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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For a Safe Ride, Armor Your Car

MUNICH, Germany -- Striding through the parking lot next to his factory, trailed by smoke from his Cuban cigar, Johann Ackermann gestured toward a black Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle. The roof, hood and doors on the passenger side were punched in, as if by a giant fist. The internal screws that roll down the windows were embedded in the metal of the doors.

"A bomb exploded right next to it," Ackermann said. "Destroyed a building. But everybody in the car lived."

He delivered this sales pitch in a brusque, homicide-detective patter that somehow seems perfect for the product. Ackermann has got to be one of the world's few car dealers who moves his merchandise by showing it riddled with bullets, or twisted and singed by bomb blasts.

Ackermann, 57, and his sons own a company here that makes armored cars. It is a growth industry, with booming markets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and any number of other dangerous places, where a simple journey from point A to point B can be a lethal experience.

Increasingly, the vehicle of choice for this adventure travel is a German luxury sedan clad like a panzer. One can buy such a fortress-on-wheels directly from the company, or from an outfit like Ackermann's, which buys cars from dealers and puts on the armor plating itself.

Cars like the bomb-scarred Mercedes that sits in Ackermann's lot, waiting to be fixed, used to be a rarity. He said it belonged to a Slovenian industrialist who was the target of an attack last fall. The man was away from the car at the time of the blast; his guards, who were inside, survived with minor injuries.

As terrorism in the Balkans added to the business, the Iraq war has turbocharged it. Car bombings, ambushes and even attacks by rocket-propelled grenades occur regularly in Iraq, and they demand a heavier level of protection than the lightly armored limousines normally used by fearful celebrities or Latin American industrialists.

With governments, private contractors and news organizations all clamoring for cars to protect their employees, the wait for an armored car can be long. Most used vehicles have already been snapped up, and the Germans turn out only 10 or 20 new sedans a month. Even the sticker price of $425,000 for a limousine -- and $142,000 for an SUV -- has not curbed the demand.

The best publicity they can get is on the evening news. Last month, Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia's privatization in the 1990's, was ambushed on his way to work in an armored BMW. After detonating a bomb, gunmen raked the car with bullets, damaging the hood, windshield and right front tire, but not disabling it. Chubais was unscathed.

While these cars have handy storage for machine pistols and an optional smoke machine to obscure the car during gun battles, BMW says they are meant to be defensive vehicles, not weapons.

It also says the protection in its cars is more sophisticated than that of outside companies like Ackermann's. His company, Alpha Armoring, basically puts an armor cage around the seating area. That can be cumbersome for people climbing in and out of the car.

"So what?" Ackermann asked as he rapped his knuckles on an armor plate being lifted into a Mercedes. "My philosophy is, it's better to have a bump on your head than a bullet in your head."