Courting the Vatican Who Will Build the Next Popemobile?

German car manufacturers like Volkswagen, Audi and BMW are already lining up at the Vatican in order to secure contracts to build the car that will be used by Benedict XVI during his international trips: the beloved Popemobile. Until now Mercedes has supplied the Popemobile, but other companies are stepping up with their own models for the new pope.

With a new pope in office, automobile companies around the world are wooing the Vatican for the contract to deliver Benedict XVI his new Popemobile.

"It would be an honor for any car-maker to transport the Holy Father," an Audi spokesman said. BMW would be "pleased if the pope were to choose one of our armoured limousines," a spokeswomen for Audi's Bavarian competitor assured. And Volkswagen, the mass-circulation Bild reported Thursday, wants to start negotiations with the Vatican.

In the past, Mercedes-Benz built the Popemobile, which were deemed necessary after the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in May 1981. Since then, the pope has made all public appearances in a pickup with a removable cabin made of bullet-proof Plexiglas. The inside was equipped with air-conditioning and hand rails so the pope could wave to the masses as the car moved -- even in the tremendous heat of tropical climes. The last Popemobile was based on a Mercedes-Benz ML 430 series station SUV.

Most companies now courting the Vatican are holding back from doing the hard-sell. Audi has said it doesn't want to overwhelm the new pope with offers just after he has taken office. "We're going to give him a little bit of time to think," a spokesman said. BMW, too, is only lightly beating its promotional drum. The company plans to offer a customized version of its X5 SUV instead of its usual high-speed, sporty cars -- given the snail's pace with which the pope usually rolls down dirt roads and through massive cities, he won't need much of the horsepower the Munich company is famous for.

At the VW's shareholder meeting in Hamburg on Thursday, a spokesman for the company confirmed the Bild report, saying that VW would begin negotiations with the Vatican in the hopes of supplying the vehicle that will be used for Benedict XIV's first trip abroad. The pope is planning to visit the World Youth Day in Cologne in August and VW is the event's official automobile sponsor. VW's hoping the pope will go for a little Fahrvergnügen and ask that one of the 100 some odd cars it is providing for the event will be a Popemobile. The company has sketches for a heavily armored, €85,000 edition of its Touareg SUV for the occasion. If he wants it, we'll build it, the company has said.

When it comes to cars, the previous pope had a taste for four-wheelers produced in a number of his constituencies. Italy's Fiat and America's General Motors also provided closed limousines. But for his cruises around Rome, he used his favorite car, a 1960s Mercedes-Benz, a hand-me-down from his predecessor.

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