When Arnold Schwarzenegger became the first civilian to buy a Hummer in 1992, it was the ultimate sign of automotive excess. What possible use could someone have for a bulletproof troop carrier in L.A.? But within a few years, soccer moms were driving them.
Should the same thing happen with armored cars (or should North Charleston take a turn for the worse), North Charleston-based Streit USA Armoring is positioned to supply Americans with armor-plated sedans, SUVs, and vans. Most of the company's vehicles go to military and government buyers, but Vice President Eric Carlson says 10 percent go to civilians, including some high-profile celebrities who would rather not be identified.
"It's more or less a handcrafted vehicle, like a Ferrari or something, because we're trimming everything and putting it back in place," he says. One impediment to making Streit's armored cars the next great status symbol: You can't really tell that they're armored. Streit buys new cars from companies including Chevrolet, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz, pulls out their guts, lines the floors and panels with a jigsaw puzzle of ballistic steel, and then adapts the interior parts to fit around the plating. Streit also replaces factory-installed windows with 1 1/4-inch glass containing a polycarbonate layer designed to withstand up to three shots from a high-powered rifle, puts 30-mile run-flat tires on the wheels, and encases the battery and fuel tank in steel. For many models, workers have to replace the suspension and build custom door hinges to accommodate the added 1,600 to 2,500 pounds. A finished vehicle sells for anywhere from $100,000 to $325,000, depending on the model.
But when everything is put back together, a Streit-modified Camry looks like a plain old Camry. For private security firms and military brass driving around in Iraq and Afghanistan, Carlson says there is safety in using a nondescript car.
"If you're driving around in a Suburban or a Mercedes, people know you have money," he says. Insurgents have learned to shoot for the seams, where door panels meet car frames, increasing the chance that a bullet will find its way into the cabin. That's why Streit cars come with custom-made bullet catchers, steel frames that butt up against window frames to deflect incoming bullets. Still, the cars are only bullet-resistant, not bulletproof.
"Our vehicles are built to get you out of harm's way, and that's it," Carlson says.
On the warehouse floor at Streit's U.S. headquarters, positioned just off of I-26 at 6425 Fain St., cars go through an assembly-line process. For one like the Chevy Suburban, which workers have dealt with for years, the turnaround time is about two weeks (faster than Streit's four U.S. competitors, Carlson notes). For a vehicle they have never touched, like the Bentley sitting in the showroom right now, it can take up to three months to custom-cut all the armor plating.
Floor worker Jason Gibbs says the most stressful part of the job is "cutting into something you know you couldn't afford to pay back." He has fixed cars since he was eight years old, but working at Streit has familiarized him with every facet of car construction, from wiring to fuel lines to upholstery.
"I tear them down and I put them back together," he says.
Civilian customers come to Streit for a variety of reasons. Some have received death threats and want an extra layer of safety, but Carlson says an armored car also works as a status symbol — although you have to tell everyone it's armored.
The organizers of the Food Lion Auto Fair have invited Streit to showcase a few of its cars Aug. 25-28 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Carlson was happy to oblige; he plans to go up early for a press junket and have someone shoot at one of the cars on Tuesday with three-round bursts from a .223-caliber AR-15 assault rifle.