Fame and notoriety in the automotive world isn’t achieved solely by power and price alone; sometimes a vehicle enters the public consciousness for reasons unrelated to exclusivity or motoring panache.
Which is why nearly everyone knows of the existence of a particular white, 102-horsepower Mercedes-Benz. The automaker certainly hasn’t forgotten, taking time recently to reminisce about that SUV’s development some 40 years ago this summer.
It was a vehicle known the world over, though it likely wouldn’t have become as iconic if a barrage of 9mm rounds had found slightly different marks.
Yes, we’re talking about the modified 1980 Mercedes-Benz 230 G created solely for use by a certain resident of the Vatican. While prior popes used a menagerie of official vehicles, usually German in origin, Pope John Paul II was a much more accessible pontiff than those that came before. A new vehicle was needed — one tailor-made to get the head of the Catholic church as close to crowds as possible, in a very visible manner, while also providing protection from the elements (and later, from other things).
Once upon a time, the G-Class was not quite as luxurious and prestigious a vehicle as it is today, but the model chosen as the vehicle for the newly elected Pope was certainly a step above his other ride. That would be the open-top Fiat Campagnola 4×4 used only for forays through Vatican City and St. Peter’s Square.
It was in that vehicle that John Paul II met with a hail of gunfire launched from a would-be Turkish assassin.
Recovering from his wounds, John Paul II became the most-traveled pope in history, and the specially outfitted G-Wagon, instantly nicknamed the Popemobile, was always along for the ride. Though the plexiglass shelter originally designed for the vehicle (for use during an upcoming November 1980 trip to West Germany) was perfectly suited to keeping rain away, the attempted assassination saw it swapped for a bulletproof dome. Inside it, John Paul sat on a platform raised 40 cm above the vehicle’s typical floor height, illuminated, if necessary, by an array of lights.
Anyone who’s ever dealt with an non-tinted sunroof with no sliding shade knows the major drawback to such a setup: summer heating. To prevent the bubble-topped G-Wagen from succeeding where Mehmet Ali Ağca failed, the vehicle’s already weak 2.3-liter four-cylinder had to support a potent air conditioning unit. Upgrades occurred in 1983 and 1985.
A second, very similar vehicle joined the original Popemobile in 1982, though this one boasted 125 horsepower. The first of the two vehicles, created initially as a loaner, was officially handed over that year.
Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler displayed a typically German enthusiasm for unnecessary technical geekery in describing a vehicle that’s been a museum piece since 2004, describing the 1980 Popemobile in a manner that suggests one might be able to pick one up at the dealer tonight.
“The automatic transmission and a particularly comfortable chassis and suspension guarantee a smooth ride, even in challenging terrain.” Note the present tense.
No, you can’t get into a new 230 G these days (bummer), but you can visit the vehicle at the “G-Schichten” (G stories) special exhibition at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart until September.