The popemobile is a vehicle which has been specially designed for the use of His Holiness the Pope, leader of the Catholic Church. There are a number of popemobiles in use at any given time, along with an assortment of retired vehicles which can be viewed at museums in various regions of the world, ranging from heavily armored cars to open limousines. The popemobile which most people are familiar with is the version which includes a bulletproof glass enclosure which allows people to see His Holiness while ensuring that he remains protected.
Pope John Paul II famously hated the term “popemobile,” telling journalists in 2002 that it was “undignified,” although he declined to provide an alternative. Out of politeness, some journalists refer to the popemobile as the Papal Limousine, or the Papal Car, but the term “popemobile” has caught on, and it is unlikely to vanish, despite ardent wishes for more dignity.
Popemobiles serve several functions. Since Papal visits tend to be greeted with large crowds which can be difficult to control, the popemobile protects the Pope, keeping him sheltered from anyone who might wish to harm him. Most popemobiles have spaces for security staff and Papal aides, and they are typically driven at a slow pace while being surrounded by security personnel. Many have hefty security features including armored plating and specialized tires.
The popemobile built for public appearances is also designed to put the Pope on display, allowing pilgrims to see him. Since many people travel quite a distance to see the Pope, it would be rather disappointing if he was whisked past in an armored car with tinted windows; instead, many popemobiles have a special platform for the Pope to sit or stand on. The platform makes the Pope highly visible, allowing people to see him from any place in the crowd.
The first official Papal Car was built by Mercedes-Benz in 1930, and the Mercedes company continues to dominate the market of popemobile production, producing a range of cars for the Pontiff ranging from private sedans to modified sport utility vehicles with a seating platform. Other car companies have also manufactured popemobiles, including Range Rover, Fiat, Ford, FCS Star, and GMC.
Incidentally, the classic glass-topped popemobile design debuted in 1981 during Pope John Paul II's trip to Poland, and the license plate of the popemobile reads “SCV 1,” an abbreviation of the Vatican City's Italian name, followed by a reference to the Pope's place in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.