Rick Bondy waits silently as the PR guy and engineer pile into the back of the Lincoln Town Car Ballistic Protection Series (BPS). Bondy’s booked track time at Ford’s Dearborn Proving Ground; the look on his face says he’s not going to miss a single minute. Sensing his urgency, I point to the radar detector nestling in my camera bag. “I’ve got one of these if you need it.” “No thanks,” Bondy replies, thumping his Secret Service badge on the armrest. “I’ve got one of these.”
If I had any doubts about the seriousness of Ford’s first foray into the armored car market, Rick Bondy is rapidly dispelling them. The company may have spent two years and millions of dollars transforming the limo version of their august Lincoln Town Car into a “rifle level” armored car with “blast protection,” but the BPS is Bondy’s baby. And it’s clear that Ford’s number two security man, the company’s vaguely titled “Associate Director of Executive Operations,” approached the challenge with the same single-minded determination he used during 23 years with the Secret Service.
“The BPS came to being for one simple reason,” Bondy says, wheeling the big Lincoln through suburban Detroit. “I was the most dissatisfied armored car customer in the world. All the cars I’d seen were crap: poor fit and finish, no durability, horrible ride, zero handling, lousy performance and unsatisfactory armoring. I wanted to build something better.”
The statement raises dozens of questions about Bondy’s experience with presidential security, kidnapping and terrorism— none of which are going to be answered. In fact, interviewing Rick Bondy about the new Lincoln BPS means stumbling through a maze of “we’re not going to go there’s” and “I can’t talk about that’s.” What he can discuss is the car itself, more or less. But first, to the consternation of Chief Engineer John Jraiche, Bondy wants to “beat the shit out of it.”
After depositing Jraiche and PR man Mike Vaughn trackside, Bondy wheels the BPS onto Ford’s driving course and hammers it. Unsurprisingly, the 6220 lbs. armored limo is slow off the mark. The BPS’ engine bay contains the exact same 230hp 4.6-liter V8 that powers the 1851 lbs. lighter donor car. Bondy must use every ounce of the powerplant’s 287 ft. lbs. of torque to build our speed through the twisties. A few corners later, and he’s finally got the BPS’ 17” all-season Michelins (with run-flat inserts) squealing in protest.
“How well do you think most people drive when someone’s trying to kill them?” Bondy demands. He swings the lumbering limo through a hairpin, balancing the chassis on the throttle like a race car driver. “We made the car’s handling as safe, progressive and predictable as possible, so a novice driver can get it completely wrong and still maintain sufficient control to leave the kill zone.”
When we switch seats, I try to drive like an incompetent limo driver suffering from a bullet-triggered panic attack. I brake mid-corner, choose the wrong line through a switchback, yank the wheel violently left and right and mash the stoppers from 65mph. Despite my best efforts to unsettle the beast, nothing particularly dramatic happens. Bondy is pleased. “When you’re being attacked, there’s one simple rule: you crash, you die,” he says. “Escape and evade. That’s the key.”
Bondy is adamant on this point. As far he’s concerned, armoring is simply the best way to help a mobile target— “the principal”— find extra escape time. That’s why we start at the track and work our way back to Roush Engineering, the BPS’ birthplace. The car’s design team, a combination of Ford product guys and the armoring world’s “best and brightest,” has disbanded. We huddle in Jraiche’s lonely-looking office to discuss the BPS’ engineering.
I ask what makes the BPS different from all the other armored cars. Jraiche hands me a small, well-thumbed booklet listing federal safety standards for motor vehicles. “The BPS is the only NIJ category three armored car that meets every regulation in this book,” Jraiche says. He turns to his computer to manipulate a seemingly endless spreadsheet. “Obviously, we started with a fully developed Ford product. Even so, once the ballistic solutions were in place, we put it through all the usual tests: crash test, door slam test, heating, cooling, wiring…” The list goes on.
Bondy nods proudly, but begins to lose patience. “Take a look at this.” We wend our way through deserted cubicles to contemplate a cutaway car door mounted on a display stand. “Most armored cars use motors to push the ballistic glass up,” Bondy reveals. “The glass weighs a ton. The motors tend to burn out. Think about that: if the window’s down, an armored car is worse than useless.” Bondy runs his hand over a pair of miniature gas struts holding up a “ballistic transparency” that’s an astounding 40mm thick. “Our window’s default position is up. The power shouldn’t fail, but if it does, the window stays up.”
We return to Jraiche’s office to check lunch arrangements. I spy a brightly colored wall chart displaying all of the over 700 bespoke “armoring solutions” that protects the BPS’ passengers from any ordinance up to a 7.62mmX51mm caliber bullet. “Can I photograph this?” I ask. “No,” the two men chorus. Even to my untrained eye, it appears that every possible weak spot— from the engine bulkhead to the window frames— has been examined from an assassin’s point of view. Bondy confirms my suspicions. “We used a 3D computer program to simulate ballistic strikes from various weapons, from every possible height, distance, angle and position.”
And then they did it for real. We make our way to the parking lot to examine a white BPS that’s faced a carefully-coordinated barrage of high-powered rounds. The car is riddled with 109 bullets. The window glass is fractured in some places, shattered in others. The sheet metal has been ripped open like a cheap tin can. Each strike is identified by a small white tag chronicling the ballistic sequence and type of round fired. We’re talking heavy duty firepower, including a 9mm submachine gun, .308 Winchester and 5.56mm high velocity assault rifle.
Bondy digs his finger into the space where the front windshield meets the driver’s door. The glass has just about disappeared from the leading edge. “This is where a trained assassin would aim. Or right here,” he says. Bondy points to the opera window behind the main rear passenger window. Ballistic transparency can’t maintain its integrity in such a small space; the opera window has been replaced with normal glass mounted over aramid fibers and ballistic steel. A few wispy fiber strands and an almighty dent are all that’s left.
My perspective on the BPS project instantly changes. I suddenly see Lincoln’s non-descript and lardy (if benign-handling) armored limo as a deadly serious piece of kit. It’s hard to imagine sheltering inside a Lincoln BPS while determined attackers fire round after round at your head, but it’s not impossible. One look at the bullet-ridden test mule is sufficient reminder that there are plenty of bad people out there with big guns and nothing to lose.
Vaughn and I hop into Bondy’s well-thrashed Mazda6 S and drive to Lile’s Sandwich Shop. In between bites of the mother of all ham sandwiches, I ask if there are enough customers to justify the enormous expense of developing such a comprehensively armored car. “We’re in it to make money,” Vaughn states flatly. “The market’s been growing for the last 20 years and it shows no signs of a slowdown… We’re confident we can sell 300 cars in the first year.” “I suppose a lot of those will go to Ford executives,” I suggest. Bondy’s eyes say one thing, his words another: “I couldn’t possibly comment.”
Bondy is less tight-lipped on the necessity for maximum protection. “Why would anyone buy a handgun level car?” he asks rhetorically, practically inhaling a mountainous pastrami sandwich. “The .308 Winchester is a hunting gun down South. They’re everywhere.” Even so, how many drivers actually need to worry about an attack? “It doesn’t matter,” Bondy counters. “It’s largely a matter of perceived threat. If you don’t feel safe, you can’t perform to the best of your abilities. You can’t enjoy life.”
The Lincoln Town Car BPS will be available from 12 certified Lincoln Mercury dealers this fall [’03]. The car will cost about $145,000, with two options: back windows that can be lowered and a rubber-coated gas tank that “reduces leakage after a ballistic event.” Bondy says it’s a bargain. “A lot of our potential customers own corporations, estates, even countries. They’ll buy a Gulfstream jet for 42 million dollars. I ask them, ‘why aren’t you in a rifle-level car?’ And if you’re going to buy one, why wouldn’t you buy one from an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] rather than someone’s garage?”
It’s a sales pitch shared by Mercedes, BWM and Cadillac. But Lincoln’s BPS has Bondy behind it. After spending a day with the ex-agent, after listening to what he does and doesn’t say about security, you begin to understand why he describes buying an armored car as “an intimate decision.” It’s true. Even after the vehicle has left the dealership, your life is in the hands of the people who designed and built it. Security awareness and driver skill may make the final difference between life and death, but the more you learn about Bondy’s BPS, the safer you feel inside one. In the world of armored cars, that’s about as good as it gets.