Remembering the Time the Pope Went on an NYC Stadium Tour in a Ford Bronco

Pope John Paul II's "Wimbledon White" Bronco helped usher in the term "popemobile"

January 27, 2022 6:20 am
Pope John Paul II arriving at Shea Stadium in New York, New York on October 3, 1979 standing in the truck bed of a 1980 Ford Bronco the automaker converted into a white popemobile
Pope John Paul II arriving at Shea Stadium on October 3, 1979 in his Ford Bronco popemobile.
Dirck Halstead/Getty

When The New York Times put together a brief history of the popemobile, a Fiat 1107 Nuova Campagnola was presented as a turning point: “It marked the beginning of the white all-terrain vehicles that have come to be associated with the popemobile-style vehicles of today.” (“Popemobile,” Emily Rueb wrote, being an unofficial nickname.) 

That Fiat was donated to Pope John Paul II in 1980. The year before, however, there was another white all-terrain vehicle that ferried the pontiff to his stadium tour of New York City. “John Paul arrived at [Shea Stadium] in Flushing shortly before 1:15 yesterday,” the same paper wrote on October 4, 1979, “his white truck with a hand rail and the papal seal emblazoned on its side at the center of the ubiquitous motorcade of police officers and Secret Servicemen for this American tour.” 

The truck in question was none other than a reconfigured 1980 Ford Bronco. Yes, the Polish Pope was once driven into crowds of tens of thousands at both Shea and Yankee Stadium while waving from the back of a “Wimbledon White” Bronco. It’s a historical footnote that’s getting renewed attention as Ford announced this week that it is auctioning off a special-edition 2021 Ford Bronco with proceeds going to Detroit’s Pope Francis Center, an organization fighting “chronic homelessness.” While Ford says the customized SUV is “paying homage to the original 1966 Ford Bronco,” its namesake and Wimbledon White color scheme can’t help but call to mind the papal vehicle of yore. 

The 1980 Ford Bronco the automaker had customized as a popemobile for Pope John Paul II's 1979 visit to New York City
The 1980 Wimbledon White Bronco in all its glory.

While news coverage of the time was understandably more focused on the pontiff than this single element of his transport, Ford’s archives do hold a few interesting tidbits. In one file, a Chicago Sun-Times blurb from August 30, 1979 appears to show that the Bronco came about when the word “popemobile” was just beginning to gain traction.

“During his October visit to Chicago and five other U.S. cities,” the article reads, “Pope John Paul II will use several forms of transportation: chartered commercial jet planes, helicopters, bubbletop cars and — last, but not least — three ‘Popemobiles.’” Anonymous sources are cited as providing that last insight.

Ford confirmed these plans a month later in a news release. “The vehicle, open in the rear so that the Pope may stand and greet his friends and followers, will have an exterior finish done in wimbledon white and an interior decor completed in wedgewood blue,” it reads. “When the modified Bronco is completed, it will be turned over to the United States Secret Service, which will supervise the transportation needs of Pope John Paul II, while he is in this country.” 

Although the Wimbledon White color could be seen as a custom option for the Pope, by announcing the Bronco Pope Francis Center First Edition, the automaker noted the paint was available all the way back for the first generation of the vehicle (though it’s not an option for modern Bronco buyers).

The truck bed with steps in the back of the 1980 Ford Bronco that Ford modified for Pope John Paul II's 1979 visit to New York
All the safety features you could ever need: two ropes.

Lest you think this recent gesture by Ford is a harbinger of a future popemobile partnership — Pope Francis dune jumping in an all-white Bronco Raptor, perhaps? — we’d like to remind you that the current leader of the Catholic Church is actually taking the climate crisis seriously. As such, it appears the next high-profile popemobile is going to be electric; EV up-and-comer Fisker said in May that it is working on a version of its Ocean SUV that will be delivered to the Pope this year.

But if the Fisker partnership doesn’t pan out, maybe Ford can offer up an F-150 Lightning.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!