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Papal Wheels : Popemobile Usually a Mercedes--but Not Always

Times Staff Writer

The turtle-like white vehicle with the glass box on top has become as familiar a sight as its passenger, and it has gained a firm position in most of the world’s vocabularies. It is the Popemobile.

During his visit to the United States, Pope John Paul II is using two of them, both built by the West German car maker Mercedes-Benz with smaller-than-usual wheels so they can be rolled easily into a Boeing 747 cargo plane.

But there are Popemobiles and Popemobiles. The Catholic bishops of each country the pontiff visits are given the option of constructing their own or paying the estimated $25,000 that it costs to ship one of the Vatican’s six Popemobiles by air.

In poor countries such as the Central African Republic or Papua New Guinea, the financially hard-pressed bishops often choose the local option, hastily converting flatbed trucks, vans and four-wheel-drive, off-road utility vehicles with a few sheets of bulletproof glass and white paint to look more or less like the the real article.

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Warsaw Vehicle Most Unusual

Neither Vatican officials nor the 50 or so journalists who fly with the Pope on his trips abroad have bothered counting the dozens of home-built Popemobiles that have seen service on his parade routes, but most agree that the most unusual was rolled out in Warsaw last June when John Paul made his third papal visit to his native country.

A flatbed Polska truck had been converted into a flower-bedecked mobile sanctuary for a traditional Polish eucharistic procession and, were it not for its solemn purpose, could have won awards in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade. Rising from the garlands were two platforms, one slightly higher than the other, supporting prayer kneelers at which the pontiff and the Polish primate, Cardinal Josef Glemp, knelt in solemn devotion throughout a two-mile procession at walking speed through downtown Warsaw.

A pair of white Mercedes 230-G Popemobiles owned by the Vatican are being used alternately during the American journey, one leapfrogging to the next destination while the other is in use, according to Piergaetano Tozzi, an engineer at the Vatican garage.

In case of a breakdown, such as occurred in Alice Springs, Australia, last fall and in Spain in 1982, the remaining vehicle will do double-duty, he said.

Despite its worldwide familiarity, the Popemobile is a relatively new invention, born out of concern for the Pope’s safety after he was shot by a Turkish terrorist in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981.

To get maximum exposure to crowds of the faithful, the pontiff had used Jeep-type vehicles in which he could stand holding onto a safety bar, or he rode exposed in open cars or converted trucks when visiting abroad.

Fears for His Life

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But heightened fears for his life after the shooting prompted not only the design of a new parade Popemobile but also the addition of armored glass and door panels to two Mercedes sedans that the pontiff uses for local travel in Italy.

All the Popemobiles owned by the Vatican have armored bodies and glass but, according to Joaquin Navarro Valls, the Vatican spokesman, some of them have been modified since they were built.

“We were afraid the Holy Father was at risk of dying from the heat, so all of them were air-conditioned,” he said.

In addition, Navarro said, John Paul insisted that the side windows of the glass compartment be arranged so that he can slide them open to feel closer to the people who line his motorcade routes.

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John Paul also asked for the installation of loudspeaker systems in the Popemobiles so he can address the people whenever he wishes.

A further addition to the Mercedes Popemobiles, which are somewhat smaller than the others, was a bench seat at the rear of the papal compartment. Since the Pope rarely sits down, the seat is usually occupied by his secretary, Msgr. Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the bishop or archbishop of the diocese he is visiting. His valet, Angelo Gugel, usually rides beside the driver in the front seat.

THE POPEMOBILE FEATURES 1. The Pope’s two Mercedes automobiles have wraparound windows that can be opened form the back and from the sides. These windows are made of Lexigard, a transparent protective material. 2. The Pope rides in the rear compartment. There are usually two people sitting behind the Holy Father, generally his secretary and a bishop. 3. Two persons can ride in the enclosed driver’s section. SPECIFICATIONS Mercedes Automobile 230 G Displacement 2,307 cc Fuel Benzine Length 15.1 feet Width 6.1 feet Height 9.2 feet Steering wheel to left Power brakes and steering Automatic Transmission


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