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Building a Whole New Dimension in Roadside Protection

March 07, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orders for bulletproof vehicles once seemed limited to limousines for presidents and generals dodging the bloody ambushes of Irish Republicans and Red Brigades.

All very global, and so very far away.

But suddenly the bull's-eyes are Miami and Los Angeles, the armored vehicles Jeep Cherokees and Volkswagen Jettas--and their buyers include abortion-clinic physicians meeting the present and proven danger of assassination.

"We've sold PSVs (personal security vehicles) to medical doctors in Los Angeles and throughout California," says Chris Letter, national sales manager for O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt. And at least two dozen nationally in the past 12 months. "We recently supplied a physician in Northern California with a more heavily armored vehicle, a Mercedes 600 capable of stopping (assault rifle) AK-47 fire.

"Apparently, some doctors now feel that handgun protection just isn't enough."

Particularly with five people dead in abortion-clinic shootings since 1993; with three of those attacks by rifle or shotgun fire while victims were inside or exiting cars.

O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt is to armoring vehicles what Credit Suisse is to protecting money. Although it only began bonding steel and bulletproof glass to sedans after World War II, the Fairfield, Ohio, firm has been making custom vehicles--including prairie schooners and hearses--since 1876.

Last year, the company sold 150 lightly armored vehicles.

Eastern sheiks and European queens, the CIA, the Army in Haiti, and every U.S. President since Truman has been guarded by O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt. The company armored John F. Kennedy's presidential limousine--although JFK chose to remove its bulletproof bubble that dreadful day in Dallas.

For the O'Garas--four brothers who built limousines in Beverly Hills before buying Hess & Eisenhardt in 1982--grim news is great news. As world violence escalates relentlessly, so company sales have increased steadily to $40 million a year.

Although most vehicle armorers are opportunists and usually in business no longer than the brutalities that birth them, O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt has succeeded by surfing deadly and global fashions in political murders, freeway shootings, CEO kidnapings, smash-and-grab purse snatches, carjackings and assaults on overseas tourists.

Whenever a warlord's car is riddled in Somalia, a deputy prime minister is assassinated driving through Sarajevo, or an Exxon executive is kidnaped from his car and killed in New Jersey, those in similar positions at parallel risk reach out to O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt.

"You can read the paper in the morning and just count on where the calls will be coming from that afternoon," Letter says. "After those Massachusetts abortion clinics were shot up (in December), we received 39 phone calls that produced three sales."

And not just from abortion providers. Letter is talking to doctors of less controversial specialties. Some Hollywood actors, Fortune 500 executives and high-profile attorneys in Los Angeles are shopping to armor their Cadillacs and Jaguars, Bimmers and Toyota Land Cruisers.

But Letter won't say who.

"People by and large don't want it known they're riding around in an armored vehicle," he explains. Especially if it's a vanity purchase. "And there have been some people I've sold cars to . . . where I can't believe they feel that threatened. I mean, living in a place like San Antonio?"

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Security by O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt comes in several shapes, levels and prices. About $4,000 converts a sedan into a safehouse with toughened side windows that won't stop a bullet, but will keep one safe from rocks, baseball bats and tire irons of cellular phone snatchers. Several automobile companies, including Chrysler and General Motors, are consulting with O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt about making this a safety option alongside air bags and anti-lock brakes.

Or they will convert your Cadillac Eldorado into a $150,000 tank guaranteed to resist armor-piercing shells. Factory options include pistol ports, inches-thick glass, an outside speaker for immediate negotiations and 007 tear-gas jets in the wheel wells.

Currently displaying a deft blend of toughness and visual normalcy is O'Gara's sampler Jeep Grand Cherokee, now on a demonstration tour of Western States.

The roof is reinforced against high-rise snipers, the floor armored to soak up grenade blasts, and half-inch-thick windows and the windshield will shrug off point-blank hits from a .38 revolver and a 9-millimeter Uzi. Also a .44 Magnum and even a one-ounce hollow point slug from a 12-gauge shotgun.

Although nothing is visible from within or without, all vertical body panels, the roof and the floor are armored with seven layers of glass-reinforced polyester impregnated with resin. That's the same material used for police body armor.

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