With a name like 'Scary Spice', you'd imagine the singer Mel B would drive something a little more challenging than a run-of-the-mill family car. But you might not expect to find her behind the wheel of an armoured fortress bristling with hi-tech anti-personnel gadgets. However, now that the former Spice Girl is carving out a successful TV career hosting shows like Australian The X Factor, she has decided that what she really, really wants is a £200,000 ($345,000) specially modified attack-proof Cadillac Escalade capable of destroying the tyres of pursuing vehicles.
Melanie Brown has joined the growing band of jittery U.S. celebrities who are driving armoured vehicles which can withstand bullets, bombs and chemical attacks. Her giant, gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle will even give an electric shock — up to 240 volts-worth of 'non-lethal current' — to car-jackers, paparazzi or anyone else foolish enough to grab the door handles in a bid to gain entry.
At the push of a button, it will belch out dense white smoke to help the driver evade any pursuing vehicle, and pump out small spikes to puncture their tyres. Some customers specify pressurised cabins and on-board oxygen supplies to protect against chemical and gas attacks.
Mel B's specially armoured and fully loaded seven-seater vehicle was delivered to her at her home in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, recently by Jason Forston, vice-president of the Texas Armoring Corporation in San Antonio. His 38-year-old Leeds-born client also has an armoured Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz S-Class on order, he said.
Texas Armoring employs 50 people and customises about 200 vehicles a year, usually for heads of state, politicians, business executives, diplomats and royal families. But more recently, Hollywood celebrities and sport stars have sparked a mini-boom in armoured vehicles as the worsening international climate — from chemical strikes in Syria to terrorist attacks in Boston and Kenya — have made them twitchy about their personal safety and the risk of kidnap or worse.
These stars include British actor Sacha Baron Cohen and the rapper Kanye West, who recently ordered two outrageous Latvian-built Prombron Iron Diamonds costing around £800,000 ($1.4m) each. They are made by Dartz Motorz, the same company which built Sacha Baron Cohen's gold-plated presidential SUV which featured in his film The Dictator.
Texas Armoring's Mr Forston, 32, said: 'Five years ago we had no Hollywood celebrities as customers. Nowadays, we have anywhere between 10 to 15 orders a year from celebrities and professional athletes.' They include Steven Seagal and rapper TI, who has a blinged-up version of Mel B's Cadillac Escalade, including a 32in flat-screen television with satellite TV and mobile Wi-Fi.
Love-cheat golfer Tiger Woods is also understood to have one of the firm's armoured cars, which is presumably more than capable of withstanding a sustained attack from an angry wife wielding a nine-iron. Mel B — who is a judge on America's Got Talent and has been co-hosting NBC's Today show — and her producer husband Stephen Belafonte have opted for a traditional family-friendly interior to suit the lifestyles of her daughters Phoenix, Angel, Madison and stepdaughter Giselle.
Mr Forston said: 'I delivered it to their house in Beverly Hills. They are very good people. We all went for a test drive so they knew how to use all the different options. Her husband is a big car guy. She drove it for a while — and on the right side. 'It's pretty much the standard leather interior. They've got kids so are pretty down to earth about things.'
From the outside, these cars are virtually indistinguishable from the standard models — but have been stripped down to the frame and rebuilt with armour and hi-tech gadgets. In a country where guns are part of the fabric of day-to-day life — 'I carry a gun in my pocket every day: we're in Texas,' says Mr Forston — customers can specify a special gun-port through which to shoot at attackers on the outside. And Texas Armoring clearly has supreme confidence in its product.
In an astonishing video on the firm's website — which comes with a 'don't try this at home' health warning — president and chief executive Trent Kimball is seen crouching behind a sheet of the company's bullet-proof glass while a young employee shoots at him with an AK-47. He lives to tell the tale as the triple-glazing shows up the spider-web impact of the bullets which nevertheless fail to penetrate the glass.
But the American firm draws the line at emulating one South African security company which fitted a flame-thrower to a top-of-the-range BMW. At the push of a dashboard button, it shoots up a wall of fire outside the driver's car door in order to incinerate any would-be car-jacker.
Demand for armoured cars is also on the increase on this side of the Atlantic. In Britain they are popular with Eastern European oligarchs. Luxury car-makers such as Jaguar Land Rover, BMW, Bentley and Mercedes-Benz already have their own 'in-house' security arms which build in armouring from scratch. Mr Forston acknowledges their high level of expertise, but says his company — which takes apart existing cars and customises them with armour and gadgets before re-assembling them — can do almost as high a specification but at a fraction of the cost.
Among the car makes they tackle are Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Lotus, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Maserati, Volvo and even the more humble Honda, Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford. The most expensive car Mr Forston has sold to date is a customised and armoured £500,000 ($870,000) stretch Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon for an unnamed client.
When he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair took delivery of a fully armoured BMW 7-series — dubbed the 'Blair Panzer' after the German word for armour. Ironically, on delivery in London, police found that illegal immigrants had stowed away in the container lorry transporting it to Britain.
David Cameron has, as his official car, an armoured, top-of-the-range Jaguar XJ. But trumping them all is U.S. President Barack Obama with his gargantuan armoured Cadillac-style limousine, dubbed 'The Beast', which follows him around the globe on official visits. Security expert Robert Siciliano, in New York, says that for the super-rich earning millions, the cost of an armoured vehicle is a drop in the ocean and a sensible investment.
'What's your life worth?' he says. 'A bullet costs about 25 cents. It will go through a non-armoured vehicle pretty efficiently. So to spend three-quarters of a million dollars on an armoured vehicle isn't that outrageous.' No doubt, Scary Spice would agree. The former Spice Girl's current vehicle certainly brings a whole new meaning to the term 'girl power'.