Full-Metal Traffic Jam

When all those limos pull up to the red carpet at the Oscars this month, some will be outfitted more elaborately than the stars. Beneath their shiny exteriors is the hottest new automotive accessory--bulletproof armor. Just ask David Seelinger, president of Secure Car Worldwide. He's struggling to keep up with calls from VIPs eager to pay $2,000 a day to ride in his steel-plated limos. CEOs are armoring themselves against terrorism, movie stars are getting death threats and rappers fear assassination. To keep up with demand, Seelinger has more than tripled his armored fleet to 10 cars. "This is absolutely a sign of the times," he says.

With homeland insecurity rising, the car business is going ballistic. Ford is introducing the $140,000 Lincoln Town Car BPS--for Ballistic Protection Series--which can stop an AK-47 and block a grenade. Later this year GM will roll out an armored Cadillac Deville capable of deflecting bullets from a .44 magnum. At last week's Geneva Motor Show, BMW introduced the 760Li High Security, which can be hermetically sealed in a gas attack and supply its occupants with germ-free oxygen. Car-armor customizers are now putting full-metal jackets on Cadillac Escalades and Hummer H2s--at prices ranging from $30,000 to $350,000 above sticker price. Armored-car makers, whose big customers traditionally have been in developing countries, say the United States is now one of the fastest-growing markets. At Scaletta Moloney in Chicago, one of the world's top armoring specialists, U.S. sales have shot up 40 percent since Orange alerts entered the lexicon. "People have awoken to the fact that it can happen here," says CEO Joe Scaletta.

But even armored cars have their limits, much to the disappointment of some customers. "We try to defuse the James Bond myth," says Scaletta marketing VP Dan Trainor. That means no rocket launchers, oil slicks or gun ports. The idea is not to stand and fight but to make a quick getaway, which is why Scaletta offers optional "ram bumpers." The Lincoln BPS advertises itself as bullet-resistant, not bulletproof. "Even an Abrams tank isn't bulletproof," says BPS chief engineer John Jraiche. "To penetrate our vehicle you'd have to hit the same spot multiple times." How many times? "We don't want to give the bad guys too much information," says Jraiche.

To get the word out to the good guys, carmakers are struggling with overkill. Lincoln postponed unveiling its car in Washington last fall because of the D.C. sniper. "We didn't want to look bloodthirsty," explains BPS marketing chief Mark Bentley. When 80 invited guests arrived at a cavernous warehouse for the introduction in January, they were first required to navigate a long, dark hallway amid sounds of screaming, breaking glass and barking dogs. It's also been difficult to hit the perfect pitch--urgent but not alarmist--in ads that will run in Limo Digest and the rich-guy glossy the Robb Report. In them, a fleeing car appears in the cross hairs beneath the headline the ability to stay cooler under fire. Ford's lawyers shot down the slogan even when it's raining bullets.

On the street, armored cars are designed to avoid attention. But heave open the armor-plated doors, and you'll see "bullet traps" framing the inside of the doors. The Lincoln and an armored Chevy Suburban driven by NEWSWEEK gripped snowy roads like a tank, thanks to nearly a ton of body armor. But the most startling part about being encased in sound-deadening armor is the eerie silence. "It's like being inside a coffin," says Lincoln's Bentley. Perhaps. But isn't that what this car is supposed to prevent?