Last week, at a sustainability conference held in Vatican City, Opel CEO Dr. Karl-Thomas Neumann presented His Holiness, Pope Francis with an Opel Ampera-e, as part of a mission to make Vatican City the first CO2-free country on the planet.
The Ampera-e is essentially a Chevrolet Bolt, and it’s built in Michigan, which is a pretty snappy feather in the cap of the American automobile industry. The media latched onto this, naturally, and suggested that this is the new Popemobile.
People give the Pope things all the the time. Sometimes it’s a Harley-Davidson.
Since the Pope wasn’t riding as much as he used to, the Vatican auctioned the bike at Bonham’s in 2014 for $327,000 — plus $11,000 for the leather jacket that came with it — for the benefit of a hostel and soup kitchen at the Termini train station in Rome.
It’s unclear whether Pope Francis himself intends to drive the Ampera-e. He’s certainly taken a different tack than his predecessors. When he was named the 266th Pope in March of 2013, he rode back to his fellow cardinals’ hotel in the back of a minibus, rather than taking the Papal limousine. Within Vatican City, he’s used a Ford Focus borrowed out of the motor pool.
He also drives a 30-year-old Renault 4 which Italian pastor Renzo Zocca gave him to signify their mutual stand against poverty.
Like “The Beast” that carts the American president around, the Popemobile is a purpose-built, bomb-and-gas-proof limousine that’s meant to protect the occupant from harm.
Popes used to cruise around on something called the sedia gestatoria powered by a dozen or so underlings.
The OG Popemobile was in use from the Byzantine Empire until the ascent of Pope Paul I, who rode around on it during his 33-day reign in 1978. Pope John Paul II discontinued the use of the chair, and it hasn’t come back into favor since.
In the 1960s, Popemobiles were often essentially the same as the open cars that politicians used. Lehman-Peterson prepared a special Lincoln Continental for Pope Paul VI’s visit to the United States in 1965, amazingly after the Kennedy assassination.
That Lincoln ended up pressed into service again four years later when the Pope visited Bogota, Columbia.
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On a trip to his home country in 1979, he met the throngs of enthusiastic followers in a Polish FSC Star heavy truck, one of two constructed for the Pope, and the first informally known as a Popemobile.
Popemobiles at that point were often constructed in the country that the Pope was visiting, by that nation’s leading automaker. For a trip to France, Pope John Paul II rode in an Henri Chapron-built Citroen SM:
In 1981, Pope John Paul II was the subject of an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, while he was riding in a Fiat Campagnolo:
Following that incident, security staff constructed a glass box for the Fiat, but there were many times when the Pope still rode in open vehicles. For example, during a 1982 trip to Spain, he rode in a modified SEAT Panda:
Mercedes-Benz vehicles made up the bulk of Popemobile production for many years. The G-Wagen was the most prominent:
But the Vatican later used a modified Mercedes-Benz M-Class:
There’s still an open Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen Popemobile in use. Both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have been photographed waving to the public from the specially constructed vehicle.
Still, when the Pope visits countries around the world, Popemobiles tend to be put together there. For example, on a tour of Equador, Pope Francis rode in a modified Jeep Wrangler:
When he visited the Philippines in 2015, he drove in a modified Kia Sorento, with not much more protection than a thin sheet of plastic:
Whatever the Pope happens to be riding in that day ends up being called the “Popemobile.” The SCV 1 license tag designates that it’s the #1 vehicle in the fleet.