The Popemobile: Mechanised Robes & Motorised Architecture

The Popemobile is not so much as vehicle as a form of mechanised robeing – a vehicular extension of the Papal robes, which is probably why – with a few exceptions – the Popemobile is always white.

The Popemobile is also a motorised version of the Popes throne – a motor-throne if you’ll will.

And it’s also a piece of architecture – a detachable piece of the Vatican that not only transports the Pontiff, but an idea of the architecture which plays such a central role Papal ceremony. The significance of axis replaced by axle.

The Popemobile is a rare object which exists at the intersection of different object-orders. On the one hand it is part of the contemporary product-language of car design, but it’s also related to an older order of things where objects could be invested with supernatural qualities.

Its hybrid culture seems to span a disparate range of influences which include Futurist auto-phillia, luxury car design, Catholic heraldic symbolism, Archigram-esque moving architecture and Star Wars Stormtrooper styling.

The Popemobile isn’t a single vehicle, but an idea that is re-interpreted over and over again. It is most often a customised version of a locally manufactured vehicle – a Mercedes in Germany, a Range Rover in the UK, a Peugeot in France and so on. These multitudinous Popemobiles are a weird kind of vernacularism which meld the Papal design brief with the bodywork of a production vehicle. They form a strange family of vaguely similar vehicles that become pilgrim sites in themselves long after the Pope has gone. Physically, they range from bizarre Polish vehicles which look like giant sized milk floats, to the Leyland Constructor six-wheeler, to customized Mercedes SUVs.

Customisations include specifications like this, which were applied to a General Motors pickup truck for a Canadian visit: Couch seating for 10; Plush red velour carpeting; Dual air conditioners; Two-inch armor plate; An enclosed cockpit of bulletproof glass; A modified eight cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive; Two specially lined gas tanks impervious to explosives; Special communications equipment; Other (unspecified) security apparatus.

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