HomeCar CultureCommentaryThe day the Popemobile was spared

The day the Popemobile was spared


(Editor’s note: We reported in our weekly car museum roundup on February 14 about a fire that damaged the building that houses Spanish automaker SEAT’s historic car collection in Barcelona.) 

With only a few days remaining before the visit by Pope John Paul II to Barcelona and Madrid in 1982, a call came through to Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo (SEAT) from the Vatican. The vehicle car used by the Pope on his official visits did not fit through the doors of the Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabéu stadiums where the Pope’s main events were being held. 

Could a new car be prepared in just a matter of days for the visit?

The engineers at SEAT rose to the challenge and in record time adapted a Panda, creating a true Popemobile used by John Paul II during his visit to Spain.

Popemobile, The day the Popemobile was spared, ClassicCars.com Journal
Isidre López makes sure the SEAT car collection is OK after the fire | SEAT photos

This historic vehicle, which is housed in Building A122 at the Zona Franca factory along with the rest of the SEAT vintage car collection, nearly fell victim to the fire that broke out in an adjacent building February 11. However, the entire collection was spared thanks to the swift, decisive action taken by SEAT employees, the Barcelona fire department and other first responders.

“The fire started in the adjacent building. We were alerted by the alarm and began to douse the flames with the fire hoses and the SEAT Safety and Emergency Services and the Barcelona fire department quickly took over,” said Isidre López, who leads the historic vehicle program. “In my opinion they’re heroes. All of the teams did a great job.”

And what criteria was used to save the cars in the collection? 

“First we removed the ones at the entrance to the building to give the firefighters enough room to work once they arrived. Then we moved the larger race cars and immediately took out the Popemobile, which was right next to the source of the fire. As it doesn’t have a roof, all it took was one person to push it out.”

All 317 vehicles in the vintage car collection were saved, from the Popemobile and the first official rally car driven by Carlos Sainz, to the second last production model 600 and the electric Toledo from the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. 

Building A122 houses the historic heritage of the brand as well as of the country. Now they can add another chapter with a happy ending to their legacy.

Popemobile, The day the Popemobile was spared, ClassicCars.com Journal

The gems in the SEAT vintage car collection

  • • 1400 (1953): the first SEAT
  • • The 1400 Visits (1953): used at the inauguration of the Zona Franca factory
  • • The SEAT number 1 Million: it was a SEAT 124
  • • Formula 1430 (1971): the oldest racing model in the building
  • • The first 127 made (1972): itis the third best-seller after the Ibiza and the Leon
  • • The second last production model 600 (1973): the car that put the country on wheels
  • • Panda group 2 (1982): the first official rally car driven by Carlos Sainz
  • • Panda Popemobile (1982): the car used by Pope John Paul II in Spain
  • • Ronda (1982): the model that saved SEAT in the Competition Court
  • • The first Ibiza made (1984)
  • • The Ibiza Cabrio (1986), which was never marketed
  • • The Ibiza Bimotor (1986)
  • • Toledo for the Barcelona Olympic Games (1992): the first electric car
  • • Ibiza Kit Car (1996, 1997 and 1998): three-time world rally champion in the 2 litre category
  • • Tango (2001): a two-seater concept car
  • • The Leon WTCC world champion for manufacturers and drivers (2008 and 2009)
  • • IBX (2011): the orientation of the future SUV range


Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


  1. I was at the Vatican on a hot October day. The Vatican doesn’t have air conditioning. I wanted to see the popemobiles and asked our guide if I could. Went to the catacombs under the Vatican and saw about 40 cars magnificent, got cooled down, and had a Classic Car day in Rome.


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