In homeland-security era, a market for bulletproof cars

Ford and Cadillac are set to unveil new armored sedans aimed at CEOs who fear terrorist reprisals.

If you thought the Hummer was the closest thing to a tank on the roads of America, think again.

Lincoln's new Ballistic Protection Series Town Car looks like a regular, if portly sedan, but it's equipped with 1,800 pounds of bullet-resistant armor. The limited-edition version of the Town Car also comes with "blast blankets" that cover the undercarriage and are able to absorb the force of an explosion, the gas tanks are coated in rubber to minimize leaks, and its run-flat tires maintain the ability for a speedy getaway even if pierced by bullets.

Not exactly your standard menu of extra features. Yet Ford, which produces the Lincoln brand, is set to roll out 300 of the bulletproof cars onto several car dealers' lots by the end of summer. It's not the only major automaker getting into the game of making automobiles that makes James Bond cars look about as battle-ready as a Yugo jalopy. Cadillac is gearing up to release an armored version of its DeVille (price tag likely to be north of $100,000) and, since it introduced the impenetrable S500 Sedan in 2001, Mercedes has sold an average of 15 per year.

Car manufacturers say the vehicles are a response to terrorism concerns in an era of homeland security. And not just from diplomats and politicians. Some American CEOs in international markets fear they may be targeted by terrorists. A few buyers are willing to pay an additional premium for peace of mind at a time when the color-code alert never dips below yellow.

"Since 9/11, people who were on the fence about buying armored cars are now buying them," says Tony Scotty, a retired expert in rolling armor. "Before 9/11, the threat was random violence," what's known in the industry as the smash and grab. "Now the threat is targeted violence."

Though the armored-car industry also sees a potential market for, say, doctors worried about antiabortion extremists or celebrities shadowed by overzealous fans - experts predict that some CEOs with international connections may take extra precautions on the road to guard against terrorist reprisals against the US. [Editor's note: The original version of this story mischaracterized the threat to doctors who are potentially interested in armored vehicles. Presumably, these doctors are worried about antiabortion extremists, not abortion-rights activists.]

"What nobody's saying is that if you are a company that has Israeli or Jewish ties, you're a target," says Mr. Scotty.

Experts call the market for armored cars "tiny" but say it's growing at a sturdy rate and had been even before Sept. 11. "We studied the market and found that it was growing 20 percent a year," says Mark Bentley, the product marketing manager for the Lincoln Town Car.

Until now, most armored cars have not been tooled at the factory plant, but at armory specialists who customize the vehicles for their clients. Often, they're car-rental agencies. We're not talking about the likes of Hertz and Avis, but specialty companies such as Secure Car Worldwide. Rich Cooley, vice president of operations for the company (Motto: "Visible Luxury with Invisible Protection") says they have about 20 armored cars nationwide. The cost for a bulletproof car can be $2,000 per day.

There may be 20 armored sedans in the streets of Los Angeles at any time - and they're all rented out on Oscar night. "Entertainers have a definite need for 'security cars,' " says Mr. Cooley, known as an expert in the industry. "Many have stalkers," for example.

And some have slightly more to worry about. In April, gunmen opened fire on a convoy carrying rapper Snoop Dogg through Los Angeles. When the rapper, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, arrived at an award show late last month, he and several body guards piled out of a bulletproof van with gun ports.

Most armored vehicles, though, are ordinary looking - but nevertheless cream-of-the-crop - Mercedes S500 sedans, BMW 750iL's and ubiquitous black Suburbans.

Inside the cars, however, are ceramic and Kevlar linings in the doors and roof and in strategic locations in the engine compartment. Window glass is shatter -proof and up to four inches thick (forget about rolling down the windows for the see-and-be-seen network on Rodeo Drive).

All that weight means these cars aren't exactly the ultimate driving machines. They're more akin to overloaded Sherman tanks. Armored cars wear so much on suspension and brakes that the average life expectancy of cars that have been fixed up by aftermarket armories is two years.

That's one reason why car manufacturers are producing the cars themselves.

"There were all these companies out there not manufacturing to any standard," says Mr. Bentley, who says Ford rigorously tests its armored vehicles for their resistance to bullets and bumps in the road.

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