So You Want to Buy an Armored Car?
Americans of all stripes, from wealthy executives to blue-collar preppers, are increasingly interested in these tactical vehicles, so we got the lowdown from a leading manufacturer
When you hear the words “armored car,” you might imagine the behemoth Gurkha and MRAP trucks driven by the likes of the Rock in the Fast and Furious franchise, over-the-top, quasi-military machines designed to withstand a thousand Hollywood bullets in a blaze of cinematic glory. Or maybe you picture the slab-sided rolling vaults that move from bank to bank, picking up ATM deposits and dropping off payrolls under the watchful eye of armed guards
While these rugged rigs are indeed a part of the armored-vehicle spectrum, there’s an entire subset of bulletproof cars and trucks that you wouldn’t be able to pick out of traffic, even if they were idling beside you at a stoplight. Whether hauling corporate big-wigs and politicos through treacherous streets or tagging in as the bug-out van for prepper families concerned about riding out Armageddon, the armored car industry serves a surprisingly diverse clientele — and it’s one that has grown precipitously over the course the last several years, fueled by concerns over the pandemic, the unstable economy and the perceived dangers of everyday American life.
What goes into transforming a daily-driven SUV, sedan or pickup from civilian-spec to bullet-shirking survivor? We spoke with The Armored Group’s senior manager James Jamila to find out. TAG has been building ballistic-proof vehicles since 1992 for a long list of clients that includes the U.N., the U.S. government, European military clients and law enforcement, alongside a thriving business in the private sector. Jamila himself has over a decade of experience building and delivering some of the toughest automobiles on the planet.
Looking Beyond the Badge
Running down the list of vehicles that regularly turn up at The Armored Group’s production plants (distributed across the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East) reveals the usual suspects that TV and film have conditioned us to consider as the primary tools of executive protection. These include full-size sedans and SUVs from Mercedes-Benz (the S-Class and the G-Class), the Cadillac Escalade, and the Chevrolet Suburban family of big-boned sport-utilities, as well as law enforcement-adjacent fare such as the Ford Explorer and Expedition.
More surprising? The preponderance of seemingly pedestrian models that nevertheless show up alongside higher-end options to be hardened into the kind of transportation that could survive an unexpected firefight.
“GM, Ford and Ram lead the way domestically, while on the Japanese side it’s Toyota — particularly the Camry and the Avalon — that tend to be the most common economical models that we see,” says Jamila. “This is alongside our Euro luxury mainstays, and then up beyond that we get into Rolls-Royce and Bentley.”
How to Bulletproof Your Car
Whether it’s a Volkswagen Passat or a Porsche Cayenne showing up at the factory, the mandate is the same: outfit each vehicle with armor according to a sliding scale of how intense a threat the owner anticipates they might face. The Armored Group makes use of the European EN 1063 standard classification system, which offers seven tiers of ballistic protection.
“For our commercial cash-in-transit customers, we start with B4-level armoring. That’s pistol round protection, .44 magnum and below,” Jamila explains. “B6 is standard for passenger vehicles, which protects against rifle rounds like the .308 Winchester, the NATO 7.62 and the AK-47 7.62. Tactical and law enforcement customers will get B6 or B7, with the latter protecting against the military hardened core cartridge version of the 7.62.”
Each vehicle that TAG builds is based around a 360-degree safety cell that armors all vertical and horizontal surfaces, including the floor, roof and firewall, as well as an armored fuel tank and engine control unit (ECU), and run-flat tires. A single operable window is part of the standard package, with additional features (another window that can be opened, protection from grenade blasts and other explosive devices) available a la carte.
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When armoring a vehicle, TAG has to make sure to stay within its factory gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which is the maximum safe mass its platform can transport, including the weight of the automobile itself. It goes without saying that the materials used in bulletproofing can be quite heavy — ballistic steel and glass, for the most part — and that this can have an impact on overall performance as well as carrying capacity. This requires a careful calculation to ensure that the automobile in question can handle the passengers and cargo it’s intended to carry, even when hauling all that extra steel.
Lighter, thicker composite materials are out there, but they aren’t as cost-effective, and have an expiration date in terms of their exposure to extreme heat, cold and moisture. To best deal with the chunkifying effects of armor, TAG considers a V6 engine the minimum, with a V8 the ideal. It also provides suspension upgrades for vehicles whose factory shocks and springs need a bit of assistance.
Perhaps most impressive is that all of the above is almost entirely invisible from the outside, requiring a trained eye to truly pick out any details that might give away the fact that the vehicle in question has been hardened to withstand high-caliber bullets. “We try to keep things as covert as possible,” says Jamila. “It’s an OEM unmodified look unless the client specifically asks for things like push bars, ram bumpers or off-road gear.”
How much can you expect to pay for protection from the worst-case commuting scenario? TAG sets a baseline of $50,000 to customize pickup trucks to B6 levels of ballistic resistance, with a slightly higher charge for SUVs and passenger vans. Standard sedans see a $59,000 charge for the same B6 baseline, while European SUVs ($67,000) and sedans ($69,000) are priced higher. It generally takes four months — two months in the queue, then two months in production — before a vehicle is ready to be delivered.
Surprisingly Diverse Customer List
Naturally, a substantial portion of The Armored Group’s clientele are what is called the “cash in transit” crowd, a term that applies to companies that handle the logistics of moving money, liabilities and other valuables for banks and retail operations. This was the bread and butter of the industry until roughly the time of the second Gulf War, when a groundswell of orders started to arrive from both governmental and individual customers.
“We’re a 10-year supplier to the United Nations, we provide vehicles for federal government counter-terrorism and the U.S. State Department, and these are global markets for us,” Jamila details. The company does strong business with law enforcement within the U.S. at various levels too, and they’re also an active presence in executive protection in developing countries, especially those with potentially volatile major urban centers.
Outside the corporate and governmental spheres, however, growing numbers of private citizens are also purchasing armored vehicles, and their motivations for doing so are as diverse as the people placing the orders.
“The last three years have seen a whole new crop of motivated buyers who were either not considering, or who were on the fence previously,” he says. “Our clients are very diverse. We have a blue-collar group who fall into the doomsday prepper kind of segment, we have business owners who are concerned with protecting themselves, their families and their company’s assets, and then we have professionals and executives, high-net-worth individuals who are witnessing on-road violence in major cities and want to be protected from that.”
Jamila highlights economic disparities that are increasingly pushing wealthy neighborhoods up against homeless encampments, as well as the rise of survivalist culture where buyers are looking for a blend-in bug-out vehicle that can get their family to safety in the event of a riot or the breakdown of social order. These scenarios, both real and hypothetical, are sending greater numbers of first-time customers to TAG’s door.
The Realities of Ballistic Resistance
Are there sacrifices to be made when purchasing a bulletproof car? Keen eyes will have already spotted the phrase “one functioning window” in a description of what the typically B6 armor level has to offer. Naturally, when considering the expectations that go hand-in-hand with top-shelf luxury vehicles like Rolls-Royce, this might seem to be an imposed limitation in a world where the sky traditionally denotes any and all boundaries.
Jamila explains that it’s possible to go fully custom in terms of features for most vehicles, provided the budget is there. “There’s a sacrifice from an engineering standpoint in regards to the curvature of the door, the glass and the lock mechanisms,” he says. “Those are the properties that determine how far a window can roll down, or if it can be operable or not.” More horsepower and additional suspension tweaks are also available to all customers.
As an aftermarket armoring company, he says, TAG is focused on providing value in a way that factory-backed bulletproof cars (which can be engineered on the assembly line to incorporate thicker glass and additional steel) are not. “Automakers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi have armor you can order right from the factory floor, whether it’s through a direct partner or an internal design. This is very, very expensive, and while it comes with a full warranty it usually constrains the market to the upper echelon of government officials. Think of it like motorsports, where factory armor is used as part of their marketing — extremely low volume, but building a lot of brand awareness.”
For customers without a taxpayer-funded budget, TAG also provides a strong inventory of previously-owned bulletproof models. “We’re the number one source for used armored vehicles in the entire United States,” he says. “This service is aimed at customers who might be facing a price constraint, or who can’t wait four months for a delivery. I don’t like to leave any client behind.”
It might not look like The Rock’s battle rig, but if you’re pinching pennies in preparation for the apocalypse, the impregnable bug-out truck of your dreams might be a little more affordable than you thought.
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