuel tank. This needs lightweight armor. The traditional steel to protect against ballistic attack is heavy and, unless the work is done very carefully, can be difficult to fit into vehicles without welding. Under heavy attack, welds can fracture and cause heavy armor to lose its integrity. Here are tests using the full range of guns, rifles, hand grenades and land mines:

Floor protection and fuel tank

With terrorists developing bombs to detonate underneath vehicles, it’s necessary to armor the floor with ballistic nylon sheeting in multiple layers. As with the glass, the point is to absorb the impact of the explosion and shrapnel as it fragments from the bomb. This is relatively lightweight and can be hidden under the seating and carpets. The same armor can be shaped round the fuel tank to prevent the gas from adding to the explosion. Here’s a video showing the US presidential car nicknamed the Beast 2010

A few samples from around the world

This is the British royal family, in this instance Kate Middleton and her father, in a 1977 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI. This is used less often but offers one of the best views of the passengers. The assumption is that the “royals” are not seriously at risk on happy state occasions.


Of course, not all heads of state feel they need protection from their adoring citizens. Here’s the official car driven by President Jose Mujica of Uruguay.


All of which leaves us with the ever-popular Russian President Putin who gets to ride in a Mercedes Benz S-Class Limousine model W221 here seen on an official visit to the ever safe British Isles. Needless to say, car safety is a high priority and this is heavily armored.


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