The Pope is arguably the most recognizable figure in the world, and as such, his every move is scrutinized. So while the speeches, writings, and actions of each Pope are poured over, weighed, and interpreted by Catholic scholars for years, the rest of the world focuses on more earth-bound issues about the man — like the uproar caused by Benedict XVI’s Prada shoes.
But traditionally, Popes didn’t just have expensive taste in footwear, they had expensive taste in everything — and it extended to their choice of rides too. Until 1929, Popes were chauffeured exclusively in ornate, gilded carriages in and around the Vatican. When the Holy See’s fleet entered the age of the automobile, his tastes were unsurprisingly expensive. The Pope’s early cars were grand tourers of the era: Isotta Fraschinis (like the winner of this year’s Pebble Beach Concours), Mercedes-Benzes, and even an American-built Graham Paige. In the decades since, Popes have almost always been driven in the lap of luxury.
But that’s beginning to change with Pope Francis. While he projects a radical (for a Pope) image of humility, he backs it up with his taste in papal rides. And in the 86-year history of Popemobiles, his cars stand in stark contrast to the pontiff’s rides of the past.
To illustrate this point, we took a look back over the past 50 years of Popemobiles and came up with 10 of the most interesting cars to ever carry a pope.
1. Lincoln Continental
In the early ’60s, the Lincoln Continental was one of the most glamorous cars in the world, and for Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit to the U.S. (the first time a Pope ever visited America), the Vatican requested that Ford build one specifically for the pontiff. The trouble was, Ford was only given two weeks notice. The result was this Lehmann-Petersen-bodied Continental, with a removable transparent bubble top, a public address system, and rear seats that raise up for parades. Paul VI liked the car so much that when he returned to the new world in 1968, he requested the car again. The Lincoln finished out its public life as the city of Chicago’s official parade vehicle and was used to carry astronauts from Apollo 8, 11, 13, and 15 through ticker tape parades. Long since retired from parade duty, it was sold by Bonham’s in 2011 for $220,000.
2. Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman
From 1964 to 1981, the Mercedes-Benz 600 was the most expensive car in the world. And with good cause — it was completely hand-built to buyer’s specifications, ensuring that no two are completely alike. In 1965, Mercedes built this convertible Pullman Landaulet specifically for Pope Paul VI. The vent on the rear fender indicates that this Popemobile came with air conditioning — a rarity for ’60s-era European cars.
3. Citroën SM Presidentielle
In what could be the coolest Popemobile of all time, in 1980 Pope John Paul II visited France in a 1974 Citroën SM Presidentielle. The car was based on the 1970-75 SM coupe, a Maserati-powered grand tourer that won Motor Trend’s 1972 Car of the Year and had a fairly successful career as a rally car. The Presidentielle probably wasn’t the fastest thing on the road, but it’s probably the closest the Popemobile ever came to doubling as a sports car.
4. Fiat Campaignola
In what could be the most infamous Popemobile of all time, this ’70s-era Fiat Campagnola will be forever remembered as the car Pope John Paul II was shot in while riding through St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981. The Pope survived the attempt, and while future Popemobiles were built to offer the pontiff greater protection, John Paul II had a soft spot for the little Italian jeep and still used it from time to time, like this 2004 outing in the Vatican.
5. Mercedes-Benz 230-G
After the assassination attempt, the Popemobile got a major security overhaul, resulting in the modern, boxy, bulletproof ride we picture when we think of the Holy See’s rides. Perhaps the most high-profile of the high-security Popemobiles is the Mercedes-Benz 230-G, which went into service in the early ’80s. Astonishingly, the G-Class is still in production today and mechanically is little different from John Paul II’s original ride. A newer G-Class is still in the Vatican’s fleet.
6. Ferrari Mondial
In 1988, John Paul II gave the new, heavily armored Popemobiles a break and went for a ride in a red and tan Ferrari Mondial while visiting the company’s headquarters in Maranello, Italy. Ferrari never forgot the Pope’s visit, and donated an Enzo supercar to John Paul II in 2005. The Pope requested the supercar be auctioned, with the benefits going to aid victims of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. In 2005, it was auctioned for $1.1 million. In August 2015, the Enzo was resold, this time fetching over $6 million.
7. Renault 4
While John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI, favored more traditional Popemobiles (read: Mercedes), the arrival of Pope Francis signaled a changing of the guard at the Vatican — and that extended to his choice of cars. In 2013, Francis was given a 1984 Renault 4 with 186,000 miles on it, which he preferred to drive himself rather than be chauffeured.
8. Hyundai Santa Fe
In keeping with his humble image, Francis’ choice in Popemobiles is noticeably more egalitarian than former Popes. On top of a Kia Sedona and an Isuzu D-Max pickup, Francis has been seen around the world in this Hyundai Santa Fe-based Popemobile. The SUV-based Popemobile made its debut at the Vatican in June, shortly after Francis’ visit to South Korea.
9. Jeep Wrangler
Frankly, we’re shocked it took so long for a Jeep to get conscripted into papal service, but in 2015, Francis used this Wrangler on a trip to Equador and liked it enough to use it again on his American jaunt. This Wrangler is emblematic of the Francis-era Popemobile: frontal protection mandated by the Swiss Guard, with open sides so he can still reach out to crowds.
10. Fiat 500L
In a far cry from the Lincoln Continental, the long black Mercedes 600, or even the gold-plated G-230, when Francis arrived in the U.S. from Cuba earlier this week, his ride of choice was a modest, black Fiat 500L. While his choice of car is certainly surprising, a small, affordable Italian crossover actually fits perfectly with Francis’ humble image. Who knows, maybe papal approval will even be enough to kickstart 500L sales in the U.S.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS