This month, as it moves to capitalize on surging demand for armoured protection since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, Ford will begin offering a "Ballistic Protection Series" version of its Lincoln Town Car.
From the outside it looks deceptively like other Town Cars, the ubiquitous vehicle of choice in the US livery business.
But with a price tag starting at $144,995, it's about $100,000 more expensive and features a reinforced body that can withstand rounds from high-powered or high-velocity assault rifles and submachine guns.
It's "an elegant answer to a hostile world," according to a brochure from Ford's luxury Lincoln division. "A barrier against bigger, faster bullets," adds the brochure.
Richard Bondy, a former Secret Service agent who works for Ford, described the rolling fortress to reporters as "a car that has a substantially higher ballistic level" than any other automaker has offered commercially in the United States.
Initially, Ford says it only plans to sell about 300 a year. But Bondy said worldwide sales of armoured cars have grown about 20 percent annually over the past few years, to about 20,000 vehicles. And he and others at Ford clearly see potential beyond 300 sales a year.
At first the car will only be offered in the United States, according to its marketing manager, John Anderson. But he said it would soon be introduced in parts of the Middle East, followed by Mexico, Europe, Asia and elsewhere in Latin America.
Any country facing threats from guerrilla groups, kidnapping, and rampant crime would seem to be fertile ground for the car, and corporate and government clients are likely to give it close consideration alongside armored models from the likes BMW and the Mercedes division of DaimlerChrysler.
"Security consultants can have a major impact on the sale of this vehicle," Anderson said.
The Lincoln has higher levels of protection than an armored version of the Cadillac Deville that rival General Motors Corp. plans to roll out later this year, and that alone could attract potentially unsavory customers like mobsters and drug lords.
But Bondy, who sees buyers including everyone from soccer moms to "someone that feels that they have risk because of the kind of business or country that they run," said Ford had no intention of screening people who shop for the vehicle.
"It's just like buying a ballistic vest," he said. "People don't buy armored product to commit crimes. This is a defensive device."
Secure and serene
He also rejected stereotypes about individuals interested in such protection..
"The only thing that's consistent is that the people that buy the product want to feel secure and serene traveling through life," Bondy said.
The car has run-flat inserts to ensure it can keep moving even when the tires have been shot out. "If somebody's trying to kill you, all you want your car to do is keep trucking," said Bondy.
"They obviously are trying to prey on people's insecurities, which are rampant these days because of the terrorism. and that's their game," said marketing analyst Jack Trout of Connecticut-based Trout & Partners,about Ford's move.
He noted that one can buy "some pretty impressive cars" for the armored Lincoln's price tag. "So they're not bullet-proof, but you know what? I'll be going so fast they won't be able to hit me," he joked.
But Michael Robinet, an auto industry analyst at CSM Worldwide in Northville, Mich., said armored cars made good sense as a niche product for Detroit's embattled automakers.
"Companies like Ford and GM are looking at all facets of the market. They're looking at opportunities ... They may be able to put some heads of state into these types of vehicles."