The History of the Popemobile

You may have heard that Pope Francis will traveling around Philadelphia this weekend in a modified white Jeep Wrangler. This is different from the usual Mercedes-Benz Popemobile in which most popes have ridden over the years. The Pontiff has also chosen other rides such as a Kia Soul and an Isuzu D-Max when traveling to South Korea and the Philippines.

This got us wondering about the various popemobiles of Pontiffs past. That’s when we stumbled across this illustration from the Washington Post, and decided to share some highlights with you.

Chair & Carriage

Technically, the first popemobile wasn’t an automobile at all. In the 1800’s, twelve footmen carried the “sedia gestatoria” or “chair for carrying” around on their shoulders with the pope inside, lifting him high on special occasions to be seen over the crowd. However, several popes were not fans of this method and the tradition was eventually retired in 1978.

Several papal carriages were also used in the 1800’s, many of which are on display at the Vatican Museum. These carriages were very intricately designed and pulled by horses.

The Automobile

Prior to 1929, a dispute between the Vatican and Italian government kept the pope confined to Vatican City. When the disagreement ended, an automobile seemed a more feasible method of transportation and several were gifted to him in anticipation of his travels. Among the first vehicles listed in the Vatican car collection were a Fiat 525, an Isotta Fraschini Type 8, and a Lictoria Sex.

Over the years, other gifted vehicles included:

  • 1930 Mercedes-Benz Nürburg
  • 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300d
  • 1964 Lincoln Continental
  • 1974 Citroen SM

Security Vehicles

Two assassination attempts (Paul VI, 1970 and John Paul II, 1981) motivated a shift in the way the church altered popemobiles. Now, the vehicles had to maintain higher security while still allowing the pope to be high enough to be seen by the masses.

This started with armored vehicles, and eventually led to the bulletproof, clear glass-enclosed compartment that most of us can remember John Paul II traveling in.

However, Pope Francis seems not to be a fan of the enclosed cars. He’s likened the standard “pope box” design to a sardine can, and plans to see the United States in an open-sided Jeep Wrangler instead.

For more information and illustrations, be sure to check out the article from the Washington Post.