Driving Defensively

Making cars bullet-, kidnap-, and terrorist-proof for wealthy individuals has become a lucrative niche market. A look at the top company, Ohio-based O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt

I am standing before a Mercedes-Benz S600 sedan whose skin can absorb a point-blank spray of bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle or an M-60 machine gun; whose body can withstand the nearby detonation of a hand grenade or pipe bomb; and whose occupants would survive the car's rolling over an antitank mine or the explosion of an artillery burst directly overhead. What's most astonishing, though, is that this Mercedes looks like a normal S600. The only giveaway—one that an untrained eye probably wouldn't pick up—is the tires. They're slightly larger and fatter than the ones Mercedes supplies, the result of nylon inserts that allow this car to be driven for up to 50 miles at 50 mph after the tires have been shot out. Which is why they're called run-flat tires.

Likewise, although I'm in the factory of this country's largest armored car retrofitter, Cincinnati-based O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, you wouldn't necessarily know that by the scene around me. True, if I crane my neck I can just see a line of M1114 and M1116 Humvee military vehicles at the back of the 130,000-square-foot plant: They're being "up-armored" against antitank mine blasts for the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, one of the company's biggest customers. (And there was that gruesome display of blast-mangled and bullet-ridden car doors just inside the entrance of the plant—test subjects from the University of Dayton's Impact Physics Laboratory.) But otherwise this rarefied facility looks like an upscale car dealership/customizer in that there are dozens of Lexuses, Cadillacs, Lincolns, Mercedes, and Suburbans standing around in various stages of evisceration.

And that's just the point that Bill T. O'Gara, president of The Kroll-O'Gara Co., the publicly traded parent of O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, wants me to understand: That the armored car is no longer the preserve of popes, presidents, and potentates, and is no longer solely a defense against assassination and terrorism.

"The major shift we have seen in our business," he says, "has been from demand driven by terrorism to demand driven by crime." That means that while the core of O'Gara's business still consists of supplying custom-made "parade" and "head-of-state" vehicles to governments and U.S. agencies such as the State Department, it also means the company has taken a radical turn, retrofitting with armoring an increasingly standardized line of passenger cars for private citizens and company executives, in effect becoming a consumer products firm, odd as that sounds.

Up to 1993 O'Gara didn't build an armored car until it had an order in hand. But the cars that now constitute the company's "standardized" product line—Chevy Suburban and Tahoe and Mercedes-Benz E430s (just introduced late last summer)—make up most of the vehicles on the factory floor around me. They are produced on what amounts to small-scale assembly lines, the first time armored vehicles have ever been built like this in this country. (And O'Gara says it will soon introduce a third, lower-priced armored vehicle using a popular sport utility model or an everyday sedan.) It's not exactly mass production (O'Gara made 700 cars, custom and standard, in 1997), but it has enabled the company to reduce production time from 1,400 to less than 320 hours for a heavily armored Suburban. That cuts the price from $175,000 to $110,000. The cars seem to sell themselves: The firm's intention to build an inventory, so an order could be filled virtually overnight, has been stymied because demand has outstripped capacity.

Eighty percent of O'Gara's individual and corporate clients are abroad—mainly in the Third World and in political hot spots. (That S600, which costs $393,000 to armor, is bound for South America.) The company has factories in Brazil, Mexico, France, Italy, Russia, and the Philippines.

But the increasing incidence of carjacking, smash-and-grab assaults, and random violence in North America has made this continent a growth market for the first time, though sales are still small: O'Gara sold only 20 armored cars to individuals here last year. But that's up from two in 1992, and the company says total sales of armored cars and trucks to individuals and firms in this country doubled from 1995 to 1997 and that it now has about 15 percent of the American market. O'Gara sees the personal armored car market shifting slowly to physicians, lawyers, celebrities, company owners, and ceos who'd rather drive than be driven. "What Americans are concerned about," he says, "is someone tapping on the glass with a handgun and motioning for the driver to get out."

Bill is the youngest of the four O'Gara brothers. Three of them started out with O'Gara Coach Works, a Beverly Hills exotic car retailer that got into the armored car business in the late seventies by acquiring Hess & Eisenhardt, which started making presidential "parade" armored cars in 1948 with the Sunshine Special for Harry Truman. Last year the firm leapt into the corporate risk and intelligence consulting business when it merged with Kroll Associates, becoming Kroll-O'Gara.

Bill O'Gara, a rock climber and mountaineer who's twice scaled the Grand Tetons, looks more like the former University of Oklahoma offensive guard he was than the president and CEO of a company with net sales of $83 million in 1996, of which the armored car business contributed 80 percent of net sales. With brother Tom, the firm's vice chairman, he's been the driving force in broadening O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt's focus to include standardized production of armored cars.

"We were used to producing vehicles for sophisticated buyers in a totally different market: cars with absolutely no ballistics compromises," says O'Gara. "Now we're dealing with a market that is cost-related and probability-driven, protection for relatively low-risk situations." Thus far O'Gara and a few smaller competitors have the market to themselves. No auto manufacturers currently offer factory-armored vehicles in the American market. (Mercedes-Benz in Germany has provided post-production armoring service for passenger cars for several decades, but it doesn't sell such cars here.) BMW will become the first to do so in March, when a light-armored 540i will go on sale in the United States (see New Defense Mechanism).

O'Gara has six levels of armoring, from I (consisting mainly of installing security glass) to VI, usually reserved for vehicles used by heads of state. The highest level most nongovernmental vehicles receive is IV, which involves installing thicker glass and steel armorplate ("opaque armor" in company parlance), which protects the occupants against almost all kinds of bullets. But even Level II O'Gara armoring will turn back light arms fire.

The best candidates for full armoring are generally bigger, heavier vehicles like sport utilities and full-size sedans because they require the least suspension, braking, and drive-train upgrades. "Suburban, Tahoe, E-Class Mercedes, Lexus, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer, Lincoln Town Car, Cadillac Seville STS, or even a Volkswagen Jetta are all good choices," states O'Gara. Smaller cars are limited to light armoring, while cars with radical glass curvature, or sinuously sculpted bodies, are poor candidates because they are difficult to fit with armor. If the company has never worked on a particular make or model before, the cost skyrockets because of the expense of specially made armored glass and customized tooling. "If it's something we haven't seen before, add fifty percent to the cost," says O'Gara.

The armoring process begins with the disassembly of a new vehicle. Wheels, seats, and doors are removed, and the interior is stripped to the floorboards and wiring. Undercarriage upgrading (the springs, shocks, and brakes) is done first, as is the installation of a nonexplosive gas tank. Then the actual armor is eased into place and welded together. This ranges from precut sections of quarter-inch-thick specialty steel to metal that has a hardened outer layer to break up bullets and a flexible inner layer to absorb their impact. In level II cars, premolded sections of fibrous armor—essentially a more expensive version of the bulletproof vest policemen wear—is used wherever a bullet from a handgun could penetrate to the passenger compartment.

In level IV vehicles, steel is used to protect against graver threats, such as assault rifles. The doors are taken apart, and windows replaced with a specially made ballistic, nonshatter glass. It ranges from panes that can withstand smash-and-grab attacks with a baseball bat or crowbars to three-inch sheets (like the one in that S600) that can absorb the impact of an armor-piercing round. The latter is made of glass layers bonded together over a polycarbonate core that "catches" glass and bullet fragments. Finally, those run-flat tires are added, plus other finishing touches, such as a bullet-resistant or second battery.

"In the United States, unless there is an identified threat, we strongly encourage people to stay at level II," says O'Gara. At this level minimal weight is added (about 250 pounds); thus the vehicle requires few if any upgrades and suffers only minor performance degradation. "It's like having another passenger and a half," he says.

On the other hand, driving that Mercedes S600 often requires specialized training. (Weight training for the doors, so heavy are they from the three-inch-thick laminated glass and steel armorplating.) The suspension is so stiff that there's almost no movement, and that thick glass produces slight optical distortion at the edges of the windshield. Despite the armor, the V12 engine produced a lot of zip, braking was firm, and swerving produced no skittishness.

This car could protect you from almost anything, except a collision. "If you hit a concrete wall head-on at a hundred miles per hour, heavy armor is neither a positive nor a negative," says O'Gara. In fact, since momentum equals mass times velocity, the extra weight could worsen a collision. And you still have to wear a seat belt. "You may move that wall a little more, but without seat belts, something bad is going to happen," states O'Gara.

O'Gara is the first to admit that no one has come up with an invulnerable armored car. An armored vehicle, he claims, offers increased safety: "It is not an impenetrable vault; there's no such thing as bulletproof. What you really buy is time—time to react and to make the right decisions. What it comes down to is whether the increased peace of mind is worth the cost. If you have the disposable income, the question almost becomes, why not."

What Armoring Costs

Listed below are the vehicles O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt most commonly armor for the United States market. Prices are for delivery at the factory in Cincinnati and include the base price of the new vehicle plus conversion armor, nonexplosive gas tank, and run-flat tires. Numerous options are available in addition to these standard features. A 50 percent deposit is required with the order, and the two most popular vehicles can be ready for delivery in one to two weeks. The cost for drop-shipment from the factory to anywhere in the continental United States is $400-$500. O'Gara armored cars come with a one-year or 12,000-mile warranty; service personnel are routinely dispatched around the globe. Factory visits are encouraged. For information and brochure, call 800-697-0307.

Light armoring (Level II): $ 79,000
Heavy armoring (Level IV): $110,000

*Mercedes-Benz E430
Light armoring (Level II): $ 92,000
Heavy armoring (Level IV): $145,000

Mercedes-Benz S600
Light armoring (Level II): $180,000
Heavy armoring (Level IV): $305,000

Jeep Grand Cherokee
Light armoring (Level II): $ 75,000
Heavy armoring (Level IV): $148,000

Toyota Land Cruiser/Lexus 450
Light armoring (Level II): $ 99,000
Heavy armoring (Level IV): $176,000

Lexus LS 400
Light armoring (Level II): $113,000
Heavy armoring (Level IV): $185,000

Cadillac Catera
Light armoring (Level II): $ 75,000
Heavy armoring (Level IV): not available

Lincoln Town Car
Light armoring (Level II): $ 89,000
Heavy armoring (Level IV): $173,000

* Standardized production-line vehicle

New Defense Mechanism

If all goes according to plan, this March BMW will become the only automobile manufacturer in the United States to offer an armored passenger car drawn from its standard lineup. The lightly armored Protection 540i will have fibrous armor, thick bullet-resistant glass, and run-flat tires but will weigh just 286 pounds more than the regular model, which means there will be little sacrifice in performance. The price is estimated to be $77,000, roughly $26,000 more than the standard model. BMW has made a heavily armored 7 Series car since the late '70s; it is available only by direct application to BMW of North America: 800-831-1117.

Driver Training

Once a car is armored, the driver becomes the weakest link in the security chain. "In an attack you might have five to ten seconds to make some good decisions," says Bill O'Gara. "If you don't react, don't move, don't do something, the best armored vehicle in the world can be penetrated."

In 1995, Kroll-O'Gara bought Virginia-based International Training Institute in order to offer driver training for the company's armored vehicles. This year the firm added a second facility in San Antonio, Texas. The two-day, $1,750 course familiarizes drivers with the performance and handling characteristics of armored vehicles, how they can be used to foil attacks, and most important, says Bill O'Gara, teaches drivers how to identify a threat—"You learn to think like a criminal or a terrorist," he says—and the proper way to react once involved in one.

O'Gara includes the course with the purchase of an armored Mercedes E430 and Chevrolet Suburban or Tahoe. The company will even ship the car from Cincinnati to the school so the customer can drive it during the simulated attack scenarios (no live ammunition or explosives) that constitute day two of the course. (The first day is devoted to classroom instruction.)

"The idea is to learn more about what your limitations are so you can make better decisions," says O'Gara. "If you just move, your probability of surviving an attack or of foiling the incident goes up immensely."

For more information, call 800-697-0307.