Tire-popping tacks, electric-shock handles, smoke screens and bullet-resistant glass are typically the realm of James Bond films, but we visited a Texas company building pedestrian-looking cars capable of withstanding snipers and IEDs. To prove it they brought out an AK-47.
It's a dangerous world out there and Texas Armoring Corporation has been working for three decades to provide customers all the luxuries of a modern car with all the protection of a bank vault. Whether you want an up-armored Cadillac Escalade or a Bentley Flying Spur capable of withstanding a land mine blast, they'll customize your vehicle to your standards while maintaining the basic appearance and functions of the car.
The trick to taking a pedestrian vehicle like an E63 AMG Mercedes and turning it into an armored vehicle without sacrificing performance and usability is the use of hi-tech materials. The one we looked at is getting a B4 level of armor, which means it can take all normal handgun fire as well as a shot from a .30 caliber carbine or a 12-gauge shotgun slug.
For the transformation they've completely disassembled the interior, ripped out the carpet and seats, and lined the car with a material called Spectra Shield, which is a laminated composite material ten times stronger than steel but light-weight and easy to shape for spaces like door pillars and roofs where added weight could affect vehicle performance. Ballistic steel and kevlar sheeting also provide protection in certain areas. The windows use a densely layered ballistic glass with a "spall shield" inside that prevents shattering.
How well does it work? As you'll see in the video, the folks at TAC were kind enough to provide an AK-47 to test out the different materials. The ballistic steel takes a round from a few feet away as if it's almost nothing, leaving not much more than a small mark and the piece of steel loaded into the "shooting box." The Spectra Shield reacts in a completely different way, dispersing the energy through the laminated layers, leaving a big indention in the material but allowing no penetration.
The ballistic glass is set against a wall and shot at about 20 feet and, though there's a clear impact on the glass, it doesn't shatter at all. Running a hand along the back of the glass reveals it's still smooth.
The Mercedes is only getting their basic level of armor. We walk over to an Infiniti FX50 getting the B6 level of protection, which is capable of withstanding shots from high-powered rifles (M16, AR10) despite looking like a "typical soccer mom vehicle." In addition to the kevlar, Spectra Shield, and thick glass found on the AMG E63, the FX gets an extra level of protection for the floor in case of an explosion. The door-skin has been cut out and replaced with ballistic steel. Because the hatch on the FX is too light, they built an armored shield beneath the hatch with a ballistic steel door for loading groceries (it's heavy).
At the extreme end is the B7 and the car in the shop getting the B7 treatment is nothing less than a Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed for a head-of-state in need of serious protection from landmines (we'll let you guess where that might be). Each part of the car is taken apart and custom pieces of armor are cut to fit the luxurious auto. When it's done it'll look like any typical Bentley until someone starts shooting at it with a sniper rifle loaded with armored piercing rounds.
Protection is important, but there's no defense like a good offense and these vehicles are equipped with serious offensive tools. On the casual end there's a loud siren, horn, strobe lights and a bullhorn for scaring off shy attackers and bringing attention to what's happening. It may not sound like much, but hanging out near the front of a vehicle with this system when the siren goes off I felt my heart suddenly take an extra beat. It's loud.
If the flashing lights and noise don't scare someone off and they're foolish enough to try and open the door there's a thin wire on the inside of the handle that, when switched on, causes a serious jolt. Even worse, if left on long enough it'll leave a straight burn mark across your hand.
But what if your attackers are tougher and try to pursue you? The first step is to launch the smoke. A chemical mixes with the exhaust and almost instantly spews a thick white layer of fog behind the truck. I tried this on Zerin Dube from Speed:Sport:Life, who was "pursuing" us in an Infiniti G37 sedan. After about 10 seconds of smoke we were already 100 yards away because the smoke was so thick he was convinced he was about to slam into the back of us. If that didn't work the next step was to drop the tacks, consisting of two pointy nails wrapped around each other, which are capable of taking down the tires on most vehicles.
Who is it, exactly, who needs such an insanely safe automobile? The customer list is kept secret for obvious reasons, but cars in the shop ranged from lawyers here in the States to businessmen in Nigeria. Foreign security services are always a big customer and the company even did a vehicle for Saddam Hussein back when he was an ally. They've done vehicles for American businesses in Iraq, including a Suburban that survived two IED explosions and a firefight without anything penetrating the passenger compartment (the best way to assure repeat business is to save people).
Driving around in the armored Toyota Landcruiser the biggest impression the vehicle leaves is how little of an impression it makes. Besides the buttons marked "tacks" and "smoke" and the thick glass, it operates just like a normal Toyota. This goes along with the company's philosophy of building armored vehicles that don't feel like bank trucks (though, they can build you one of those if you like).
If you're a wealthy CEO or a famous political dissident stealth is key and, for the most part, these vehicles are exceptionally stealthy. When we were there someone was having a Mitsubishi Outlander designed to withstand small arms fire because the chances someone driving a Mitsubishi SUV is the rich target you're looking for is fairly small.
After a day of driving, shooting, and exploring the world of hi-tech personal automotive protection there was a sense of relief that this sort of vehicle is something most automotive journalists will never need because running into an AK-47 wielding madman is not an everyday occurrence. Still, it's reassuring to know the technology and craftsmanship exists should a car reviewing job ever opens at the Gaza Strip Times.
Photos: Matt Hardigree, Zerin Dube, Texas Armoring Corporation