Up-armored cars: under the hood

Paul Toscano
June 11, 2012


When people think of car safety features, airbags, seatbelts or anti-lock brakes likely come to mind. For the extremely wealthy, government officials, or expatriates living in high-risk areas, something more secure is often needed. To meet the demand, companies have sprung up around the world to reinforce and bulletproof cars and trucks — a practice known as “up-armoring.”

One such company is Houston-based Texcalibur Armor, which provides bulletproof vehicles and luxury armored cars to everyone from diplomats, SWAT teams and government contractors, to business executives, celebrities and high-net-worth individuals.

“The idea behind the process is to take an SUV or another car, strip it apart, and add bullet-resistant steel, composite material and ballistic glass,” said Scott Newman of Texcalibur Armor. “The end game is to put the vehicle back together so it’s discreet and nobody knows it’s armored.”

Newman estimates that the company produces 90 vehicles per year, but notes that vehicles vary substantially by where and how they are intended to be used, with 95 percent of them headed to overseas markets like the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. “When you’re in these countries and there is a disproportionate amount of wealth, you can easily become a target,” Newman said.

The price tag of a fully up-armored vehicle can vary between $45,000 to more than $100,000, not including the price of the original vehicle. The process can add an excess of 1,200 pounds and offers protection from assault rifle rounds, carjackings, fire and in the most extreme cases armor-piercing rounds and roadside bombs.

For those intrigued by up-armored vehicles, some components may seem like they have been pulled straight from a James Bond film. Rightly so because these features are on the cutting-edge of individual security. Texcalibur has provided CNBC.com with details of both standard and nonstandard features that are included in fully up-armored vehicles achieving  one of its highest levels of ballistic protection, a B6. One of the most in-demand vehicles today is the Lexus LX570, according to Texcalibur, which is featured in the pages that follow. Other popular models include Chevrolet Suburbans and Toyota Land Cruisers, although in some markets pickup trucks or sedans may be more desirable, since they are less likely to draw the attention of would-be attackers.

So, what goes into a fully up-armored SUV? Read ahead to see details on some of today’s most cutting-edge features.

Armored Doors and Heavy-Duty Door Hinges
Included in B6 armoring price

One of the major features that makes an up-armored vehicle secure is the reinforced body — starting with the doors. The doors, along with pillars, posts, side panels, front quarter panels, kick panels and the rear door are armored with ballistic quarter-inch AR500 steel designed to repel blasts from the standard 7.62 x 51mm M-80 NATO rounds, which are considered standard rifle ammunition and used around the world. Heavy-duty hinges are required to support the extra load— up to 150 pounds on the doors.

Shocking Door Handles

One feature that you may expect to see in a James Bond movie are electrically charged door handles, which in real life can help protect passengers from carjackings or other intruders. “If you are at a stop light, you can press that shocking door handle to stop an attack,” Newman said. With a flip of a switch, the handles can be engaged, passing a whopping 160 volts of electricity into a would-be attacker’s hands, temporarily incapacitating the intruder and allowing the target to escape. “Something like this may not make sense in the U.S., but if you’ve been to some of these more dangerous countries, a feature like this brings additional peace of mind with riding in armored vehicles,” Newman said.

Reinforced Flooring and Roofing
Included in B6 armoring price

Other large surfaces that must be reinforced to fully up-armor a vehicle include the roofing and flooring. According to Texcalibur’s specifications, the roof is fitted with a quarter-inch rigid Kevlar, while the flooring is laid with a Kevlar bomb blanket. These additions provide protection against the simultaneous explosion of two DM-51 German ordinance hand grenades, or the equivalent. Another benefit of these additions are that they’re lightweight, allowing both protection against blasts and increased maneuverability for the driver, since the car is not weighed down by additional bulk.

Smoke Screen Dispenser System

Another feature offered for up-armored vehicles is a smoke-screen dispenser. When the driver engages the system, the car generates a large cloud of white smoke at the rear of the vehicle until the system is disengaged. The purpose of the system is to help the driver evade pursuing vehicles and is recommended to be used solely in extreme situations.

Night Vision Display

One of the most effective ways to protect yourself is to know your surroundings. Installed on the dashboard of a vehicle, the night vision display allows users to detect movement and objects located farther in front of the car than with conventional lighting in the evening, giving the driver ample time to avoid dangers. The unit displayed here is from Flir systems, which employs thermal technology to see objects that may not be detected by the naked eye. The system also allows a user to zoom in using the LED screen, which is integrated into the car’s on-dash navigation. Under extreme circumstances, the car could be driven by using only the thermal display, although this practice is not recommended.

Road Tack Dispensing System

Although some may think the use of road tacks is reserved for fiction, the team at Texcalibur offers it as an option. The tack system is located under the rear bumper. With the push of a button, as many as 100 2-inch-long tacks are released. The tacks are intended to puncture tires of cars in pursuit of the vehicle. Texcalibur recommends that this feature be used only in extreme situations.

Reinforced Bumpers

For those in high-risk areas, front-end impacts may be necessary if a vehicle becomes blocked. To ensure that a vehicle does not become disabled in this situation, extra steel reinforcement on front bumpers strengthens these areas while remaining discreet. The same modification can be done on the back end of the car, allowing for additional ramming capabilities, while lessening damage to the structural integrity of the vehicle.

While the reinforced bumpers are an option, the cars come standard with radiator protection (pictured left) that includes quarter-inches of steel that maintain airflow and protect this vulnerable area. While front ends in most factory-built cars are designed to buckle during impacts, the rigidity from these reinforcements increases the likelihood that a car can ram its way to safety.

Self-Sealing Fuel Tank

A critical component in any vehicle is the fuel tank. If an armored car finds itself under fire, a bullet-resistant and fire-resistant fuel tank is an additional feature that many would be glad to have installed. The fuel tank can either be reinforced with ballistic quarter-inch AR500 steel or upgraded to a bullet-resistant and blast-proof self-sealing tank that uses bladder technology to prevent the tank from leaking fuel if punctured by enemy rounds. This prevents the leaked fuel from igniting and posing an added risk to occupants.

Siren, PA, LED, and Strobe Lights
$1,500 (Siren, P/A system), $1,200 (Strobe, LED lights)

Although protection against firearms and explosives is key to security, some features can increase security though other means. One example is the installation of lights, sirens, and public address (PA) systems, which can lend authority to a vehicle it otherwise may not have. “When you’re driving on a city street and you see flashing lights, your first instinct is to pull over and let the vehicle pass,” said Newman, who points out that these features can increase mobility and increase the chances of exiting a dangerous situation. The PA system also allows a driver to communicate with individuals outside the vehicle without having to lower windows and expose passengers to potential threats.

Run Flat Tire System
Included in B6 armoring price

Perhaps the biggest advantage of having an armored vehicle is mobility. Without functioning tires, however, this mobility can become severely reduced, leaving passengers in dangerous situations. Run flat tires are made by Rodgard, the company that designs tires for the U.S. Army, and are composed of an outer shell and a stronger internal rubber shell. These tires have been used on armored vehicles, police vehicles and riot control vehicles. They have distance and speed standards of 30 miles at 30 mph. Although the tires are built to these specifications, there may be potential to drive the car further if needed when the goal is to get to a safe rally point.

Ballistic Glass
Included in B6 armoring price

One of the largest and most vulnerable surfaces of a normal vehicle is the transparent glass surrounding the cabin. It allows attackers to see inside the vehicle and target the occupants. In the process of up-armoring, Texcalibur removes the original glass, replacing it with 40mm bullet-resistant multilayer polycarbonate glass. The ballistic glass has stopping power similar to the vehicle’s reinforced body, also with the potential to resist multiple impacts from 7.52 x 51mm M-80 rounds. The glass also provides high optical quality, so the presence of the thicker ballistic material doesn’t reduce the driver’s ability to see the road.

"Dangerously Rich: Billionaire Super Security" re-airs on CNBC Sunday, June 17 at 8:30 p.m. ET.