The Wheels of Power: A Small but Demanding Market

In the second piece in our series exploring the unique automobiles that have been pressed to the task of safely transporting world leaders, U.S. Navy officer and Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s resident car enthusiast, Anthony Clay explores the major producers of State Cars, and how an already small market appears to be getting smaller over time.

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The automotive industry is one of the largest economic sectors in the world, with production of about 100 Million units per year in over 50 countries. For these automobile producing nations, their cars are a representative of their prowess and the power of their industry, and their Head of State’s vehicle is one of the most conspicuous demonstrators of their industry. For every other country, however, the state car is an item that needs to be acquired on the open market. Where the US, Great Britain, and other major auto producers can build cars to the exact specifications required for security, communications, and other necessities to rule a country, many world leaders need to order, essentially from a catalogue, to get the car they need.

58th Presidential Inauguration

Fig 1.0 – U.S. Secret Service members provide security to the US presidential motorcade

Through the years there have been several manufacturers from which cars were routinely sourced, and sometimes these were used to show either explicit or tacit alliances. Countries friendly to the US, or ones that wanted to be in America’s good graces would often use Cadillac Fleetwoods or Lincoln Continentals. Russia’s ZiL was a popular amongst the Communist bloc, with a ZiL still in service today in Cuba. The British-built Rolls-Royce has always had a place as the preeminent vehicle of the powerful, and their cars are regularly in service by world leaders, and especially common amongst the historic fleet of vehicles used in coronations, inaugurations, and other major ceremonies. When meeting with the US Secretary of State, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il arrived in a brand new Rolls-Royce Phantom, subtly showing his nation’s ability to flout sanctions. Whatever the vehicle, the State Car sends a powerful message from the highest levels of a nation’s government.

Bentley Limousine of Queen Elizabeth II in Perth, Scotland on Queens visit 2012.

Fig 2.0 – Bentley Limousine of Queen Elizabeth II

In conducting research for this article I tried to find the vehicles in use for as many countries as possible. Many had a primary and secondary car of different manufactures. In cases where royalty were heads of state I have included them along with their Prime Minister, but where their role was less significant I did not include them. I also tried to avoid including historic car collections owned by the state or personal cars, unless they were also used as primary transport for the leader or featured specific security upgrades making them more relevant.

Fig 3.0 – Mercedes Benz S600 Maybach Pullman Guard

These days there are a few very standard choices. Germany’s “Big 3” have an outsized market share for off-the-shelf State Cars, with over half of the cars encountered in my research coming from Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Audi and the Mercedes Benz S600 being the single most popular State Car. With various trims including the Guard, Pullman Guard, and Maybach, they can be configured for a wide variety of ultra-luxurious needs. The newest, safest, and by far most luxurious takes all of the models and combines them into the S600 Maybach Pullman Guard, which has an extended wheelbase, and is designed specifically for the purposes of a head of state from the outset. One of these starts at 1.4M Euros, and the price increases with the inclusion of additional custom security and comfort features. Additionally, many of the security features found in the Guard can be added to the lower tier S-Class variants, so diesel engines or more economical petrol engines can be used. In preparing this piece, we contacted Mercedes to inquire about the things their customer base typically requested, and to find out how much the average car aimed at a head of state would sell for, but they unsurprisingly refused to comment, stating  “we are unable to share anything further due to customers’ requests for privacy and the sensitive nature of the topic.”


Fig 4.0 – Estonian presidential Audi

The second most popular car among world leaders is the BMW 7 Series. With the same off-the-shelf approach as Mercedes, BMW and the next most popular Audi A8L, have a one stop shop approach. While not providing as extravagant of a choice as the S600 Maybach Pullman Guard, the 760iL and the A8L maintain a very high degree of luxury, security, and the added benefit of travelling under the radar thanks to their more discrete design. BMW even offers driver courses to prepare close protection teams for defensive driving operations in these heavy vehicles.

Fig 5.0 – Polish President Lech Kaczyński during a military parade

Luxury vehicles are not the only vehicles used by heads of state; in less developed parts of the world, or in countries with a large percentage of undeveloped terrain, sport utility vehicles are popular. Many times these are the secondary vehicles used, but several countries use SUVs as the primary State Car. The most popular is the venerable Toyota Land Cruiser, a favourite in militaries and militias the world over. While Toyota doesn’t build an armoured Land Cruiser from the factory, there are many aftermarket specialists who will upgrade one to the highest of specifications. Mercedes, Ford, Chevrolet, Land Rover, and Nissan also all have SUVs used by world leaders, and now that Rolls Royce and Bentley are producing their own, it is likely that we will see their offerings find their way into service soon.

German Presidential BMW

Fig 6.0 – German Bundespräsidenten’s BMW

Despite expanded vehicle types entering the market from established brands, the armoured vehicle market’s high barriers to entry preclude the arrival of most newcomers. This is an issue that will likely persist and potentially worsen, as the requirements for state vehicles become more stringent due to increasing security, survivability, communications, and tactical operational needs, the pool of off the shelf vehicles able to meet such standards will diminish. While the market for armoured vehicles luxurious enough to meet the requirements of a State Car is already relatively niche, it is likely that the market will be further dominated by Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi due to their off-the-shelf solutions to a complex problem.

While the established expertise of these producers delivers a high degree of reliability in the face of threats, such a focus of the market also leaves a smaller range of problems for would-be attackers to solve, potentially increasing the vulnerability of the world’s most targeted individuals.

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Anthony Clay is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy who has served in every operational fleet, and most geographic Combatant Commands. He has an International Relations Degree from Tulane University and a Operations Research Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. Anthony is currently assigned to a staff posting within a numbered fleet.

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Image credits: Cover image – Bahnfrend // US Presidential Limousine – Staff Sgt. Sean Martin // Queen’s Bentley – wikimedia commons // S600 Maybach Pullman Guard – Mercedes Benz // Estonian Presidential Audi – wikimedia commons // Polish Presidential Land Rover –Archive of the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland // German Bundespräsidenten’s BMW – wikimedia commons