A Peek Inside the Popemobile

Pope Benedict XVI's wheels for his U.S. tour are sitting at the training headquarters for the U.S. Secret Service in Beltsville, Md. The car was shipped over from Rome two weeks ago, and when NEWSWEEK was invited for a sneak peek this week, it was parked in one of the facility's empty lots beside other vehicles the agents are using to prepare for the pontiff's arrival tomorrow. But Benedict's car doesn't look like the others. In part that's because it's a Mercedes, which contrasts with the agency's mostly Chevy limousines and SUVs. But it's also hard to miss with a six-foot-tall glass enclosure built to showcase the pontiff.

Suffice it to say that Benedict's ride between public appearances is not quite your father's Mercedes. The popemobile is a custom-built two-door Mercedes ML 430 that was donated to the Vatican in 2002. The car has no markings, except for the Mercedes logo on the front, the Vatican coat of arms on each door and a specialized license plate that reads "SCV 1," an acronym for the Vatican's name in Italian and the number of the Holy Father's place in the church hierarchy. It's by far the fanciest and sleekest papal car ever built, and although it has been used around the Vatican for a few years, Benedict's most souped-up car is set to make its public debut in America this week.

The popemobile isn't its official name, because it doesn't have one. In fact, Pope John Paul II pleaded with journalists to stop using the term in 2002 because he thought it sounded "undignified." So it's not surprising that a Vatican spokesman couldn't say whether popemobile (small p) describes every car in the pontiff's fleet or whether only the car in use by the pope is the Popemobile with a big p (the same way any plane carrying the U.S. president becomes Air Force One).

Whatever the linguistic distinctions, the car itself is pretty posh. The seat from which the pontiff will bless the crowds along four different parade routes is upholstered with white leather and has bars for him to hold while standing. The windows aren't ordinary windows; they're double-pane bulletproof glass that will protect him from the elements as well as the crowd. He can roll down the windows, but security officials said they will strongly caution him not to.

It's a distinct upgrade from the different vehicles used during the tenure of his predecessor, John Paul II, who was the first pontiff to ride in a vehicle with a bulletproof glass enclosure. The glass, which looks like a rectangular bubble, was introduced after a failed assassination attempt on the late pontiff in 1981. Prior to that, 20th-century papal cars were usually regular vehicles like limousines and sedans. Popes of past centuries, if they traveled at all, would be transported the same way any dignitary would: in a carriage with horses. "The more important the person, the more horses would be pulling the carriage," says Catholic historian and Benedict biographer Brennan Pursell. "So the pope would probably have a lot of horses."

By that standard, Benedict is the most important pope ever. His Mercedes has a 272 horsepower engine with an automatic transmission. Then, of course, there's a full climate-control system to ensure that the pontiff doesn't get too hot or cold en route. And if he wants to fill the silence in his private enclosure, the car's got a full stereo system with a tape deck. (What, no iPod?)

The first papal vehicle, a Nurberg 460 Pullman limousine, was made for Pope Pius XI back in 1930 by Mercedes Benz, which has traditionally supplied vehicles to the Vatican. Now, whenever the current pope wants a new car, the automaker will pull out all stops to construct a new vehicle "specially converted for use by the Holy Father," says the company, meaning they're designed to operate at low speeds and provide a seat for the pope to sit in comfortably. Of course, it can go faster, too: the papal handlers can shift their passenger from zero to 60 in less than eight seconds, but the drivers probably won't exceed 10 mph along the parade routes. That slow speed will give the pontiff enough time to interact with the crowds hoping for a glimpse of him. And his car.