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Armored Cars Aren't Just for James Bond Anymore as Crime Rates Rise : Security: Although only a select few can afford personalized protection, sales are up. Tab begins at $40,000--plus the price of the vehicle.

July 18, 1993|ANN LO LORDO | THE BALTIMORE SUN

FAIRFIELD, Ohio — Amid the Cadillacs, Chevy Caprices and Mercedes Benzes in stages of repair on the factory floor at O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt stands a white, gold-trimmed Grand Jeep Cherokee. It is a limited edition in more ways than one.

It may look like a Yuppie play toy, but looks can be deceiving. This 4-wheel-drive suburban hill-climber is endowed with protective armor to deflect bullets from 9-millimeter and .357 Magnum handguns, even an Uzi machine pistol. And if a sharpshooter flattens the tires with four fast ones, the Jeep can speed away on its specially equipped nylon flat rims.

But perhaps the most astonishing thing about this "personal security vehicle" is who will be behind the wheel.

Not the president of Colombia or the head of the Russian secret police.

An East Coast businessman paid $50,000 for the customizing--plus the cost of the car--for "peace of mind."

"It's a customer who's concerned because he's well-to-do and he'd rather be safe than sorry," explained Bill T. O'Gara, president of the 117-year-old armoring company that serves mostly foreign governments.

He's not the only one. With carjackings grabbing headlines, street criminals packing more firepower and Americans fretting about their ability to protect themselves, O'Gara and other security professionals say interest in their products is rising.

Although only a select few can afford personalized protection at prices that range from $40,000 to a minimum of $100,000 for a fully armored vehicle, domestic sales of armor protection have increased, they said.

Before last year, O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt Armoring Co., the granddaddy of a handful of such businesses in this country, produced about a dozen armored cars in six years for use by individuals, other than diplomats, ambassadors or heads of state.

"We'll do probably 20 to 30 cars (for domestic customers) this year alone," said O'Gara, 35, whose firm has provided presidential limousines for every chief executive since Harry S. Truman. "As a citizen it's a disturbing trend in the United States. As a businessman, it's a market."

Given the nature of the business, the armored car professionals won't identify their clients.

"Our company is very low profile. We don't even have a name on our building because our clients' health is our main concern," said Norman E. Smith of Protection Development International Corp., a manufacturer of armored vehicles in Corona, Calif.

But, Smith, added, "Obviously, you have your public figures. Some of the forgotten people are the attorneys, the high-profile judges. There are a lot of attorneys out there who aren't well liked by people."

Although most of its clients are governments, the Chicago-based Moloney Coach Builders--whose references, like O'Gara's, include the Secret Service--armored about 10 cars for local customers in the last year.

It's a lifestyle question, said Joseph V. Scaletta, the company's president.

"The wealthy or the powerful, they kind of go hand in hand. It really has to do with a particular threat . . . how you perceive (that) threat," said Scaletta. "Some of it has to do with ego, fear."

The Chicago firm has turned away business "that didn't feel right," Scaletta said. And if someone wants to pay in cash or resists writing a check, he has told them, "Then you don't want to do business with me."

Housed in an industrial park in the suburbs of Cincinnati, O'Gara's firm asks potential customers to sign a form acknowledging that the equipment and materials they will see are "privileged and confidential." A sign at the entry to the company's offices informs visitors that their briefcases, shoulder bags and other personal effects are subject to search.

To guard against unscrupulous characters, the company insists in written and verbal inquiries that a prospective client identify the person who will use the armored vehicle.

The factory converts about 200 vehicles a year into fortresses on wheels. The company has outfitted everything from Lincolns to Dodge Spirits for wealthy, crime-conscious consumers, corporate executives and an alphabet-soup list of government agencies here and abroad.

The firm offers on-call, multilingual technicians, based in Geneva, Switzerland, who will fly anywhere in the world to service a customer's vehicle.

In response to increased concerns over carjackings, the company last year created its "personal security vehicle (PSV2)," a package designed to protect against handguns and submachine guns such as an Uzi. The armor can be applied to Jeep Cherokees as well as Jaguars at a cost of $40,000 to $70,000, excluding the price of the vehicle.

"There are more people that we can't help than we can help," O'Gara said, citing such inquiries as monthly requests to install "bulletproof" glass in the left front windows of cars, a target of carjackers.

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