When Barack Obama was elected president, America got more than just a new leader. It also got a new car. A foot taller than all the other Secret Service cars and loaded with the newest advances in probably unnecessary technology, it caused a media stir on Inauguration Day. In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, automobile reporter Dan Neil wrote, "Barack Obama's new limo -- code-named Stagecoach -- is a massive, mobile redoubt, a cross between a Cadillac and a hardened missile silo."
Neil speculates that America's new 15,000-pound First Car has several inches of outer armor, an undercoating of Kevlar and other materials to prevent damage from grenades and bombs beneath it, thick bullet-resistant glass in all windows and an interior air system made to prevent the entrance of poisonous gases. Combine those measures with "run-flat" tires that will drive safely even when shot out, and you've got something quite effective against everything from a mob of people carrying pitchforks to commandos with high-powered weapons.
But if you want your own version of a Stagecoach, don't call its maker, General Motors Corp. Even though GM could use the business, it's not going to sell you one. In fact, you can't even buy a used version because they're destroyed and replaced every four years. Instead, you'll need a company like the International Armoring Corp., with plants around the world that equip cars with armor. In its 16-year history, IAC has sold 5,500 armored vehicles in 58 countries.
Armament options are similar to Stagecoach, but not as intensive. All armor is hidden: The entire passenger compartment, including pillar posts and floorboards, is sheathed from inside with ordnance- and shrapnel-stopping material. There is a balancing act here: Retrofitting is done to existing cars that were never meant to carry that much weight. That can make for sluggish handling, even though to survive an attack a car must be nimble enough to get away.
"The most critical area to armor is your glass," says IAC chief executive Mark Burton. "Ninety percent of the rounds are aimed at your glass, but because they're bad shots we armor the rest of the vehicle as well."
There are several international standards for protection -- all based around what kind of firepower you think you might encounter. IAC uses the European "B" system, and its two most popular ratings are B4 and B6. A B4 will stop a .44 Magnum. If you worry less about Dirty Harry and more about the Taliban, a B6 rating will defend against an AK-47, an M-16 or a high-powered rifle such as a .308 Winchester. To stop armor-piercing rounds, you'll need a B7, usually requested for heads of state. A B4 and above will thwart explosive devices from underneath the car, protect the fuel tank and provide run-flat tires. Extras such as a bullet-proof battery, dual-ram bumpers and an internal oxygen system are available. It's all a matter of cost and weight.
IAC can armor almost any newer model of automobile, from Porsches to Suburbans. If you bring your own car, IAC will fit it to a B4 level for about $48,500, and a B6 level will set you back around $65,000.
Once you've pimped your ride, you or your driver will need to enroll in one of the many schools around the country teaching evasive driving. Head out, for example, to Willow Springs Raceway, in the arid high desert of southern Kern County in California, next to Edwards Air Force Base, where the Rick Seaman Stunt Driving School is located. Chris Christensen, one of the school's trainers, stripped to the waist and dangling a cigarette from his lips, will take you for a demonstration ride in a dented Chevy Caprice. He starts slowly with a couple of sideway skids, then accelerates, roaring the unmuffled, V-8 powered car up to 40 mph. Deafening screeches of tires and clouds of black, acrid smoke accompany neck-snapping changes in direction. He makes a series of 90-degree, high-speed turns, mixes in several 180s and a 360. Then comes the coup de grâce: a reverse 180. Taking the car down a ramp backwards at 50 miles an hour ("You have to be going at least 50," he explains while driving), he whipsaws it around until it heads forward again.
For $2,675, owner Rick Seaman offers a three-day course to train you in such evasive techniques. If under attack, he says, "there are three moves a security driver needs to know: a 90-degree skid turn at high speed, a 180-degree turn for the quickest way to change direction and a reverse 180." Also included in the package is a way to thwart a bad guy attempting a "PIT" -- pursuit intervention technique or precision immobilization technique -- maneuver, shoving your rear bumper from behind at high speed, sending you into a spin. Seaman teaches a countermove that puts you in position to perform the PIT on the other car and send the other driver off the road, presumably to his doom. The course also provides security experts who teach how to plan the safest driving route possible, how to employ alternate routes and how to look ahead while driving to avoid chokepoints and spot warning signs of potential ambush.
If your security issues are serious enough to armor your car and learn to drive like Steve McQueen, an ounce of prevention might be worth several reverse 180s. Companies such as World Protection Group Inc. offer a constellation of personal security services. Although its website lists a Beverly Hills address, WPG is actually headquartered in a non-descript office near one of Southern California's smaller airports. ("We don't want the bad guys to know exactly where we are," says CEO Kent Moyer.) Moyer, a former karate instructor who opened several martial arts studios before working security for the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles and launching his own firm, is the author of the dignitary protection training curriculum for the Los Angeles and Orange County sheriff's departments. He says WPG operates in 20 countries, has a full-time staff of more than 200 and a pool of about 5,000 trained agents to call on worldwide. He touts his company as more than simply a bodyguard service. While off-duty police and big-muscled bodyguards are trained to react to problems, he promises to proactively seek them out and prevent them.
In addition to security agents who accompany a client, he might recommend a three-level security system for the home, consisting of an outer fence with cameras, ground patrols, the creation of a secured safe room and maybe even agents inside the home. Moyer's firm offers threat assessments, countersurveillance and Secret Service-style advance teams who secure a client's future stops.
Moyer relates a cautionary tale about travel to Mexico. A few years ago four businessmen traveled to a large Mexican city to inspect a resort for possible purchase. Their host, purporting to own the property, arranged accommodations and security. They were picked up at the airport in an armored Porsche Cayenne with motorcycle escorts wearing Mexican police uniforms. Their host soon revealed that he did not own the hotel; in fact, he was the leader of a local drug gang. He beat one of the businessmen and demanded a large ransom. Before the ransom could be delivered from the U.S., the men managed to escape to the airport and returned home. The men contacted WPG after their return, and Moyer says his investigation led U.S. officials to make property seizures and arrests that left the drug lord crippled.
"Right now Mexico is looking like the new Iraq," Moyer says. "For work down there, we set up security on this end and only use local agents we have worked with or trained ourselves."
There are other security outfits similar to WPG. One such firm is Threat Management and Protection Inc. CEO R.J. Kirschner and senior director Paul French emphasize their ability to protect a company's assets, computer systems, intellectual property and personnel.
Kirschner, a former California State parole agent and private investigator, and French, a former British military officer who managed security for the Royal Family, worked together with different security entities for years, then merged their talents in TMAP. "Personal protection is a cerebral function, not a physical function," says French. "We expect our agents to have standardized training and far more skills than just their protective skills. One example: I may be the first responder to a medical emergency suffered by my principal in a remote location in South America. He might be a man in his 50s or 60s, a little overweight, suffering a lot of stress. He may have a heart attack. There's a saying in the security business: 'Dead clients don't pay.' It's our job to keep him alive, to know where the nearest medical treatment facility is and get him there no matter what."
Of course, the challenges may also be of a standard shoot-'em-up variety. French tells of four geophysicists working for an oil company in Ecuador who were attacked by Colombian guerrillas while traveling in a a three-vehicle convoy. The security team, faced with AK-47 fire, decided their only hope was to accelerate through their attackers. They got their clients away unharmed.
So now you've got an armored car, can re-create the chase checkpoint scene from "The Year of Living Dangerously" and have bodyguards who can deliver a baby and declaim on Proust. But you're still lacking an important piece of your security umbrella: air power. Not only a chopper and crew to whisk you from a private jet in Teterboro, N.J., but one to extract you from a dicey situation in Central America as well.
Michael Rogers, CEO of Los Angeles Helicopters LLC, personifies this side of security. Rogers flies, rents, charters, repairs, and sells helicopters. Rogers has an important place in TMAP's web of professional relationships.
"Say we have to extract a principal in Central America very quickly," says French.
"We can call Michael, and with his contacts -- which are global -- he has the credibility with locals there to get us an aircraft that can help us do the job."
Costs for these kinds of services? For full-time service the price can range from $100,000 a year up to several million. Is it worth it? Besides remaining alive, WPG's Moyer offers his own definition of value as well: "Failure of an assignment is any incident that embarrasses the client in any way."