What is the ultimate status symbol on the road today? A turbocharged V-12 Mercedes sedan or blinged-up Cadillac Escalade will certainly get attention, but the ultimate status grabber on a vehicle may be a feature you can't even see: protection from gunfire and explosives.

Armored passenger cars and SUVs will be featured at Charlotte Motor Speedway's Aug. 25-28 Food Lion AutoFair. The four-wheeled fortresses will be joined by an exhibit showcasing 100 years of Chevrolet automobiles, the world's lowest street-legal vehicle, rock crawlers and movie and television cars

Bulletproof Cars at AutoFair
A vehicle is made bulletproof generally by replacing the windows of a standard vehicle with bulletproof glass and inserting layers of armor plate into the body panels. Other modifications are also made and include run-flat tires, explosion-resistant fuel tanks and a communications system between the passengers inside and bodyguards outside the vehicle. Even with today's lightweight ballistic materials, a full bulletproof conversion on a full-size SUV adds as much as 1,500 to 2,000 pounds to the vehicle.

A longtime manufacturer of armored vehicles will display its products during the Food Lion AutoFair. The Streit Group was founded in 1996 to provide armored cars for the cash-in-transit industry and quickly expanded into the specialized military and law enforcement markets. Streit (pronounced "straight"), conducts business in more than 100 countries and opened a facility in Charleston, S.C., in 2008. For its Food Lion AutoFair display, the company is bringing a 2011 Mercedes-Benz S550 sedan and a 2011 Chevrolet Suburban that the company offers at "up to a B7 level of protection," which guards against shots fired from an armor-piercing rifle.

Armored Car History
Most people think of stock-looking bulletproof cars as ferrying heads of state, but Prohibition-era gangsters were really the first highly-visible buyers of such machinery in the 1920s. Custom coachbuilders transformed expensive, powerful sedans from Cadillac, Rolls-Royce and Duesenberg into rolling bunkers by hiding substantial sheets of iron behind the factory doors, fenders and hoods. Panes of inch-thick, high-impact glass could deflect bullets from any handheld weapon available at the time.

Such armor upgrades added as much as one-and-a-half tons to a luxury car's already impressive heft. Chicago mobster Al Capone's 1928 Cadillac Town Sedan weighed more than 9,000 pounds in full defensive trim, hindering its ability to speed away from danger, go around corners or pass a gas station.

Through a stranger-than-fiction twist of history, this special Caddy secretly became America's first armored presidential transport. Agents of the U.S. Department of the Treasury impounded the green-and-black Cadillac after arresting Capone for income tax evasion in 1929 but brought it out of storage in December, 1942 at the emergency request of the Secret Service.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's security detail needed to transport him safely to the Capitol to declare war on Japan for attacking military bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and there were no defensive automobiles in the White House fleet.

Roosevelt used the gangster's Cadillac until Ford Motor Co. and a specialty firm in New York constructed for him an armored four-door Lincoln

V-12 convertible the press dubbed the "Sunshine Special." To get around a budget cap of $750 for individual car purchases, the White House leased the Lincoln from Ford for $500 per year.

Bulletproof Technology
As demand for bulletproof automobiles grew in the second half of the 20th century, advances in technology improved the effectiveness of materials used to build them. DuPont's lightweight Kevlar, a synthetic fiber that can be woven into mats and bulletproof vests, gave builders an alternative to sheet steel. Later composites used to deflect bullets included ceramic and carbon fiber. Makers of bulletproof glass - what is now called "transparent armor" - sandwich several layers of clear polycarbonate between panels of glass to ensure shattered window shards do not harm occupants. There is even a technique for making windows that repel bullets fired from outside the car but allow them to pass through when fired from inside the car.

Bomb-absorbing underbodies are also available. Depending on the rules governing the country of delivery, some vehicles can be outfitted with active defense mechanisms such as smokescreen generators, tire spike dispensers, oil sprayers and even flamethrowers.

By the start of the 21st century, worldwide concerns of terrorism, kidnappings and random street crime elevated vehicle armoring into a billion-dollar-a-year industry. Now there are hundreds of companies selling these specialized cars on six continents. A BBC News report estimated Brazil - a country rampant with armed traffic robberies - had 50,000 cars with some level of bulletproofing and that dealers were selling 7,500 such vehicles per year. In the United States, professional athletes, corporation heads, movie stars and more spend anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 above the price of a new car for passive-defense protection.

Food Lion AutoFair
Hours for the Aug. 25-28 Food Lion AutoFair are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 per day for adults or $25 for a four-day pass; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.