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Mercedes-Benz History: The Mercedes-Benz Popemobile

Words John Clark | June 03, 2010
Mercedes-Benz has been providing popemobiles since 1930 beginning with the Mercedes-Benz Nürburg 460 for Pope Pius XI
Words John Clark June 03, 2010

Mercedes-Benz has been providing popemobiles since 1930. In the summer of that year, 80 years ago, Pope Pius XI received a Mercedes-Benz Nürburg 460 as a present from Daimler-Benz AG. In the following decades, Mercedes-Benz supplied the Vatican with several extensively converted limousines, landaulets and offroaders as official cars for the Holy Father. For three quarters of a century, there have therefore been close relations between the Stuttgart-based automotive brand and the Roman Supreme Pontiff.

The passenger was enthusiastic. It was clear for all to see that Pope Pius XI had enjoyed the one-hour trial run in his new Mercedes-Benz through the Vatican gardens. “A masterpiece of modern engineering,” the Holy Father enthused when he climbed out of the Pullman limousine based on the Mercedes-Benz Nürburg 460. The elegant car with the three-pointed star on the engine hood had been handed over to him by a Daimler-Benz delegation and was to go down in history in subsequent years – as the first automobile to be regularly used by a pope.

This Mercedes-Benz handed over to Pope Pius XI 80 years ago was nothing less than the beginning of close relations between the Vatican and the Stuttgart-based motor manufacturer. In the decades that followed, Mercedes-Benz regularly presented the Vatican with automobiles which had been extensively converted for the pope. During the last 30 years, television and newspaper photos made the popemobiles based on Mercedes-Benz offroaders from the G-Class and M-Class particularly well known. Especially the travels of Pope John Paul II made the offroaders, finished in the papal colors mother-of-pearl and gold and fitted with the characteristic glass cupola, famous throughout the world. However, the landaulets and limousines based on the S-Class equally form part of the pope’s public appearances.

The Mercedes-Benz Nürburg and the current papal car, an M-Class with special bodywork, are the cornerstones of the brand history of automobiles from Stuttgart specially manufactured for the Holy Father. The first modern model after World War II was a Mercedes-Benz 300 d – the “Adenauer-Mercedes” – handed over to Pope John XXIII by rep-resentatives from Untertürkheim in 1960, 30 years after Pope Pius XI’s trial run in the Nürburg. The Mercedes-Benz 300 d had been converted into a landaulet with extended wheelbase – with a soft-top above the rear compartment and a hard-top above the front seats.

In 1965, a delegation from Stuttgart handed over a landaulet version of the Mercedes-Benz 600 to Pope Paul VI at the papal summer residence. In the following two years, as many as three cars – model 300 SEL from the 109 series – were supplied. For the visit of Pope John Paul II to Germany in 1980, Mercedes-Benz developed the first popemobile with a transparent superstructure based on an offroader – a converted G-Class car which was given to the Vatican as a present in 1982. In 1985, the Vatican’s fleet was extended by the addition of a special version of the Mercedes-Benz 500 SEL (W 126), followed in 1997 by a long-wheelbase landaulet version of the S 500. In the summer of 2002, finally, DaimlerChrysler presented the Holy Father with a popemobile set up on the proven example of the G-Class, only this time the car was based on the ML 430 from the M-Class.

Tradition and dignity

Starting with the Nürburg, the history of popemobiles from Mercedes-Benz ranges through to the 2002 M-Class, reflecting a relationship between the Holy See and the Stuttgart-based automotive brand, which has developed and thrived through several pontificates. And this relationship has time and again been expressed by the close cooperation between Mercedes-Benz and the Vatican in the design and manufacture of new automobiles for the pope.

The popes themselves have held their Mercedes-Benz cars in high esteem, too. When the M-Class was handed over to Pope John Paul II in Rome in 2002, the Holy Father himself addressed the media with the plea rather not to use “papa-mobile”, the term not being commensurate with the dignity and purpose of these automobiles.

Sedan-chairs and carriages

For many centuries, the popes used carriages and sedan-chairs for journeys, processions and other public appearances. A very special role was played by the Sedia Gestatoria, the papal sedan-chair. It was carried by twelve “palafrenieri” in red uniforms at events of high litur-gical significance for large congregations. Its purpose was much the same as that of modern popemobiles with their raised seats: the Holy Father was to be seen also from quite a distance by the faithful at important events, attended by large crowds of guests and spectators.

After the invention of the automobile in 1886, it took several decades before the Vatican used a motor vehicle for the pope for the first time. The reason for this was not a reservation against modern engineering but Italian politics. The Papal States had been dissolved when the Italian nation was founded in 1870. King Vittorio Emanuele II had offered Pope Pius IX limited sovereignty which the latter had, however, refused to accept. In the following six decades, the popes did not leave Vatican City out of protest against the unsolved “Roman Question”.

This situation did not change before 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Pacts by Secretary-of-State Pietro Cardinal Gasparri for the Vatican and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini for the Kingdom of Italy. In these contracts, the Vatican recognized Rome as the capital of the Italian nation and in turn, the kingdom recognized the Vatican’s territorial sovereignty in Vatican City and the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo. The signing of the Lateran Pacts in 1929 not only gave the pope new weight on the international political stage but also ended the Supreme Pontiff’s confinement to Vatican City, which had lasted almost 60 years.

A Mercedes-Benz for the pope?

For his trips to the summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, but also for other journeys, the Holy Father would now use an automobile in the future more often. Luxurious motor vehicles had already been presented to the Vatican since 1909. During the first quarter of the 20th century, the fleet encompassed vehicles from brands like Fiat, Bianchi, Graham-Paige, Itala, Citroën and others. But the pope would not be chauffeured around in a motor vehicle – he didn’t after all need a car in an area with a size of just 44 hectares (108.7 acres) – small enough to be walked around comfortably in just one hour. Apart from this, neither Pope Pius X (1903 – 1914) nor his successor Benedict XV (1914 – 1922) were known to be particularly interested in the modern engineering of the motor vehicle. Not so Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939) who was fascinated by the opportunities offered by the motor vehicle and promptly started using the Vatican fleet’s vehicles shortly after the signing of the Lateran Pacts.

And why was the Holy Father not to undertake his travels in a Mercedes-Benz? This was the question asked in the spring of 1929 by Robert Katzenstein, the advertising man of Mercedes-Benz in Frankfurt/Main, Germany. From this question evolved the idea of a limousine individually converted for the pope as a present of Mercedes-Benz for the Vatican. How would the Vatican react to such a present from Germany?

Katzenstein knew Dr. Diego von Bergen, the German ambassador to the Vatican, and presented the idea to him. Von Bergen asked the right people at the Holy See how the Curia would respond to the present of an imposing Mercedes-Benz as an official car for the pope. The answer from Rome turned out to be so encouraging that Katzenstein submitted his proposal to corporate management without delay. The project of a Mercedes-Benz popemobile also met with agreement in Stuttgart and detailed planning began as early as the summer of 1929.