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Jittery, High-Profile Folks Are Opting for Armored Personal Vehicles

July 15, 1999|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

That inconspicuous Chevrolet Suburban parked next to you at your kid's soccer game could actually be equipped to scan for bombs, protect against a grenade attack, even supply the occupants with emergency oxygen in the event of a poisonous gas attack.

Indeed, celebrities and heads of state aren't the only people today driving bulletproof armored cars tough enough to withstand multiple hits from an Uzi.

Executives, government officials and diplomats, high-profile lawyers, abortion doctors and others who may deal with "imminent or perceived threats . . . or who want to protect their families" are also turning to armored vehicles for security, said Dan Heimbrock, director of marketing for O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt Armoring Co., one of the world's largest makers of protective passenger vehicles.

Cincinnati-based O'Gara-Hess built more than 1,000 commercial and 500 military vehicles in 1998. The company has seen a big surge in demand for light-armored personal vehicles; last year, it sold more than 600, a 33% increase from 1997.

Other leading firms include International Armor & Limousine and its Chicago Armor & Limousine subsidiary.

Popular models for conversion include sport-utility vehicles such as the Suburban, Ford Expedition and Jeep Cherokee and sedans such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Volvo S70. In addition, BMW this year became the first auto maker to introduce its own factory-made armored cars: the 740iL and 750iL Protection Series.

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Advances in engineering and manufacturing have made owning a lightly or fully armored vehicle more affordable, industry officials say, although the prices still run from $75,000 (the cost of converting your existing Suburban) to $200,000 and more (for a brand-new, fully armored Explorer).

So what does that $75,000 buy? For that price, O'Gara-Hess will fortify your Suburban with full armor--a completely armored passenger compartment, multilayered ballistic glass, bulletproof battery, siren, computer armor and run-flat tires. The armor is a high-hardness steel-and-alloy composite that is fully integrated into all doors, roof rails, the roof and other key areas, Heimbrock said. The multilayered ballistic glass features a polycarbonate inner layer that absorbs the projectile's force to prevent spalling, or splintering.

For a few thousand dollars more, you can add grenade protection, gun ports, remote starter with bomb scan, an intercom and public-address system and supplemental oxygen.

Those who don't need quite as much road warrior protection can get the less expensive light armoring, which offers advanced molded-composite armor. This level of protection is designed to withstand multiple hits from a .38 special, .357 magnum or 9-millimeter submachine gun. But you may be out of luck if your car is hit with fire from an AK-47 assault weapon and its high penetrating power.

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For most of us who rely simply on car alarms and keeping windows and doors locked for protection, blasting around town in a fully armored car seems like a James Bond fantasy.

Nevertheless, the armoring firms believe there is a growing mainstream market for these vehicles.

The market for armored vehicles is rising because "at this time, personal threats are to a point where people of means would prefer to be safe, whether they're heads of state, corporate executives or [concerned for their] families," says James D. Banner, director of operations for International Armor & Limousine.

One reason for the surge in interest, said Scott Vogel, spokesman for O'Gara-Hess, can be found in a recently released report from the Justice Department showing that an average of 49,000 carjackings took place annually from 1992 through 1996. About 70% of those incidents involved the use of firearms, the study found.

"We're seeing people who live in gated communities, and who have security at work, who want to feel that they can get home from the office safely," Heimbrock said. "They are afraid of carjackings--even road rage."

But not everyone is convinced of the need for such protection outside of specialized cases.

"I think it is sort of appealing to the lowest, basest fears that people have," said James Hall, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific.

"Crime in this country has not reached a nature yet where people think they need armored cars," he said. " . . . There are people who still refuse to wear seat belts. They are far more likely to be injured or killed not wearing their belt than not having an armored car."

Further, he said, "the problem with the whole market is the possibility of appealing to people on the right and the wrong side of the law."

Heimbrock said O'Gara-Hess will turn away customers it suspects may be involved in wrongdoing. He recalls one case in which a prospective client walked into the firm's showroom with a wad of cash, demanding to buy an armored vehicle right off the showroom floor. The company ended up calling police to remove the guy from the premises, he said.

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