Armored-car plant opens N. Charleston facility puts extra protection on high-end vehicles

A 2012 Mercedes Benz is ready for delivery after being reinforced by Streit Armoring. The company officially opened its new body-armor factory along Palmetto Commerce Parkway in North Charleston on Thursday.

It looked like a normal Bentley, if there is such a thing.

But the gleaming black sedan parked along Bullet Proof Blvd. in Streit USA Armoring’s new North Charleston factory was equal parts tank and luxury car.

Its doors held extra steel plates, the glass of its windshield and windows was extra thick, and its tires were reinforced to prevent flats — all to protect the occupants from gunfire and grenades. Price? $500,000.

There isn’t a buyer yet, but somebody, perhaps a Middle Eastern sheikh, will take it, said Fred Carlson, Streit USA’s first paid employee and now in charge of human resources and safety.

“They will have absolutely no problem selling that vehicle,” Carlson said.

It’s that rising demand for armored vehicles for VIPs that is driving Streit’s global growth and prompted the company to build a 75,000-square-foot facility on Palmetto Commerce Parkway this year.

The plant started operations this month and was officially christened Thursday afternoon with a series of speeches and tours through the rows of disassembled and reconstituted vehicles sitting on 6-ton jack stands.

U.S. Rep. Tim Scott noted that Streit is the latest factory to spring up along the corridor, joining Boeing’s new interiors plant and nearby Daimler and Shimano operations. A mostly complete TIGHITCO aerospace composites factory is coming together across the street.

“What we’re experiencing in South Carolina is a manufacturing dream come true,” Scott said. “This plant is producing opportunities locally while saving lives around the globe.”

Streit built its new home on the once-wooded plot after leasing a 30,000-square-foot space on Fain Street since 2007. There the company has outfitted about 20 vehicles a month on two production lines.

The new factory has seven lines, including a fast track that can tear down and outfit a car in three days, and could grow from 30 employees to 70 within a couple years.

Eric Carlson, Fred’s brother and president of the American arm of the global conglomerate, said Streit will be hiring assemblers and certified welders for jobs that will pay $15 to $20 per hour to start.

The $6 million plant won an incentive package from Charleston County Council, a 20-year agreement that allows the company to pay a 6 percent fee each year instead of property taxes. In addition to the production lines, the building features a glassy showroom, offices and a fitness room for employees.

Streit’s vehicles are built to take fire from all sides and angles. Even the battery and control module under the hood are surrounded by steel plates, to prevent a bullet from disabling the vehicle.

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Used for transporting government dignitaries and corporate executives, the armored vehicles retain the look and feel of the original models, down to the decorative trim, so as not to draw special attention.

While the federal government buys most of the armor-plated vehicles, ranging in cost from $110,000 to $180,000, the city of Charleston is also a customer, buying an outfitted Sprinter van for its SWAT team.

Once the mostly high-dollar vehicles arrive from the dealerships, they are disassembled — doors off, windows out, dashboard detached, flooring removed, wiring disconnected, everything gone — except for what is under the hood.

Then, laser-cut steel plates of all shapes and sizes are meticulously attached to the doors, frames, tops and bottoms of the vehicles. “It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle,” Fred Carlson said.

The bullet-resistant glass can be as thick as 4.5 inches, and oftentimes all the armor requires beefed-up suspension as well.

Beginning with just a couple of people in Toronto in 1996, Streit has grown to nearly 1,000 employees worldwide, according to Guerman Goutorov, chairman of the Streit Group.

In addition to the North Charleston factory, Streit operates production plants in Canada, Russia, Iraq, India, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where a 450,000-square-foot plant, reportedly the biggest privately owned facility of its kind, opened this year.