Heightened concern about personal security has spurred increased interest in personal ‘armoured’ vehicles, according to the companies that armour those vehicles. Personal armoured vehicles are ordinary cars and trucks that have been modified to withstand attacks by assailants brandishing weapons ranging from bats and sledge hammers to handguns, rifles, automatic weapons, hand grenades and bombs.
“The increase in interest has doubled since September 11th, says Ronald J. Kimball, President of Texas Armoring in San Antonio, Texas. “People are expressing a new paranoia I haven’t seen before – I’ve had calls from doctors and lawyers in New York,” he says.
Stephen H. Bray of Armoring of America agrees there has been increased interest from non-traditional customers. “I would describe them as wealthy individuals,” says “..many from New York and New Jersey.”
“Our traditional market is corporate executives, diplomats, government officials in areas like Latin America where anti-government guerrillas kidnap people for ransom” says Kimball…”but now we’re seeing some different customers,” he says.
James Campbell of Armet Armored Cars in Concorde, Ontario says the increase in the number of enquiries since September 11th has been “huge”. “Since the plane-crashes in New York, a lot of people who were only thinking about it previously suddenly came on board” he says. The effects of the terrorists attacks have not been confined to North American customers, says Campbell. Campbell’s business is mostly overseas in Russia and the Middle East.
“There has been an increase in the number of enquiries, particularly about luxury vehicles,” says Mark Streight of Streight Manufacturing in Toronto. In particular, he recalls the New York City police force enquiring about the availability of pre-armoured SUV’s.
Tony Russell of O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt in Fairfield, Ohio, one of the U.S.A’s oldest and best-known armouring companies, says there has been more interest from one particular group. “I would say there have been more enquiries from the government,” he says. Gary Allen, Senior VP at O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt believes that after September 11th, security divisions have recognized the need for a higher level of security.
Mercedes-Benz U.S.A, which offers armoured versions of their E-Class and S-Class sedans, has experienced an increased number of inquiries, if not orders, since September 11th. “There has been increased interest in the Mercedes-Benz Guard special protection vehicle, launched in the United States over one year ago,” said a Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. spokesperson. “..it is too early to know whether there will be any sustained interest in this special vehicle.”
All of the companies interviewed reported little or no increased interest from Canadian customers even though some firms have offices and assembly plants in Canada.
Armoured cars look the same as regular vehicles
Unlike traditional ‘armoured cars’ used by banks, personal armoured vehicles look almost exactly like regular automobiles and trucks, but have been modified ‘under the skin’ for protection. Luxury sedans and SUV’s are the most popular type of armoured vehicles.
“Our customers are looking for vehicles that don’t stand out in a crowd,” says Streight. “They want a vehicle that to the general public looks like a regular vehicle.”
The most popular armoured vehicles are Chevrolet Suburbans and Tahoes, Ford Expeditions and Excursions, Jeep Grand Cherokees, Cadillac sedans, and European luxury cars like Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-Series sedans. Special armoured vehicles and limousines are also available. International Armoring recently delivered an armoured VW New Beetle to a Mexican customer. In January, a specially-modified Cadillac DeVille limousine was delivered to U.S. President George W. Bush.
Most armouring companies take a customer’s vehicle, completely dissasemble it, install armour components, beef up the suspension, brakes and engine if necessary, and reassemble the vehicle so that it looks like it did before armouring.
Typical modifications include thicker, bullet-proof glass/polycarbonate windows; steel, composite or polyethelene fibre panels in the doors, floor, firewall and trunk; battery protection; radiator protection; fuel tank protection; modified suspensions and brakes; reinforced ‘ram’ bumpers; and run-flat tires.
Armouring typically adds between 544 kg (1200 lb.) to 1134 kg (2500 lb.) of extra weight to the vehicle, one of the reasons that large, powerful vehicles are preferred. It’s also the reason that springs, shock absorbers and brakes have to be modified.
Though many armouring companies are now using lightweight fibre materials which are about 1/4th the weight of steel, much of the extra weight is in the windows which are made of special splinter-proof glass/polycarbonate laminate material that can be up to 64 mm (2.5 in.) thick.
Most armoured vehicles are modified by independent private firms, but some automakers deliver armoured vehicles right from the factory. Mercedes-Benz and BMW, for example, each offer armoured vehicles. Mercedes-Benz offers armoured ‘Guard’ versions of its E-Class, S-Class and G-Class vehicles, while BMW has specially-armoured 7-Series ‘Protection’ sedans – however, they’re not available in Canada.
Automobile manufacturers have a certain advantage when armouring vehicles – they can install armouring components and special modifications, like stronger door hinges, before the vehicle has been completely assembled.
Different levels of protection
Though there are testing agencies which certify armouring material, such as Underwriter’s Laboratories, National Institute of Justice, and SECOFI (Mexico), private armouring companies don’t subscribe to one internationally accepted standard of vehicle armouring. Typically, armouring companies offer four to seven levels of protection based on the type of weapons and ammunition to be defended against.
Worldwide Armoring, for example, offers six levels of protection: from armour designed to stop a 357 Magnum or 9 mm handgun bullet to armour that will stop tungsten-tipped armour piercing bullets from high-powered rifles. James Campbell of Armet Armored Cars says his company’s armouring protects against, “military ball ammunition and up, and for the most part, defeats armour-piercing projectiles fired by military rifles.” Ronald J. Kimball of Texas Armoring says his armour “will defeat 7.62 Nato ammunition used in the AK-47 and M-16 high-powered weapons”.
“In the rest of the world, apart from the North American market, the weapon of choice is the AK-47 assault rifle,” says Streight. “Our customers are looking for at least a Level 4, that is protection against an AK-47. There are higher levels of protection – but in North America where there are a lot more handguns, the best protection would be Level 3.”
Contrary to popular belief, high-powered rifles are more deadly than bombs. “Blast protection and hand gun protection is a lower level of protection,” says Kimball. “When you receive a direct projectile hit at a vehicle from a shoulder-fired weapon, that penetration is much greater than just the impact of a bomb, assuming there are no projectiles.”
Cost of armouring expensive
The cost of personal security is not cheap. Armoured vehicles can cost more than double the original purchase price of the vehicle. On its company web-site, Texas Armoring Corporation lists armouring costs ranging from $U.S.30,000 to $U.S.70,000 per vehicle. Armet Armored Cars’ Campbell says his high-level vehicle conversion cost starts at more than U.S.$80,000. Mark Streight says his company sells complete armoured Ford Expeditions “for over U.S.$100,000.”
For high-profile heads of state, religious leaders, executives, and celebrities, that may be not such a bad deal. U.S. government statistics show that 80 to 90% of all terrorist attacks occur while the victims are travelling by automobile.
On the Net
World Wide Armor Services
Armoring of America, LLC
Texas Armoring Corporation
O’Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt
International Armoring Corporation
Alpine Armoring Inc.
Armet Armored Vehicles