The market for heavily fortified cars is increasing, and it's not just politicians that need them.
Car makers meet growing demand for armoured vehicles
Before David Cameron assumed the duties of UK prime minister, he used to travel to the office on his bicycle, which was famously pinched from under his nose. But that's not the reason he now rides in the back of a big Jag. Cameron has had to put to one side his green principles and eschew the bike, the Tube or any other forms of transport that could leave him vulnerable to attack from crazed, egg-throwing Labour supporters, terrorists or would-be assassins. That seemingly normal XJ you see on the news outside No 10 is anything but - it's a heavily armoured fortress on wheels.
Being high profile is a dangerous business, whether you're a political leader, head of state, celebrity or business person; and the market for armoured cars is growing ever stronger. It's a business shrouded in mystery, for obvious reasons, yet manufacturers still see it as a way of drumming up publicity. Audi, for example, chose to showcase its new A8 L Security model at this year's Geneva Motor Show and while the company may be sketchy on the technical details, it more than compensates when it comes to bragging about what sort of attack the new limo can survive with its occupants sealed safely inside.
For instance, it's been officially certified by a German-government ballistics testing facility in Munich for compliance with the class VR 7 ballistic protection standard (the strictest standards on civilian high-security vehicles), so it's bulletproof. The Audi's immunity to explosions was tested as per ERV (Explosion Resistant Vehicles) 2010 guidelines. The sheet metal and glazing in the passenger cell can withstand firing with Nato hard-core ammunition and, in certain areas, according to the press blurb, the armouring on this A8 even complies with the criteria for class VR 9 and VR 10.
So it would seem that, short of travelling around in a tank, this is as safe as transport gets in the 21st century. But Audi isn't the only company providing this kind of high-security car. BMW supplies its new 7-Series to a similar specification, as does Mercedes with its S600 Guard and, of course, Jaguar's new XJ Sentinel, which gets Cameron from A to B. Rolls-Royce and Bentley, too, provide a completely bespoke service.
In order to keep the construction standards of these cars as high as possible, production methods have changed in recent years. What used to happen was that a complete car was taken apart by a manufacturer and retro-fitted with its armoury. Now, however, they're built from scratch to the chosen specification in separate production halls where mobile phones are prohibited and everything is kept hush-hush, away from prying eyes. After all, one cannot take any risks when lives of dignitaries are at stake.
Cars can still be retro-fitted with security features and you can have your car modified right here in the UAE.
Companies such as Safe Cage in Ras al Khaima, Ares Security Vehicles and Saxon Armor in Dubai will armour anything from a Maybach to a Toyota Land Cruiser, all to your own specific requirements.
But are these cars serving a genuine purpose? Well, let's consider the case of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Georgian president. In 1998 his motorcade was ambushed by 10 heavily armed assassins who proceeded to open fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Three people were killed in the attack but, thanks to the protection afforded by his limo, he emerged from what must have been a truly terrifying ordeal completely unscathed.
Armoured cars aren't a new idea. In 1914, for instance, the British Royal Naval Air Service acquired all available Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost chassis and had 72 of them built with armour plating and, something Cameron's Jag is conspicuously missing, turrets for a Vickers machine gun.
These amazing vehicles saw active duty for many years, being steadily modified to offer more protection to their occupants and some were even fitted with anti-aircraft artillery.
Yet the most famous armoured cars of all are undoubtedly the ones that have served as transport for the various presidents of the US. The first specially commissioned car was a 1939 Lincoln V12 convertible and the latest, used by Barack Obama, has been christened "Cadillac One" by Americans - a nod to the official name of the president's 747, Air Force One - and the technical details of it are mostly classified, but we do know this:
The armour plating is at least five inches thick; it has run-flat tyres; the fuel tank is immune to explosions; it's perfectly sealed against biochemical attacks; it can emit tear gas from holes in the front bumper; its driver has an enhanced video system to enable him to keep going even if the car is filled with smoke or in the dark without headlamps; only Secret Service agents know how to open the doors from the outside; and there's a blood bank of Obama's particular type in the boot - just in case.
Cadillac One does have one major drawback, though: it looks unlike anything else and everyone knows who's travelling around inside. Cameron's XJ, however, looks just like a normal one. Yet for all their military hardware, these cars remain as luxurious inside as their normal brethren. Cabins are lined in the finest leathers, there's a plethora of gadgetry and in-car entertainment and it goes without saying that, to compensate for the huge amount of extra weight these cars carry around, there's plenty of firepower under the bonnet.
Obviously in the wrong hands these cars could pose a real threat - in essence they would make the perfect getaway vehicles for hardened criminals and thieves, so any used example cannot be sold without the express permission of government authorities, which go to great lengths to verify potential purchasers. In any case, the likes of BMW, Audi and Mercedes insist on a buy-back clause that means they get the cars returned to them once they've served their original purpose.
As it happens, it takes a special kind of driver to be able to handle these behemoths. Weighing up to four tonnes each, they present a challenge few of us would be able to master, which is why their drivers are specially trained in the dark arts of avoidance driving. Imagine being able to do a handbrake turn in an armoured Rolls-Royce Phantom. It's entirely possible with the right amount of expert tuition.
Even as standard cars, these are incredible feats of engineering but the fact that, when heavily armoured, they can appear entirely normal almost defies belief. Security has never been more important than it is now but it is heartening to know that, whatever advancements are made by the criminals and terrorists of this world, there are expert teams of engineers working hard to make sure we remain in one piece.