In 1800, Pope Pius VII assumed leadership of the Catholic Church in an unprecedented way — he rolled there. For the first time in the history of the church, the pope-elect came by carriage, not on horseback, to Vatican City. Since then, popes have employed all sorts of four-wheeled vehicles to get from place to place.

Below are 32 of those vehicles — some mammoth, others miniature.

Some similarities: Many of the cars display the S.C.V.-1 license plate, a Vatican City State tag reserved for the pontiff. Most are emblazoned with the papal seal of the pope aboard.

[What Pope Francis will do during his trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia]

About a third come from luxury car maker Mercedes-Benz, but papal rides have been outfitted by local truck and car manufacturers, asked to design and deliver the vehicle in mere weeks. The Vatican almost always includes one request: provide high visibility for the pontiff to be seen by the crowds gathered for his blessing.

After an assassination attempt on John Paul II in 1981, security concerns became a major driver in popemobile design. Several features now familiar to many, such as the bulletproof-glass-enclosed “pope box” design, became standard. You won’t see any enclosed cars on Francis’s visit to the United States, though. For this week’s trip, the pope has shunned what he calls a “sardine can” design in favor of an open-sided Jeep Wrangler.

How popes got around before cars

What little traveling that did occur during the 1800s involved papal carriages and, in formal settings, a royal chair.

1800s portable throne

Okay, so technically these 'vehicles' are not on wheels. Footmen carried them around. The chair pictured is the sedan chair of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903). It is now housed in the Pavilion of the Carriages, a branch of the Vatican Historical Museum in the Vatican City. The carriers would lift this silk-adorned papal throne for special occasions so the pontiff could be seen above the crowd. Popes also used open-air chairs called 'sedia gestatoria' (literally “chair for carrying”) that were carried atop 12 people's shoulders.

Pius VII

1800 Berlin di Gran Gala carriage

Papal carriages were adorned with red velvet upholstery and gilded engravings and trimmings. Several were used in the 1800s, many of which have been restored and are on display at the Vatican Museum’s Carriage Pavilion exhibit.

An inventory from the papal stables in 1841 shows the carriages were pulled by horses with names such as Bandito (Bandit), Pomposino (Pompous), Bufalino (Buffalo) and Capitano (Captain).

The automobile comes to the Vatican

The pope didn’t have much use for an automobile before 1929 — he was confined to the Vatican by a dispute with the Italian government. When the disagreement was resolved, several automobiles were given to him in celebration.

Left: Pius XI accepts the first Mercedes popemobile, a 1930 Nurburg, before going on a test drive through the Vatican. (Courtesy of Daimler AG); Right: John XXIII ends a 1962 whistle-stop tour of Italy with a procession in his 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300d. (Courtesy of Daimler AG)

Pius XI

1929 Fiat 525

Among the first cars in the Vatican car collection were a Fiat 525, an Isotta Fraschini Type 8 and the (scandalously named) Lictoria Sex.

Pius XI

1929 Graham Paige Type 837

The Graham-Paige was used on the first papal trip outside the Vatican in more than 59 years. On that voyage, it carried Pius XI to celebrate his 50th anniversary of becoming a priest. The car, a gift from the owners of Detroit-based Graham-Paige Motors, was the first papal vehicle to be painted black.

Pius XI

1930 Mercedes-Benz Nürburg

Mercedes-Benz has delivered many popemobiles to pontiffs, the first of which was this Nürburg 460, given to Pius XI in 1930. Similar to the papal carriages of the previous century, the car had a dove embroidered into the lining of the roof and a throne chair for the pontiff.

The throne – something of a gift from God to backseat drivers – was outfitted with buttons to allow the pope to communicate with his driver, signaling such things as “destra” and “sinistra” (“turn right” and “turn left”), “presto” (“faster”) and “casa” (“home”).


1960 Mercedes-Benz 300d

The next gift from Mercedes — presented to John XXIII — also had controls beside the pope’s throne chair, but these were instead for controlling the car’s air conditioning and the two-way radio to communicate with the driver.

Unlike the hard-topped Nurburg, this popemobile was designed as a landaulet, with a soft top over the back seats that could be lowered and the back windows removed and stored in the trunk. Handles were provided on the partition between the seats so that, when the roof was down, the pope could stand and see crowds gathered for his blessing.

Paul VI

1964 Lincoln Continental

Not only did this 1964 Lincoln Continental carry Paul VI through New York on his visit in 1965, it also chauffeured astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in ticker tape parades after the Apollo space missions. The 21-foot-long limousine ferried Paul on his whirlwind visit, the first time a sitting pope traveled to the United States, where he addressed the United Nations and said Mass at Yankee Stadium.

The limo was purchased at an auction for $220,000 in 2011, records from Bonhams auction house show. The private owner, who lent the car to a Tacoma museum in 2013, chose to remain anonymous.

[ Video: The first time a pope visited the United States ]

Paul VI

1965 Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman

The success of the soft-top roof on the Mercedes 300d led to the choice of a similar design for the 600 Pullman. The roof was raised three inches higher than the normal 600 model to allow for adequate headroom.

As in other incarnations, this popemobile featured a single papal seat and two folding chairs for the pope’s escorts.

Paul VI

1974 Citroen SM

The SM was the top-of-the-line model from the French company that pioneered front-wheel drive. It had a Maserati engine and six headlights, two of which turned with the steering wheel. In at least one of the company’s commercials, a smiling John Paul II waved from a modified SM Presidentielle in 1980, a convertible variation that was a favorite of French presidents and had special low gearing that worked well for parades.

Paul VI

1973 Fiat Campagnola

John Paul II was using this ill-fated Fiat popemobile on May 13, 1981, when he was wounded in an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square, shot in the abdomen, left hand and right arm.

“Suddenly, the pope’s jeep was hurtling out of the crowd, the guards running ahead and at its side,” a CBS News report said of the moments after the shooting.

The incident would usher in big changes for papal security, especially in the common open-air design of the popemobile.

Security concerns put up walls

After the 1970 attempt on Paul VI’s life, the pope did not travel as much outside the country. When a would-be assassin landed multiple shots at John Paul II in 1981, the church began to dramatically alter the look of popemobiles to allow for higher security but still maintain visibility.

John Paul II

1979 FSC Star

“Today, here in Victory Square, in the capital of Poland, I am asking . . . that Christ will not cease to be for us an open book of life for the future, for our Polish future.” John Paul II spoke these words in his native Poland during his first visit there in 1979. He used this armored popemobile, which has a structure that sits atop a flatbed truck. The large truck was seen by some as a showing of defiance against the Soviets, who ruled Poland at the time. The Solidarity movement gained steam after this trip, and eventually Communism fell in Poland.

John Paul II

1979 Ford D-Series

Possibly the unholiest reincarnation of a papal transport vehicle, this 15-seat Ford Transit had a second life as a party bus. Used on John Paul II’s 1979 trip to Ireland, the Dublin Wax Museum gave the vehicle a makeover, switching out its chassis for a Mercedes.

In 2012, the museum began offering it for city tours and bachelor and bachelorette parties for about $385 an hour. Unfortunately for Dublin’s partiers, the museum has decided to “park the Popemobile” for now to focus on other ventures, a spokewoman said in an e-mail.

John Paul II

1980 Mercedes-Benz 230-G

The 230G introduced the now-famous design of the off-road-ready popemobile with a raised, transparent compartment on the back to house the pontiff.

The cupola, made of clear plastic and removable in good weather, was later modified with bulletproof glazing and permanently affixed to meet higher security standards after the assassination attempt. The design of the cupola also included a special air control system to keep the walls from fogging up.

John Paul II

1982 Range Rover State Review Car

This popemobile was one of two cars outfitted for John Paul II’s 1982 visit to Britain.

The passenger compartment seats four, and its security features include armored plating, a step on the back bumper for security agents and bullet-resistant glass, according to the National Museum of Funeral History, where it is on display.

A private collector loaned the car to the Houston museum, where it is part of an exhibit that includes full-size replicas of John Paul II’s crypt and several coffins used in papal funerals. The museum’s staff took to calling it the “Saintmobile” after John Paul II’s canonization last year.

[ So you want to be declared a saint by Pope Francis? See your odds here. ]

John Paul II

1982 Leyland Constructor

This armored beast was another used on the U.K. trip. Weighing in at 24 tons, it was selected for its off-road capability and, if you can believe it, its acceleration in case an emergency arose. The truck’s six-cylinder diesel engine puts out 154 horsepower.

The design incorporates bulletproof glass and armored floors and is made of material to repel small firearms. The British Commercial Vehicle Museum in Leyland, England, which displays the truck, offers visitors a chance to climb aboard and sit in John Paul’s chair.

John Paul II

1982 SEAT Panda

This SEAT Panda is the rare small popemobile from this period. In fact, it’s one of the smallest ever used. John Paul II used it on his first visit to Spain in 1982, where he celebrated Mass and held events at large soccer stadiums. The pope switched from the larger popemobile because it wasn’t able to fit into the stadium entrances.

John Paul II

1984 GMC Sierra

A GMC pickup truck was the foundation for this vehicle used on the pope’s trip to Canada in 1984. The back of the five-ton truck featured couch-style seats for up to 10 people, red carpeting and two-inch armor plating. Also used on this trip: a pope boat that floated down the Rideau Canal.

John Paul II

1985 Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL

Mercedes delivered this car to replace its 1965 papal limousine. The car was outfitted with an extra-long sunroof and electric platforms in the floor that would raise the pope up. At top speed, the car could go nearly 100 miles per hour, but it stuck to less than 20 when the pope was using the sunroof.

John Paul II

1987 Mercedes-Benz 608

This Mercedes box van was used on John Paul’s 1987 trip to military-controlled Chile, where he spoke out against the regime of President Augusto Pinochet.

John Paul II

1988 Peugeot 504

The 504 ferried John Paul II in Paraguay, where Francis reused it when he visited there this summer. “It still seems to work,” a Vatican spokesman said.

John Paul II

1988 Ferrari Mondial

Visiting the Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy, the pope skipped the normal popemobile parade, opting instead for a ride in this Ferrari convertible. Later, a 2005 Ferrari Enzo given to John Paul II was sold for $1 million (and later $6 million) after he politely declined it, suggesting that the proceeds of an auction go to victims of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami.

John Paul II

1997 Mercedes-Benz S-class convertible

This Mercedes-Benz was the third created in the landaulet style. Its roof was raised slightly to help the pontiff get in and out of the vehicle more easily. The car produced 320 horsepower and had a five-speed automatic transmission and the familiar papal throne with two folding seats for aides and guests.

John Paul II

1999 Bus

Millions gathered along the streets of Mexico City to see John Paul ride by in this glass-sided bus. After his death, it was turned into a mobile memorial and paraded around Mexico City.

John Paul II

2002 Mercedes-Benz ML340

Several years of enclosed cupola designs led to this M-Class, which took cues from older models but lost the square top in favor of rounded edges. The windows around the pope’s chair were made from a special type of plastic, not bulletproof glass.

It debuted at Toronto's World Youth Day in 2002.

Benedict XVI

2007 Mercedes-Benz G-wagon

Responding to a request for an open popemobile to use in good weather, Mercedes delivered this G-Class vehicle. The off-roader is equipped with a folding windscreen and a handrail to stabilize the pope while he travels around St. Peter’s Square giving his blessing.

Francis humbles the papal fleet

Not long after Francis assumed the papacy, he accepted a new Mercedes M-Class popemobile. But that didn’t stop him from largely shunning the elegant ride in exchange for a collection of car models that seems more suited to a soccer mom than the supreme pontiff.

In his 2 1/2 years at the helm of the church, Francis has employed cars modified from the likes of Jeep, Toyota, Isuzu, Kia, Hyundai and Land Rover, a Vatican spokesman said. He’s also been known to use a Ford Focus on trips around the Vatican.

Left: In Ecuador, Francis greets the faithful from his Jeep Wrangler popemobile. He will use a similar ride on his trip to the United States. (Ana Buitron/Associated Press); He rode in a Kia Soul after arriving in South Korea in 2014. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)


2014 Hyundai Santa Fe

As an April Fools’ joke in 2009, Hyundai UK announced its new i10 popemobile model “specifically targeted at the world’s religious leaders.” In a press release that now seems like something closer to a prophecy, Hyundai offered its farcical popemobile for religious leaders looking to adopt “less ostentatious lifestyles.”

Six years later, Francis rode through St. Peter’s Square in a modest Hyundai Santa Fe popemobile. “Less ostentatious,” indeed.


2014 Jeepney

On a trip to the Philippines, Francis used this jeepney, a common form of public transportation there. While they are often explosions of color, covered in paintings of characters, Francis’s was the classic popemobile white with only his papal seal emblazoned on the side.


2015 Isuzu D-Max

Francis’s trip to the Philippines also featured this Isuzu, customized with an Italian leather throne and rain shield. The D-Max was selected over a closed Volkswagen so Francis could be better seen by the faithful.


2015 Kia Sedona

Francis surprised South Koreans when he rode in two cars by Kia, a South Korea-based company. He rode in a modified Kia Sedona as well as a black Kia Soul during his trip to the country.


1984 Renault 4

“A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a more humble one,” Francis said to young priests in 2013. Francis drives himself around the Vatican in a 1984 Renault with 186,000 miles on it.


2015 Jeep Wrangler

The pope’s choice of car for his trip to America will be a modified Jeep Wrangler, similar to the one he used in Ecuador in 2015, a Vatican official said.

The jeep has a protective shield over the top of the papal platform but open sides to allow Francis to greet the faithful. When asked about his tendency toward open popemobiles, Francis told a Barcelona newspaper that the enclosed cupola is a “glass sardine can” that comes between him and the people. “Let's face it,” he said of security concerns. “At my age, I don't have much to lose.”

[Pope Francis will use a Jeep Wrangler as his American Popemobile, Vatican says]


2015 Fiat 500L

A Fiat 500L took Francis to the Vatican's embassy in Washington after he arrived from Cuba. In response, the car company tweeted “#blessed.”

In 2013, on his first trip back to South America after becoming pope, Francis's Fiat was forced to stop several times when mobs of well-wishers swarmed the car.

This graphic has been updated to clarify the papal sedan chair illustration shown.

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