Full-metal dinner jacket
In today's scary world, does the armor-clad Lincoln Town Car BPS qualify as a family car?

The National Rifle Assn. is right when it says guns don't kill people. Bullets kill people, and really big bullets traveling at four times the speed of sound kill people with excellent and resounding authority. Welcome to the fascinating world of rifle-grade ballistics. Please keep your brains inside your skull during the ride.

The new Lincoln Town Car BPS (Ballistic Protection Series) is the only rifle-grade armored car made by a North American manufacturer, certified to meet or exceed the National Institute of Justice's Level III ballistic testing, a standard that easily rebuffs ordnance fired by common gats such as a Beretta 9-millimeter handgun. The $145,000 vehicle -- which for reasons of discretion looks exactly like a regular Town Car, otherwise known in Los Angeles as a "studio car" -- can withstand rifle rounds that would fell an elephant, including the .308-caliber round Bwana might fire while hunting with his Winchester.

The full-metal-jacket version of this round is known to NATO forces as 7.62-millimeter-by-51-millimeter "ball" ammunition. Science geek alert: The 7.62 round has a muzzle velocity of 2,750 feet per second and imparts to the 150-grain projectile a kinetic energy of about 2,511 foot-pounds. In the face of these enormous kinetic values, even the most Olympian of hardbodies is nothing more than a bowl of Jell-O.

In addition to these big-bore threats, the Town Car BPS will ward off the NATO 5.56-millimeter-by-45-millimeter "armor-piercing" round -- high-velocity assault-rifle ammo with a tungsten core that can, whistling through the air at 3,000 feet per second, punch through quarter-inch armor plating. Also, the Ballistic Town Car has an aramid-weave ballistic blast blanket in the floor to protect against small antipersonnel mines and grenades.

All of which means, for instance, that the Town Car BPS would afford our troops in Iraq superior protection over many of the ad-hoc, half-baked "up-armored" Humvees they are currently obliged to patrol in. The thought of American troops rolling into battle in black limos is funny. Why am I not laughing?

Fear factor

The market for private armored cars picked up after 9/11 but, says Ford executive Rick Bondy, the former G-man in charge of the BPS program, it may have less to do with increased threat than increased perception of risk.

"People might perceive risk more now because of what they know and what they hear and the timeliness that they hear it in," says the no-nonsense Bondy, who has ballistic-shaped gray hair and armor-piercing eyes. "But is there more violence? I can't tell you and nobody else can either.

"If someone perceives that they are at risk and they want to feel safer and more serene going through life, then they buy one of these products."

Ther e are scores of armorers around the world that retrofit production cars with ballistic protection. The armored-car business is very big in the Middle East, Central and South America and Asia. Some of the big aftermarket companies, such as Ohio-based O'Gara-Hess & Eisenhardt, offer assault-rifle ballistic retrofitting, but Bondy argues convincingly that the automakers themselves are in the best position to engineer a ballistic car.

"There are over 700 unique parts in our ballistic cars and every one of them is a Ford part with a Ford part number," he says. "Everything has been tested -- crash testing, durability testing, rough-road testing. I know the doors will close 80,000 times. I know that the windshield won't become a secondary projectile in a crash. I know the air bags work. We're going to build these products to the same standard and with the same serviceability as any other product we sell."

Lincoln will sell the BPS cars through 16 authorized dealers, includ ng the Galpin Ford mega-dealership in the San Fernando Valley, but the cars can be serviced at any Lincoln dealership.

Last year, Cadillac announced that it was partnering with Scaletta Moloney Armoring to build a ballistic series DeVille. Scaletta armors a variety of big SUVs for the Government Services Administration; the company already builds a number of Sedan DeVille motorcade vehicles for the GSA, including -- and this is a secret -- the presidential limousine, which looks like the unholy spawn of a DeVille and an Abrams tank.

The Cadillac is a handgun-rated car, capable of withstanding a .44-magnum round. This is roughly the same level of protection offered by the Mercedes-Benz S500 Guard, meeting the European B4 ballistic standard. Both Mercedes-Benz and BMW sell cars capable of taking a hit from a 7.62 armor-piercing round (B6/B7-level protection). However, neither company imports the B6/B7-grade cars into the United States.

The rifle-grade Town Car BPS is aimed directly at the handgun-grade Mercedes S500 Guard, with a price point slightly below the German car.

"We said if we're going to get in this business we were going to do it at a higher level than anybody that has been in the business before. We're the new kids on the block so we're built at a higher level, from a ballistic standpoint, than Mercedes or BMW."

All the windows in the Lincoln are 40-millimeter-thick ballistic transparent armor, comprising layers of glass and polycarbonate. Ballistic steel (Brinell hardness rating over 600) wraps the roof, engine compartment, door seals and firewall. In the doors themselves, ballistic ceramics, backed with steel and aramid blankets, protect the passenger compartment. The fuel tank is surrounded with a self-sealing compound to reduce leakage.

Escape velocity

Tough enough for you? Yet given enough time, says Bondy, any "ballistic solution" will fail. "People can keep putting bullets in the same hole."

In the moment of extremity, the driver of a car under attack may become unnerved, panic, or -- in my case, I'm sure -- lose control of bodily functions in a spectacular way. Bondy and his team tried to give the Town Car BPS as benign a handling profile as possible.

"Vehicle dynamics has to be equally important as the ballistic solution," says Bondy. "If you crash while someone's trying to kill you, you're going to die."

The Town Car BPS is built on the heavy-duty frame of the company's stretch limo. The shocks, springs, control arms, bushings and sway bars are upgraded to cope with the car's 6,220-pound curb weight. Underneath is a heavy-duty axle with a 3.55:1 rear gear, giving the car better off-the-mark acceleration. The tires are 17-inch all-season Michelins with run-flat inserts.

Nights in shining armor

Quiet. The first sensation of the Town Car BPS is a dramatic, deafening silence in the cabin. The 40-millimeter glass kee ps out sound as well as bullets.

Weight. A surfeit of freakish, grand-piano heft exudes from this car. If you park the car on any kind of sideways incline, those on the uphill side will struggle to open the doors, which must weigh 300 pounds apiece. Eventually you adapt a technique of squeezing out of the door like toothpaste. The door hinges do not have the usual detents that prop the doors open. They just swing like the doors of a pawn-shop safe.

Forget going through the drive-thru. The 40-millimeter (about 1 1/2 inches) windows drop open only about 6 inches, not nearly enough to get a Dairy Queen Blizzard through. On the upside, when seen through polarized sunglasses, the super-thick glass swirls with rainbow moire patterns. Very psychedelic.

Inertia. The primary difference between the Mercedes and BMW armored cars and the Town Car BPS is that the German cars have modified engines that cope with the added weight of the armoring. The Lincoln engine is t e stock 4.6-liter, 239-horsepower V8 producing 287 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm. It isn't enough. The BPS busts a prodigious gut to reach 60 mph in under 12 seconds, and the hills of Hollywood can leave it winded and straining. I was glad no one was chasing me.

Understeer: What Bondy calls safe, predictable handling is the mother of all understeer. The car simply will not respond beyond a certain speed and steering angle. It handles like a 3-ton hammer on a string.

Invincibility: So it's no sports car. But it feels like Navarone on four wheels. Once the door closes, you experience a sudden, transforming otherness -- the world cannot touch you. Road rage? Please. Take your best shot.

Or not. Here's a fun fact to keep you up at night: It is perfectly legal -- and so easy any deranged lunatic can do it -- to buy a Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle, one of the 5-foot monsters used by American forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and a lot of places you would rather not know about (the California Legislature is now considering AB50, which would ban the sale of .50-caliber rifles in the state). It's even easier to purchase armor-piercing ammunition for the gun. Put them together and you have one of the world's most devastating standoff weapons, capable of ventilating a head of state at a mile's distance, or even taking out one very large Lincoln.

Everybody needs a hobby.

2004 Lincoln Town Car BPS

Price, as tested: $145,000

Powertrain: 4.6-liter, SOHC V8, four-speed automatic, 3.55:1 rear gear ratio, heavy-duty axle, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 239 at 4,900 rpm

Torque: 287 pound-feet at 4,100 rpm

Curb weight: 6,220 pounds

0-60 mph: 12 seconds (est.)

Wheelbase: 117.7 inches

Overall length: 215.4 inches

Competitors: Cadillac DeVille armored car, Mercedes-Benz S500 Guard

Final thoughts: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they are not out to get you.