Popemobiles - A Brief History Of Papal Conveyances

car blog
Pope Paul VI - 1965 New York visit

Recent events in Rome have created a great deal of print-babble about the role of the Pope and the Church. And those pesky Papal Proclamations. And, for me, papal vehicles.

The first rule of being a Catholic is to be very skeptical about Vatican proclamations. The Church sometimes proffers such Infallible Truths when it's being cranky and needs a good nap. The problem is it often sleeps on the matter at hand for hundreds of years, much to the detriment of the folks affected. Just ask Galileo.

The first rule begets the second rule - if a Papal Edict sounds nuts, just ignore it. (It will eventually go away.) In 2000, John Paul II denounced genetically-modified food as a threat to nature that would eventually turn on the planet in a nightmare of biblical proportions. A few years later (after sleeping on the matter), he decided to portray such technology as a savior of the poor and starving. Another Nutty Pronouncement bit the dust.

Which brings me to cars. In the 16th Century, Pope Pius IV declared that riding in a coach was forbidden to Catholics - such an act was a way of identifying with the devil. There was, of course, no video in those days and written records are incomplete.

So no one knows the demeanor of the Pope when he made this announcement. We don't know if Pius rotated his hat ninety-degrees and thrust his hand into his tunic in Napoleon-like lunacy before speaking. Or was drunk at the time, giggling uncontrollably like a Japanese schoolgirl in a Hello Kitty store. Or was perfectly serious.

Or batshit-crazy serious, with the off-kilter, spittle-laced quarter-smile, the scary, soft-spoken calm and the unblinking eyes of the seriously deranged - a role often and convincingly played by Billy Bob Thornton. ("Mmmmm. Ah think ah'll have some o' them 'taters.")

After hearing Pius IV's edict, the Church drank a glass of warm milk and took a nap. Upon awakening several years later, it realized that Pius' devil-machine proclamation was nuts and pretended the whole thing never happened.

car blogging
Pius IV devilishly piloting a Jeep 4x4
or, as it would have been known in those days,
a Jeep IV x IV.

Thus, Pius' declaration didn't stop later pontiffs from riding in horse-drawn coaches and later, fine automobiles. One of his namesake successors, Pius X, had a 1915 Chicago Electric car. Pius XI, favored the Italian-made Isotta Fraschini limousine.

The next pope, Pius XII, had several Cadillacs (prewar and postwar), including a Derham-bodied model with a throne in the back seat that could be elevated.

Pius XII's replacement, Pope John XXIII, rode in a 1960 black Mercedes 300 limousine with a top down rear section so that he could be seen by crowds.

There is a model of John XXIII in his Mercedes on my model train layout. He is blessing a couple of nuns in front of Our Lady of O-Gauge Church. Pope John also had a standard Lincoln sedan. John XXIII was followed by Pope Paul VI.

During Pope Paul VI's visit to the U.S. in 1965, he was supplied a special 1964 Lincoln hastily prepared by the Lehmann-Peterson coachbuilding firm. The car had a detachable transparent vinyl rear roof section as well as side and back step plates for security personnel (photo at top of page). The rear throne seat was elevated, could be adjusted in height with a crank and was illuminated at night.

A special speedboat-like Plexiglas wraparound windshield was mounted around the open section, just behind the driver's compartment to protect the Pope whether seated or standing. The car offered no special armoring - surprising in light of the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. This car suffered severe damage when the roof of a storage facility collapsed on it in 1966 but was rebodied and used by Pope Paul VI again during a 1968 trip to Columbia. In 2011, this special Lincoln was sold at auction.

In 1966, during a visit to the United Nations in New York, Pope Paul VI was presented with the gold ignition keys to a new 1966 Imperial LeBaron sedan. The black four-door hardtop was fitted with a gray broadcloth interior.

Unlike other pontiffs, who were conveyed about in large black limousines, Pope John Paul II often used a small white jeep (a late-1970s Fiat model), dubbed the 'Popemobile.' The pope hung on to the roll bar of the open jeep, bringing him closer to his flock as he waved and blessed them while his the jeep weaved slowly through the crowds. Even after the assassination attempt in 1981, John Paul II continued to ride in a jeep-like vehicle, albeit one fitted with bulletproof glazing.

Too bad the Vatican doesn't have a Papal Car Museum open to the public. It could be a good money maker for the Church. I'd certainly visit it, as would a lot of car enthusiasts. Maybe the Vatican is afraid that ghost of crazy ol' Pius IV would show up periodically and deflate all the tires. (posted 4/11/05)

Traveling In Small Style: Pope Francis rides through the Philadelphia suburbs in his small Fiat Popemobile sedan during his September 2015 visit to the Philadelphia area. I wonder - does the Popemobile's speedometer have Roman numerals?

Photo taken near Havertown, PA by my cousin, Fred.

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