Armored passenger cars and SUVs will be featured at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Aug. 25-28 Food Lion AutoFair. The four-wheeled fortresses will be joined by an exhibit showcasing 100 years of Chevrolet automobiles, the world’s lowest street-legal vehicle, rock crawlers and movie and television cars.
Most people think of stock-looking bulletproof cars as ferrying heads of state, but Prohibition-era gangsters were really the first highly visible buyers of such exotic machinery in the 1920s. Custom coachbuilders transformed expensive, powerful sedans from Cadillac, Rolls-Royce and Duesenberg into rolling bunkers by hiding substantial sheets of iron behind the factory doors, fenders and hoods. Panes of inch-thick, high-impact glass could deflect bullets from any handheld weapon available at the time.
Such armor upgrades added as much as one-and-a-half tons to a luxury car’s already impressive heft. Chicago mobster Al Capone’s 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan weighed more than 9,000 pounds in full defensive trim, hindering its ability to speed away from danger, go around corners or pass a gas station.
Through a stranger-than-fiction twist of history, this special Caddy secretly became America’s first armored presidential transport. Agents of the U.S. Department of the Treasury impounded the green-and-black Cadillac after arresting Capone for income tax evasion in 1929 but brought it out of storage in December 1942 at the emergency request of the Secret Service. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s security detail needed to convey him safely to the Capitol to declare war on Japan for attacking military bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and there were no defensive automobiles in the White House fleet. Roosevelt used the gangster’s Cadillac until Ford Motor Co. and a specialty firm in New York constructed for him an armored four-door Lincoln V-12 convertible the press dubbed the “Sunshine Special.” To get around a budget cap of $750 for individual car purchases, the White House leased the Lincoln from Ford for $500 per year.
As demand for bulletproof automobiles grew in the second half of the 20th century, advances in technology improved the effectiveness of materials used to build them. DuPont’s lightweight Kevlar, a synthetic fiber that can be woven into mats and bulletproof vests, gave builders an alternative to sheet steel. Later composites used to deflect bullets included ceramic and carbon fiber. Makers of bulletproof glass – what we now call “transparent armor” – sandwich several layers of clear polycarbonate between panels of glass to ensure shattered window shards do not harm occupants. There is even a technique for making windows that repel bullets fired from outside the car but allow them to pass through when fired from inside the car.
Installing special glass and armor panels in a factory-built sedan or SUV is only the first step to creating a passive-defense vehicle. How many layers of fortification the owner wants depends on the size of his bank account and the kind of weapons his enemies have. To avoid any chance of “ballistic leakage” into the passenger compartment, an experienced armorer will address every weak point of a vehicle’s body or chassis, including the roof, door seams, firewall and floorpans. Vulnerable elements such as the gas tank, engine, radiator and battery must be kept intact so the car can escape under its own power. Run-flat or puncture-resistant tires are a necessity.
Bomb-absorbing underbodies are especially popular in parts of the world where blowing up cars is a common means of expressing disagreement with another person’s political or religious views. Depending on the rules governing the country of delivery, some vehicles can be outfitted with active defense mechanisms such as smokescreen generators, tire spike dispensers, oil sprayers, sirens and, in certain anything-goes nations, flamethrowers. Hidden gun ports have surprised many a carjacker.
Even with today’s lightweight ballistic materials, a full bulletproof conversion on a full-size SUV adds as much as 1,500 to 2,000 pounds.
By the start of the 21st century, worldwide concerns of terrorism, kidnappings and random street crime elevated vehicle armoring into a billion-dollar-a-year industry. There are hundreds of companies selling these specialized cars on six continents. A BBC News report estimated Brazil – a country rampant with armed traffic robberies – had 50,000 cars with some level of bulletproofing and that dealers were selling 7,500 such vehicles per year. Murders and kidnappings attributed to drug cartel wars have given rise to 70 Mexican companies that bulletproof cars. In the United States, professional athletes, corporation heads, movie stars and other potential targets of abduction or violence eagerly spend anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 above the price of a new car for passive-defense protection.
Two longtime manufacturers of armored vehicles will display bulletproof vehicles during the Food Lion AutoFair. Texas Armoring Corp., of San Antonio, Texas, has been constructing bulletproof cars since the 1970s from a wide range of domestic and foreign brands. The company is bringing a new Cadillac Escalade so thoroughly fortified that its builders call it simply “The Beast.” The Streit Group was founded in 1996 to provide armored cars for the cash-in-transit industry and quickly expanded into the specialized military and law enforcement markets. Streit (pronounced “straight”), which conducts business in more than 100 countries and opened a facility in Charleston, S.C., in 2008, is bringing a 2011 Chevrolet Suburban and 2011 Mercedes-Benz S550 sedan.
Food Lion AutoFair
Hours for the Aug. 25-28 Food Lion AutoFair are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 per day for adults or $25 for a four-day pass; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.