Long before the terrorist attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, wealthy people around the world knew things were getting rough. They began ordering more armored vehicles -- limousines, vans and sport-utility models -- boosting business for companies such as Illinois-based Scaletta Moloney Armoring Corp.

Scaletta Moloney, which began in the early 1970s as Moloney Coachbuilders, is regarded as one of the world's biggest vehicle armoring operations. Exactly what that means in terms of actual numbers is difficult to say. Armored vehicle companies are rather secretive. They are not inclined to talk about how many vehicles they build and sell, or who buys them.

But by the late 1980s, Scaletta Moloney no longer was producing unarmored, fancy limos for movie stars, weddings and prom nights. It exclusively was dedicated to rolling out armored vehicles for business leaders, dignitaries and, mostly, for the U.S. government.

"The global climate changed," said Joe Scaletta, president and chief executive officer of Scaletta Moloney. "We began seeing an increasing demand for armored vehicles worldwide."

Auto companies such as General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co, DaimlerChrysler and BMW took notice of that rising demand too. In the past, those "original equipment manufacturers," as they are known in the car business, were content to subcontract armoring work to "aftermarket" companies such as Scaletta Moloney. But the big automakers now want to bring those smaller companies in as full partners; or, like Ford, a few of them want to do all of the armoring work themselves.

That is why Ford was in Washington in recent weeks showing off its new Lincoln Town Car BPS, the initials of which stand for "Ballistic Protection Series." It is Ford's first, totally in-house built armored vehicle, designed to resist high-powered rifle fire and to provide limited bomb-blast protection beneath its floor.

The phrase "designed to resist" is important. No one in the armored vehicle industry talks about "bulletproof" anymore.

"The word 'bulletproof' is misleading," said a Ford engineer who helped to develop the Town Car BPS. "If enough bullets keep striking your vehicle, one of them will get through. Armored vehicles are designed to give you a chance to escape," the Ford engineer said.

With the Town Car BPS, executives at Ford's Lincoln Division say they are offering that escape opportunity at a bargain price, about $118,000 in an industry in which armored vehicles can cost $200,000 or more. (Proposed armoring of DaimlerChrysler's super-exclusive Maybach sedans could push those cars well past the $500,000 mark, according to some industry sources.)

Lincoln executives deny that the Town Car BPS is a commercial reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, and there is reason to accept their disclaimer inasmuch as the development of the car began two years earlier than that.

Lincoln product development chief Al Kammerer, echoing Scaletta's words, said that the Town Car BPS and vehicles like it are just another response to growing violence enveloping lives worldwide. The wealthy simply have more resources to deal with it, according to executives in the armored vehicle business.

Kammerer put it this way: "For more than 80 years, Lincoln has symbolized American Luxury and elegance. Now, those who travel well can travel well-protected in Lincoln's first armored vehicle."

How does it feel to be behind the wheel of one of these things? Lincoln executives allowed me to take a short, supervised test drive near the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va.

The first thing I noticed was . . . quiet. Lots and lots of quiet. I suppose that was to be expected in a car with windows so thick they require special motorized lifters to raise and lower them. The sound of silence was reinforced by a thick ballistic blanket, consisting of interwoven, shrapnel-resistant fiber, embedded in the floor.

The tested Town Car BPS was heavy, built on a frame capable of handling a gross vehicle weight of 7,500 pounds. But it didn't feel terribly weighty in curves. There was no uncontrollable body sway or tail-wagging; and acceleration, to the extent that I was allowed to accelerate in the heavily policed Langley area, was impressive for a big, heavy car.

But the most remarkable thing about the Town Car BPS was that it was unremarkable in exterior and interior design. This was deliberate, according to Lincoln officials. The best way for "at-risk people" to avoid attack is to blend in with people who aren't at risk, they said. So, the Town Car BPS looks like any other Lincoln Town Car running around Washington.

The Town Car BPS goes on sale later this year; but it won't go alone. GM officials confirmed yesterday that they will offer a competitive model, probably a Cadillac DeVille armored car, also scheduled to be released later in 2003.

According to GM sources, the DeVille armored car will be built by Scaletta Moloney Armoring, which has set up a research and development facility in Detroit.

Scaletta declined comment on the Cadillac project. "It isn't our policy to talk about clients," he said. But in published comments on October 10, 2001, when Scaletta Moloney began its Detroit operations, Scaletta acknowledged that his company would be working with the nation's automakers in "engineering new armor systems and researching and developing the latest bullet and blast resistant technologies."

You might say that business is booming.