Heaven on Wheels: 7 Super Cool Popemobiles

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We’ve had a pope (sometimes two at once) for two millennia; we’ve had cars for a century. For most of popedom, the head of the Catholic church was carried around on a chair held aloft by twelve poles, one for each disciple. There was one man per pole, and they lifted the pope up above the thronging crowds, the better to see his pointy hat and waving hand. Once the automobile and its safety and usefulness had been proven, though, the Vatican was happy to accept cars as gifts. (For an exhaustive archive of the Pope’s transportation choices, consider The Washington Post’s illustrated history.)

Since the first Popemobile arrived on the scene, different pontiffs have exercised their personal vehicle preferences, trading in Mercedes-Benz limos for custom-built trucks, luxury SUVs, and armored vehicles.

Below are a few of the more interesting vehicles Pope Francis and his predecessors have waved from over the past century—not including the Ferrari Pope John Paul II had in the Vatican garage.


Courtesy of Motor Trend

When Mercedes-Benz gave Pope Pius XI a stretch 460 Nurburg edition car, those 12 pole-carrying guys were probably pretty relieved. Vatican insiders at the time simply called this Benz “the Rome vehicle,” as it was used as a kind of around-town car. It didn’t have any armor, though Mercedes made that option available in 1928. Like all the pope’s cars to come, this one carried the license plate “SCV-1,” for “status civitatus Vaticanae,” and the pope being Numero Uno. The Vatican kept this particular car for 30 years. The pope must have one hell of a mechanic.

Mercedes-Benz proudly proclaims that it has always been the official vehicle supplier of the Popes, but that’s only kind of true. When popes started jetting around the world in the mid-twentieth century, local manufacturers would kit out a car for them to use while in foreign countries.


Courtesy of CatholicHotDish

Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit the United States, in 1964, and he was given a fat Lincoln Continental limousine to use for his tour. It was customized by Lehmann-Peterson with platforms for security officers along the sides, an open roof, and a little 10-inch windshield above the usual windshield to keep the breeze from blowing off the pontiff’s beanie. Since a limousine wouldn’t fit in the overhead bins, Pope Paul didn’t take the car home as a souvenir. Instead, it remained Stateside and would be used by returning American astronauts and in Chicago as a parade car for dignitaries.


Courtesy of World Irish

The first car known popularly as the Popemobile debuted in Dublin, Ireland, in 1979. A Ford truck was completely customized to hold the waving Pope John Paul II above the crowds, much the same way the twelve men with poles carried the old popes out to see the masses. The truck has what looks like a greenhouse, which held the throne and was big enough to house a little papal entourage, too. There was also an open-air platform for standing and being beneficent. Sound good to you? You’re in luck! This repainted Popemobile can be yours for £300 a night, courtesy of its current owners at the Dublin Wax Museum.


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Popemobiles made a big change after John Paul II was shot four times—not fatally—in 1981. On his tour of the United Kingdom in 1982, he used two fully armored, bomb-proof, four-wheel-drive Land Rovers to get around. They also had the greenhouse and throne in back for visibility and waving, but the pope’s advisors put the kibosh on the outdoor platform. (By the way, when John Paul II was shot, he was riding in a jeep-like modified Fiat Campaignola. Benedict XVI used it even as late as 2012 to get around the Vatican.)


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In 2002, Pope John Paul II traded up for a more hip Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen in his signature papal Mystic White. In keeping with his new, cool image, he also asked that people stop calling his modified cars with thrones “Popemobiles.” The throne itself is white with the Vatican’s coat of arms embroidered in the upholstery. The Pope may be infallible and the Vicar of Christ on Earth, but the word “Popemobile” is here to stay.


Courtesy of CarAdvice

In early 2013—that's just before Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement—the Vatican unveiled a new version of the Popemobile. The Mercedes-Benz M-Class boasted soft halogen lighting over the throne and a motorized lift in the greenhouse to raise the pope up even further for better visibility. This M-Class was made shorter, too, making it easier to bring along on a plane.


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Pope Francis has chosen to eschew the high-security Popemobiles used by his predecessors, likening the bulletproof cars to sardine cans. When he visited Ecuador in July 2015, he traveled in a custom-built, unarmored Jeep. When he landed in the U.S. this week, he again opted for something not too ostentatious. He rode from the airport in a diminutive Fiat 500L, and during his procession around D.C.’s National Mall, he waved to crowds from his retrofitted Jeep Wrangler.

A version of this post originally appeared in 2013.

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