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Car's locks not enough? Try armor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- Amid the Cadillacs, Chevy Caprices and Mercedes Benzes in stages of repair on the factory floor at O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt stands a white, gold-trimmed Grand Jeep Cherokee. A limited edition in more ways than one.

It may look like a yuppie plaything. But looks can be deceiving. This four-wheel-drive suburban hill-climber is endowed with protective armor to deflect bullets from 9 mm and .357 Magnum handguns, or an Uzi machine pistol. And if a sharpshooter flattens the tires with four fast ones, the Jeep can speed away on its specially equipped nylon flat rims. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about this "personal security vehicle" is who will be behind the wheel.

Not the president of Colombia or the head of the Russian secret police.

An East Coast businessman paid $50,000 (not including the cost of the car) for "peace of mind."

"It's a customer who's concerned because he's well-to-do and he'd rather be safe than sorry," explains Bill T. O'Gara, president of the 117-year-old armoring company, which serves mostly foreign governments.

The businessman is not alone. With carjackings up 32 percent in the nation last year, with street criminals packing more firepower and Americans anxious about protecting themselves, Mr. O'Gara and other security professionals say interest in their products has risen.

And while only a select few can afford personalized protection at prices that range from $40,000 to $300,000 for a fully armored vehicle, domestic sales of armor protection have increased, they said.

"What's surprising about that?" said Raymond Norvaco, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who has studied aggressive behavior on the roads. "We live in a society in which government continually fails to protect people and property. Leave it to private citizens who have money -- they will protect themselves."

Before last year, O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt Armoring Co., the granddaddy of a handful of such firms in this country, produced about a dozen armored cars in six years for use by individuals other than diplomats, ambassadors or heads of state.

"We'll do probably 20 to 30 cars [for domestic customers] this year alone," said Mr. O'Gara, 35, whose company has provided presidential limousines for every chief executive since Harry Truman. "As a citizen, it's a disturbing trend in the United States. As a businessman, it's a market."

Quiet professionals

Given the nature of this business, armored car professionals won't identify their clients.

"Our company is very low-profile. We don't even have a name on our building, because our clients' health is our main concern," says Norman E. Smith of Protection Development International Corp., a manufacturer of armored vehicles in Corona, Calif.

"Obviously, you have your public figures," Mr. Smith added. "Some of the forgotten people are the attorneys, the high-profile judges. There are a lot of attorneys out there who aren't well-liked by people."

Although most of its clients are governments, Chicago-based Moloney Coach Builders -- whose references, like O'Gara's, include the Secret Service -- armored about 10 cars for local customers in the past year.

It's a lifestyle question, says Joseph V. Scaletta, the company president: "The wealthy or the powerful, they kind of go hand in hand. It really has to do with a particular threat . . . how you perceive [that] threat.

"Some of it has to do with ego, fear."

More often than not, says Mr. Scaletta, consumers need to be educated about armored vehicles -- like the man who wanted an armored limousine with a glass "moon roof."

"You want a bull's eye with it too?" Mr. Scaletta said facetiously of the concept.

The first armored-type vehicle used by an American president actually belonged to mobster Al Capone. The car -- which in fact only had bullet-resistant windows -- had been seized by the government (because of Capone's tax problems) and was later used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But this historical footnote points to a potential problem faced by armored car companies even today -- the less than honorable client.

Mr. Scaletta, of the Moloney company in Chicago, says he has turned away "deals that didn't feel right." And if someone offers cash or resists writing a check, he has told them, "Then you don't want to do business with me."

"Most of the people I talk to are referred to me," Mr. Scaletta says. "You just don't look through the classifieds for an armored vehicle."

And yet that's exactly where Westwood Limo and Armor of Emerson, N.J., recently offered its "bulletproof vehicles," in the classifieds of a major New York newspaper.

'"Fully Armored . . . Will Ship Anywhere . . . Best Protection & Performance," reads the company's ad.

"Without advertising, nobody knows you do it," said Salvatore A. Vergopia, the company president and a successful car dealer who entered the armored car business 13 months ago.

O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, of Ohio, takes a more low-key approach. Housed in an industrial park in the suburbs of Cincinnati, the O'Gara company asks potential customers to sign a release form, warning that the equipment and materials they will see are "privileged and confidential."

A sign at the entry to the company's offices informs visitors that their briefcases, shoulder bags and other personal effects are subject to search.

To guard against unscrupulous characters, the company insists that a prospective client identify the person who will use the armored vehicle.

The factory, located across the street from a Laz-Y-Boy distribution center and down the road from a Snap-On-Tools plant, converts about 200 vehicles a year into fortresses on wheels.

In response to increased concerns over carjackings, the company last year created its "personal security vehicle," or PSV2, a package designed to protect against handguns and a submachine gun such as an Uzi.

The armor can be applied to Jeep Cherokees as well as to Jaguars at a cost of $40,000 to $70,000, excluding the price of the vehicle.

Some jobs too small

"There are more people that we can't help than we can help," Mr. O'Gara said, citing such inquiries as monthly requests to install "bulletproof" glass in the left front windows of cars, a target of carjackers.

Such jobs are too small and too costly for a company busy fortifying Lincoln Town Cars and stretch Mercedes Benz limousines against grenade attacks, snipers with an eye for gas tanks and AK-47-wielding terrorists.

On a recent day, the factory was filled with more than two dozen cars, many gutted and on lifts, each identified only by a number posted on the back of the vehicle.

Teams of workers in O'Gara uniforms basically rebuild the vehicle from the inside out, refitting the interior with "peace of mind" protection that can add from 300 to 1,800 pounds to a car.

The vehicle armor -- ranging in strength from ballistic aluminum to dual hard steel and a combination of ceramics and steel -- is welded or bolted to the inside of the doors. Decorative interior furnishing, whether the traditional vinyl or imported English leather, is placed over it.

The floor armor resembles a mesh or basket weave made of an alloy used in nuclear submarines. And the window protection consists of multiple layers of glass overlaid with a polycarbonate, a plasticlike material that stops the glass from shattering inward when hit.

Mr. O'Gara said he goes to great lengths to explain to customers that $300,000 worth of armor won't turn a stretch limo into the Batmobile. Bullets don't bounce off windows of "transparent armor," even at 3 1/2 inches thick, he said.

"There is no such thing as bulletproof. It's bullet-resistant," said Mr. O'Gara. "We go to great pains to explain to them that what you're buying is time -- time to get out of the situation."

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