The images of John F Kennedy waving from the back seat of a Lincoln Continental four-door convertible (code-named SS-100-X by the US Secret Service) on November 22, 1963 are sadly and shockingly unforgettable. A certain Lee Harvey Oswald saw to that.
The graphic assassination of the charismatic US president had many ramifications, one of which was to highlight the need for dignitary-bearing vehicles that didn’t leave their VIP occupants vulnerable to attacks such as these.
In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, SS-100-X received significant armour plating, a bulletproof hard-top, and was painted black. It resumed its role as a presidential limousine for president Lyndon Johnson until 1967 and remained in service until 1978, when it was sent to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
However, the threats to heads of state and oligarchs have now become far more sophisticated than the days of Oswald and his bolt-action rifle. The modern-day terrorist has at his or her disposal military assault rifles, hand grenades, explosive devices and lethal gases that can be unleashed (potentially simultaneously) at an assassination target.
And so have evolved an ever more sophisticated breed of armoured VIP limousine that, for all intents and purposes, look more or less like their standard derivatives, but are in actual fact able to repel most or all of these threats, and enable their human cargo to live and breathe another day.
It’s distressingly obvious that the world is becoming a more dangerous place. The recent terror attacks in Europe, and ongoing unrest and violence in various regions of the Middle East are stark reminders of that. This has prompted increased demand for armour-plated VIP vehicles, and among the manufacturers that have made a dedicated business out of this market niche are Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
Each of these manufacturers offers sophisticated limos designed to offer the highest levels of occupant protection short of a tank. In fact, Audi recently rolled out its latest A8 L Security, which is classified as a VR 9 vehicle according to the ratings system used to quantify a car’s efficacy against terror threats. To decode a little, VR 9 means the armoured A8 L offers protection against a barrage (up to 400 rounds) of 7.62mm x 51mm cartridges fired from military assault rifles, and it also protects its occupants against hand grenades, explosive charges and noxious gases.
Creating a vehicle that does all this while also offering the driving characteristics and comfort levels of a standard A8 L limo is a convoluted and labour-intensive process. Each car takes about six months (about 450 man hours) to build, and there’s a high level of handcrafting involved.
This helps explain why the starting price for an A8 L Security is just over Dh1.6m, which is roughly triple the cost of a standard (non-armoured) A8 L 6.0 W12. Yet, unless you look carefully at the car, you won’t pick up on the fact it’s anything out of the ordinary. It’s all skilfully integrated.
The A8 L Security’s aluminium side sills incorporate solid ballistic profiles that boost protection against explosive weapons, and the armour-plated vehicle floor — made of a special aluminium alloy — serves the same purpose. Meanwhile, the special glass used for the 62mm-thick windows have a splinter-inhibiting polycarbonate layer on the inside, which means they’re impenetrable even by Nato assault rifle bullets.
Not surprisingly, the Middle East is the biggest market for the A8 L armoured vehicles, accounting for about 20 per cent of production, according to the head of the sales manager of Audi Security Vehicles, Fritz Pakleppa.
“When I started in this business, countries such as Spain and Italy created the largest demand, but the situation is changing as there isn’t so much of a terrorist threat in those countries, and they’re running out of money in any case,” he told wheels.
Among the A8 L Security’s bag of tricks is an intercom system that passengers can use to communicate with the outside world when the windows are shut. It consists of a loudspeaker in the single-frame grille, and interior and exterior microphones.
What’s more, the car has been created so no one can get in, but in case it’s involved in a big accident that requires the occupants to make a quick exit from the vehicle, there’s a special system to disconnect the doors with explosives. In order to activate it, the driver (or any occupant) needs to break a seal and push a button. A light then illuminates to show that the system is primed, and when the door handles are subsequently pulled, the explosives discharge, cutting off the heads of the bolts in the door hinges. The portals will then release and can be simply pushed out. “Normally we don’t compare with our opposition, but the Mercedes (armoured limo) doesn’t offer any emergency-exit system, while the BMW only disconnects the frame of the windshield,” Pakleppa explains. “But then you have to push out the windshield (which weighs 100kg), and then you have to evacuate the VIP in the back via the front window. It’s all a bit complicated, so I feel our system is the best.
“So with our competitors’ cars you normally need the emergency workers to cut open the car after an accident, but to gain access to the passenger cell of an armoured car is quite a challenge. In the past we had an incident with one of our cars in Kyrgyzstan. The car was going through an intersection and there was a van coming from the right. It ended up in a 90-degree impact on the B-pillar and the doors just wouldn’t open. But thanks to our system the occupants could simply push the button and exit safely. The customer was really delighted because his son was riding in the car. He even called us to thank us for creating a system that enabled his son to escape from the crash.”
Pakleppa says it’s also possible to have a remote-activated system that would enable the door-release system to be triggered from the outside in case the occupants aren’t conscious after a crash, but the danger here is if the remote gets in the wrong hands. “However, we have created such a system in the past for the German State Police,” he adds. Among the A8 L Security’s high-profile customers is German chancellor Angela Merkel (there are three such vehicles in her entourage). “It was her choice to use Audis as she could have used any of our competitors’ cars,” Pakleppa says. “But the cars have to be certified as being safe by the German State Police in order to be used. She can’t say, for example, ‘I want to use a Bentley convertible’, because it wouldn’t be suited to the job.”
Special lights are also part of the package, and these are designed for the car’s unique job description.
“We have all kinds of flashing blue lights in the car. In addition, we have a convoy light system, because when travelling in close proximity, the driver of the car behind may not know what the one in front is doing. With our car, there is a green light at the back that glows when the car is accelerating, so the driver of the car behind knows that he can also accelerate. When the driver of the first car lifts off the throttle (but without braking), a yellow light comes on, so the following vehicle knows they have to slow down and be prepared to brake. This allows two cars to travel in very close proximity, so no intruder’s vehicle can get in between.
“It’s very good for governmental use, but we also sell a lot to rich guys in Mexico, who are accompanied by motorcycle convoys. If these riders aren’t paying close attention, they can crash into the rear bumper of the car, so our light system minimises the risk of this happening.”
Among the threats the A8 L Security must repel is fire, which is a likely consequence wherever there are grenades and explosives around, and for this purpose there’s an extinguishing system comprising pipes under the floor and in the engine compartment.
“There are sensors that melt when it gets too hot, which then triggers the extinguishing system, putting out the fire within seconds,” Pakleppa says. “The extinguisher contains a special powder that takes all the oxygen out of the fire, and it literally takes just two or three seconds to out the flames.
“Another system that’s very important is a fresh-air system that protects against gas attacks. If there is such a threat, on-board sensors detect it and warn the driver, who must then break a seal and push a button. This activates an oxygen system that provides enough air for four people to breathe for about 10 minutes, which is enough time to escape from a dangerous situation.”
There is one proviso, though: the sensors can’t discern individual gases. It only lets the driver know if air quality has deteriorated, so ultimately action has to be taken manually.
Naturally, the Michelin tyres are also specially designed for the task, and this means they enable the car to continue driving even if they’re shredded by gunshots, explosives or a ‘stinger’ device (spikes on the road). What makes this possible is a polymer ring surrounding the rim that serves as a makeshift tyre in the event of a deflation. “Even if you lose one tyre, you don’t feel any difference in driving,” Pakleppa says. “The air suspension also helps regulate the ride and balance of the car. The official figure from Michelin says you can go at up to 80kph if the tyres are deflated, but we’ve tried it at even double this speed and it’s still fine.”
The 500 horsepower, 625Nm 6.0-litre W12 engine and transmission are standard, but the A8 L Security is equipped with ‘super-hot country cooling’ to cater to the added weight and extreme demands of the car. Interestingly, there isn’t any protection for the radiator, but Pakleppa says even if it is ruptured by gunshot, the engine will continue to function long enough to escape a dangerous situation.
“We are focusing on the armouring of the passenger cell. It’s not possible to armour every part of the car… then you have to go for a tank. If you buy the car you can also send two drivers to Germany for three days’ special training (it’s included in the price). We teach them not just how to drive the car effectively, but also about the thinking that they have to adopt. One example is if somebody is standing in front of the car with a gun — the normal human reaction is to brake, but we teach in this instance to keep going. It’s things like this that make all the difference. The nature of the threat has also changed. In the past you might have to protect against a blast two metres from the car, but now you have some crazy guy with a suicide vest who might jump on the bonnet, so you have to protect against this, too. Now if he does that, it will be his problem only.”
The car comes as standard without any power windows because: “As soon as you open a window, you’re not safe anymore. Some customers order just one power window for the driver so, for example, if you come up to a gate he can lower it and communicate with the sentry. That said, most people order power windows all around.”
The car is equipped with no less than seven batteries. There are two main batteries — one for the engine, and one for all the security devices. Each power window also has its own battery and there’s an additional one specifically for the emergency exit system. This enables the windows and exit system to be operated in any instance.
Pakleppa says the A8 L Security is even more refined than the standard car as the thickness of the windows all but totally eliminates exterior noise, and the air suspension has also been tailored to the added weight of the car.
Despite its raft of armour plating and anti-terrorist devices, the A8 L Security isn’t quite as heavy as you might think. Part of the reason it weighs 3,560kg (and not more) is through the use of lightweight materials throughout the car.
“We saved more than 30kg just by using aluminium for the underfloor protection. It offers protection against a .44 calibre handgun (obviously you can’t use a rifle under the car) and shrapnel from grenades and explosives,” Pakleppa explains.
“There are many challenges in engineering an armoured vehicle. For example, in Dubai you might be able to buy an armoured Toyota Land Cruiser for Dh500,000, but after three months you can’t open and close the doors anymore because the door hinges have been weakened by the extra weight of the armour. So we have to do the complete creation of the car as though it was a standalone vehicle. We have to do the crash tests, the electronic stability programme has to be completely recalibrated, likewise the airbags. The brakes and air suspension are also upgraded. It all costs a big bunch of money. To pass the German security tests a car has to withstand 400 shots as well as a blast from 12.5kg of explosives from a distance of just two metres.
“It takes many years to get it done, and as a company we also have to earn money. So we need to sell at least a few hundred to make the business case add up. We are the market leaders in this region and in Europe for armoured vehicles. In Germany we have a market share of 60 per cent, so it’s not just chancellor Merkel but many government ministers who are transported in Audis. Also in Brussels we are a big supplier of cars to the European Union and Nato.
“When we started in this business back in 1998 we offered just a black car with black cloth seats, but nowadays you cannot sell a car like that, so we have to tailor the cars to our customers. They ask for things like special seats and special wood trim. We are also able to offer the installation of police radio systems, frequency jammers and whatever else they ask for.”
Although for now the only armoured model Audi offers is the A8 L, Pakleppa says from the next generation onwards the Q5 and Q7 SUVs could also be adapted for the purpose. “The limousine is one thing, but from the Middle East and even India I’ve been getting a lot of demand for armoured SUVs.”
The challenge for Pakleppa and his team has just got tougher, as Mercedes-Maybach recently announced its new S 600 Guard, which is the first armoured limo to earn a VR 10 rating — signifying that even rocket-propelled grenades present no threat to it.
The armour race is well and truly on. Your move, Audi.