Armored Car The New Status Symbol?

The country's two largest automakers are jumping into the limited but expanding U.S. market for armored vehicles as drivers' concerns grow about terrorism and random violence.

The new vehicles being created by General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. can withstand shots from powerful handgun and high-powered rifle blasts.

"It's a small segment, but it's growing and it's profitable," Ford spokesman Todd Nissen said.

Ford's new Lincoln Town Car BPS (which stands for Ballistic Protection Series) will be available in late summer for $140,000. And GM's Cadillac division plans to introduce an armored Deville by year's end. Details on pricing are not yet available.

Prospective customers include corporate executives, politicians, government agencies and private citizens, Ford said.

Both companies say they began working on armored cars before Sept. 11, 2001, but that Americans' heightened sense of personal security since then and the expanding market have given them a greater impetus.

Mark Bentley, the product marketing manager for Lincoln's Town Car, said he and other executives who were pushing the project encountered numerous skeptics until the terrorist attacks.

"Suddenly, they said, 'We understand the need for this vehicle,'" Bentley said.

Until now, armored vehicles in the United States were products of aftermarket companies — businesses which take assembly line-made cars and customize them with armor and other features.

Popular choices for armoring include the Ford Crown Victoria, Chevrolet Suburban and, more recently, the Hummer H2, made by GM. The cost can range from $30,000 to $300,000 on top of the sticker price, depending on what features are included.

Leaders in the overseas armored car market include Mercedes-Benz and BMW, which introduced the 760Li High Security at this month's Geneva International Motor Show. The car can be hermetically sealed and supply passengers with oxygen in the event of a gas attack.

However, a BMW spokesman said the company no longer sells armored vehicles in the United States because of limited demand and costs associated with meeting federal motoring regulations.

Mercedes-Benz sells an S500 sedan in the United States that can withstand shots from a .44-caliber Magnum. Spokesman Rob Allan said the German automaker sells fewer than 100 of the $156,000 cars in the states annually, most of them to business executives concerned about becoming targets of random violence.

To equip its Deville, Cadillac will work with Illinois-based Scaletta Moloney Armoring Corp., which began making limousines in the 1970s but switched its focus to armoring in the late 1980s because of growing global demand.

Chief executive Joe Scaletta said his business has increased some 40 percent since Sept. 11. Much of his work is for the U.S. and foreign governments; private-sector clients include celebrities, CEOs and people who transport valuable cargo such as jewelry.

That kind of customer "may not be a millionaire, but he may be carrying a million dollars worth of jewelry," Scaletta said.

Market statistics in the armored segment of the auto industry are hard to come by because companies that outfit vehicles are protective of clients' identities. Ford, using proprietary sales information from glass manufacturers, estimates that total worldwide sales have grown 20 percent in each of the past several years and reached 18,000 in 2002.

To start, Ford plans to make 300 of the ballistic Town Cars, which will be shipped to an armoring company in Utah for outfitting. The cars will be sold by a limited number of dealers.

Ford will use a heavier limousine chassis, which is capable of handling 7,500 pounds of total weight, for the BPS cars. A regular Town Car weighs some 4,300 pounds; the armored vehicle will weigh 6,200 pounds, which the company estimates will decrease fuel efficiency by 20 percent.

The cars will be loaded with lightweight bullet-resistant plates of ballistic steel. Underneath, a thick blanket of synthetic fibers will provide limited blast protection.

Yet the vehicles will look like any other new Town Car on the road.

"The first line of defense for anyone at risk is discretion," Lincoln spokesman John Jraiche said. "We've developed this product with the right blend of luxury, security and discretion."