Billy Connolly tells the story of two Celtic football fans who drink two pints of crème de menthe each, as they were told it was the Pope’s drink of choice. While recovering from the after-effects of their misguided consumption, they comment that they are not surprised the Pope is carried around in a chair.
Until the “chair” was abolished by John Paul II, that was indeed the case. The ceremonial throne was called the Sedia Gestatoria – basically a chair with two rods carried by 12 footmen. Somewhat redolent of a Hollywood blockbuster, but not, the Pontiff felt, a good image for a pope in the later stages of the 20th century.
A popemobile – the replacement form of transport – is a generic term that applies to many different makes and models. The present popemobile is a Korean Kia, which suits the present frugal Pope Francis, who baulked at the cost of a Mercedes-Benz.
In May 1981, John Paul II was being driven around St Peter’s Square in an open popemobile when a Turkish terrorist tried to assassinate him. Understandably, after this, it was thought expedient to transport the pope in a bullet-proof vehicle. Thus came into existence the tall, security-laden popemobile that we know and love. Despite this, John Paul II was often to be seen in the open Fiat Campanula, surrounded by security guards, with just a bar to hang onto to keep himself upright.
One of the requirements of a popemobile is that it should be able to travel slowly past the devotees and be high enough to show off His Holiness. At various moments the pope has blessed both the Ferrari Formula One team and the odd road car (and been for a ride in one), but nobody would suggest such a supercar for a slow parade through St Peter’s Square.
Some of the most-used popemobiles, particularly by Pope Benedict XVI, have been produced by Mercedes. With its four bulletproof glass panes, a seat that can be raised, its own oxygen supply, room for security guards, and armour-plated (thus bombproof) sides and underbelly, there can be few safer means of transport.
Despite this modern wonder, each country that hosts a visit from the Pontiff tends to construct a special vehicle from a local manufacturer. A Leyland truck was converted for John Paul II’s 1982 visit to the UK. Not the prettiest, but a good height for visibility, and secure.
Romania supplied a Dacia Duster 4×4 for Pope Francis’s visit to the country in 2019 – suitable for the present pope who shuns ostentation. (When first elected, he drove an ancient Renault 4 but has now upgraded to a Fiat 500, Fiat being the preferred supplier of Vatican transport).
Taking into account the pope’s wishes, the Roman Curia choses the right vehicle for the right journey. Papal registration numbers are always SCV, followed by a number from 1 to 9 in red lettering. Other Vatican vehicles also bear the SCV plate, but in black lettering.
Mercedes-Benz seems to have been the prominent supplier of papal transport from its large limousines in the 1930s to the vast MB 600 of the 1960s. There have been flirtations with a special-bodied Citroën SM and the odd makes from the Far East, such as the present Kia.
The ultimate popemobile was used by Pope Francis on his visit to Bangladesh in 2017. He was transported in a brand new local rickshaw. Security was not necessarily at the top of the list when the decision was made, but extra guard and grab rails were included. Francis’s rickshaw was pedalled by a local, unlike John Paul II’s visit in 1986, when it was was pedalled by a priest.
Of course, the pope is not the only religious leader to travel in style when the occasion demands. On his travels around India, the 14th Dalai Lama favoured a Land Rover – a Series IIA, to be precise – which was restored to its former glory and sold for $143,000 at Sotheby’s last year. The Queen – head of the Church of England – is also known to be partial to a Land Rover, but for public occasions she opts for her gold State Coach. Weighing four tons, the carriage needs eight horses to pull it, and has been described by the current monarch as “not meant for travelling in at all”. For something sleeker, she has the Bentley state limousine. With its 6.75 litre V8 engine and maximum speed of 130mph, it is perhaps the fastest purpose-built leadermobile.
The current pope is less accustomed to such speed. Francis was given a custom-built Lamborghini Huracán in 2018; perhaps to his chauffeur’s disappointment, rather than add it to his stable of popemobiles Francis blessed and signed the car and offered it up in a charity sale. It made £630,00.
The Lamborghini is gone, and true to Francis’s convictions, he continues to drive his Fiat 500.