Motoring: Protection racket - Armoured cars
Fed up with smashed windows and stolen stereos? Michael Booth meets Andrew Jankel, a specialist in armoured vehicles. Photographs by Dominick Tyler
Saturday 12 June 1999
In London, attacks on people in cars are fairly frequent (Hammersmith is a recent hot spot with watches and bags snatched from cars waiting in traffic), but locking your doors doesn't necessarily lock out the world. With this in mind, more and more people are choosing to turn their vehicles into hammer-, bullet- and bombproof cocoons, if not to prepare for an approaching Armageddon, then at least to make sure they get back from the shops in one piece. Armoured cars are no longer the preserve of heads of state and mafioso.
"These days there is a mass of countries where kidnap and assassination are an issue," explains Andrew Jankel of The Jankel Group, one of the UK's leading automobile armourers, "There was a time when we were building armoured cars and we would hardly ever hear about any that were actually attacked - it was only a precautionary matter. Nowadays we are supplying vehicles into areas where we are pretty confident that people are going to be attacked."
Before you rush out to slap a few sheets of extra steel plate on to your Fiesta, I should stress that Andrew is talking about places like Latin America, South Africa and Eastern Europe, where well-heeled citizens can select the armoured option from their high-street dealer as you or I might choose to have metallic paint. However, armoured car manufacturing is a fast-growing industry world-wide and several major Western European manufacturers (Mercedes, under the Mercedes-Benz "Guard" brand name; BMW, Volvo and Audi among them), are now selling armoured versions of standard production saloons to European buyers.
If you can't quite stretch to a new pounds 150,000 armoured Mercedes S-Class (the world's favourite armoured car), you could start by fitting the basic level of protection to your own car - emergency strobe lights, yelp alarms and hammer-proof glass, made from a light composite polycarbonate material similar to that used in police riot shields, which can slot into the existing window runners.
Should you fancy something a little more serious, protection that can cope with, say, a .44 Magnum, a 9mm Uzi submachine gun, or even high-velocity armour-piercing rounds, you'll first of all need a car that's engine is going to be man enough to cope with the extra ton of plating, thickened glass (potentially in excess of five centimetres thick) and special equipment, which can bring the total weight of the car to over three tons.
"I had an enquiry the other day to armour a Volkswagen Golf to a high level of protection, but I had to say no as the suspension would have collapsed and the brakes just wouldn't have withstood the added pressure," says Jankel.
Armouring takes its toll on a car: acceleration can drop by 20 per cent and handling can be compromised. (In fact, early reports suggested that Princess Diana's chauffeur, Henri Paul, discovered this to his cost.) For lower levels of security, higher-rated springs and shock absorbers, and better brake pads are vital.
For higher protection most of the suspension is completely re-engineered (in some cases, as with Range Rover's air suspension, replaced entirely). And once you have taken delivery of your urban tank, weak points - like wheel bearings which can't be uprated - need constant checking. Engines, too, need more regular maintenance to cope with the stress. "A huge battle is making sure the doors don't drop because we build massively strong frames to hang the armour on," says Jankel, whose father founded the company in the Fifties building racing cars before branching out into armouring in the Eighties. "Armoured vehicles are always a compromise between three things: the level of protection, a discreet appearance, and performance. And if one of those goes up, the others go down," says Jankel.
To further complicate things, the materials used vary depending on the type of threat. To repel bullets you need steel plates, but these fracture under a bomb blast. So to protect against bombs, glass fibre or Kevlar panels are fitted beneath the car to soak up the blast. The next problem is to protect the occupants if the car is then blown on to its roof, which means extra strengthening of the body shell. Armoured glass, meanwhile, is of little use on its own as so-called "soft-skinned" car doors are easily pierced by handguns, so the doors and shell of the car need to be plated internally as well - not easy to do with ever-lighter, smaller modern cars which are often packed with electronic gadgets (the myriad of electric motors secreted throughout the new S-Class are a particular headache).
According to Jankel, in London more and more people are equipping their cars with smash-proof glass, strobe lights and yelp alarms to ward off opportunistic thieves. In America, Latin America or Africa, where concealed hand guns or small machine guns are common place, light armouring is required, complemented by run-flat tyres and petrol-tank protection. Bomb-proofing is a fairly standard requirement for VIPs in Eastern Europe and Northern Ireland.
"Anywhere you have a big disparity between the wealthy and the poor you will find armoured cars. In Johannesburg, for example, people don't stop at red lights for fear of robbery. Latin America is a fast growing market. In Colombia there is a particular resentment towards Americans, so they need protected vehicles, whereas in Mexico City and Rio it's a case of being under threat just because you're driving a nice car," says Jankel, who even knows of a Mexican Ferrari that has been armoured. Closer to home, Brussels has seen a recent surge in attacks on diplomats from gun-toting carjackers; in Germany executives live in fear of kidnapping; while in Moscow, the Mafia are a constant threat to businessmen, and each other. In Spain and Italy the problem is, if anything, worse with even low-level officials and policemen targeted by assassins.
Armoured cars have existed almost as long as cars have, initially in the USA where everyone from presidents to Al Capone would use them. Mercedes built their first protected vehicle for Emperor Hirohito in 1928, other heads of state and royalty soon cottoned on. In the Sixties, with an increase in terrorism and kidnapping, major businessmen, celebrities and diplomats joined the queue. Though Jankel can't divulge client names, for obvious reasons, he was prepared to say that most of the higher echelons of The Sunday Times' "Rich List" will be driving (or driven in) armoured cars, and you would be surprised how many who don't even make the top 100 still feel that protection is essential.
These days there is apparently also a certain cachet to having an armoured car even if it isn't entirely necessary. "Occasionally there are people who like the idea of having an armoured car, who like to think that they are important enough to be a target," says Jankel.
The technicians who work in the Jankel Group's research and development department, based in a converted stables in a moated 15th-century manor house (ironically once the base for a notorious highwayman), are probably the closest thing you'll get to a real-life version of James Bond's gadget man Q. Here, in disappointingly prosaic workshops (no dinner jackets, that's for sure), they create new materials, deconstruct new cars to assess how to armour them most effectively and create gadgets like the rather natty smokescreen device concealed in the rear bumper (which needs a compensatory air-pressure system to prevent the inside of the car being filled with fumes). The Bond link isn't too far fetched as it turns out, The Jankel Group is on the Ministry of Defence's procurement list, and though no one there would dream of commenting, one can imagine The Jankel Group's products being used at all levels of government.
The ultimate in armoured cars used to be a military personnel carrier which Jankel re-trimmed with leather for Middle Eastern customers. Now the company is working on its own, far more discreet, purpose-built 4x4, inspired by the Russian ZIL limousines which were built from scratch with heavy armour to protect their presidents. "We designed it to get rid of the nightmare of armouring existing mass-produced models, which is always a compromise," explains Jankel as he shows me to a separate workshop; a hive of activity as technicians rush to finish the first example of their pounds 150,000 monster, named the Aegis. "We've based it on General Motors mechanicals with massive weight-carrying potential and torquey, low revving engines. It's fast but reliable, with a purpose-built armoured body and an armoured engine bay. We expect to sell them to places like Pakistan and oil companies where they need a rugged, reliable car to carry executives." The car is currently in United Nations colours for demonstration purposes, but will later go to an Eastern European VIP.
It takes up to 12,000 hours of work for Jankel to produce a top-of-the- range, bespoke armoured car (it produces between four and six a month) which will cost anywhere between pounds 70,000 (for bulk orders) to pounds 500,000 for a stretched and armoured head of state's limousine. That's on top of the purchase price of the car, of course. But in Germany these mobile fortresses are becoming far more affordable. BMW has sold 1,200 examples of its lightly armoured 540i Protection series at DM178,000 (around pounds 60,000). Mercedes' armoured E-Class is DM260,000 (around pounds 88,000) while Audi offers a lightly armoured A6 for just DM150,000 (around pounds 51,000). If you really want to blend in on the school run, Ashbeck Armoured Vehicles, based in Bonn, will supply you with a new B6-level VW Golf with the same level of protection as the chancellor's car for DM320,000 (around pounds 108,000).
Fifty years ago people would have scoffed at the notion of burglar alarms and immobilisers. In these times of everyday urban terror they are common place. And the way things are going, the democratisation of armour plated cars could be with us far sooner than that.
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