As most of the world now knows, the 115 cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church elected a new pope yesterday, who took the name of Francis I in tribute to St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis is the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina. You know that we’d find a car connection to this news item, though. Francis I gets the keys to the 2012 Mercedes-Benz ML-based Popemobile.
Prior to the assassination attempt on John Paul II in May 1981 that very nearly ended that pope’s life just two years into his long reign, popes often met with crowds in open-topped vehicles. The Swiss Guard, traditional providers of papal security since 1506, took on a much more active security role (in addition to their ceremonial role) following John Paul II’s assassination attempt. The guards received enhanced training in unarmed combat and small arms.
The 1981 assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca caused a re-think of the security of papal transport. Open-topped vehicles, though still occasionally used, fell out of favor, and bubble-topped vehicles with the papal throne in the back became the norm for the colloquially-named Popemobile.
The primary Popemobile today is a 2012 Mercedes-Benz M-Class SUV, heavily modified to lose its rear doors, and to add armor and the characteristic “hunchback” look with the squared-off throne room that allows the pope’s faithful to see their leader clearly. To aid in visibility, the Popemobile has extra lighting throughout the cabin, including a ceiling that is fully illuminated. As a result, the pope can be seen clearly from the outside regardless of lighting or weather conditions.
Ingress/egress by the Holy Father is done through a left-hinged rear door, plus a small staircase. The Popemobile’s license plate reads SCV 1, which stands for two things, depending on your language preference, either “Stato della Città del Vaticano” (Italian) and “Status Civitatis Vaticanae” (Latin), the names for Vatican City.
Interestingly, although Pope Francis has the keys to the Popemobile, he may break with tradition and choose more plebian forms of transport. As a cardinal, he lived a life of simplicity in his native Buenos Aries, living in a small rented room and traveling via public transit. Even after his election to the papacy, reports say that he jumped onto the bus with the other cardinals to travel from the Sistine Chapel to the Santa Maria Residence rather than riding in the Popemobile as had been offered to him.
If Francis chooses to never use the Popemobile (an unlikely scenario for reasons of practicality and safety), I wonder if Daimler would ask for it back, or if the Vatican might list it in the local used-car classified ads. Back in December 2012 – just three months ago – Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche presented the new Popemobile to Benedict XVI, presumably as a gift (not to mention the ultimate product placement). It’s estimated that this newest Popemobile cost approximately $565,000.
The pope also has access to other Popemobiles. There’s an old Fiat-based model that is open-topped for local Vatican City transit, and when the pope visits other countries, if they can provide transport for the pope that meets the Swiss Guards’ security and visibility requirements, it may be an entirely different Popemobile.