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If limousine industry time could be divided between B.C. and A.D. eras, 1983 would be Year 0 A.D. for the chauffeured transportation industry.
But industry time didn’t just start with LCT. There was a vast unorganized, informal, active limousine industry long before there was LCT. What was the industry like before the first trade magazine, Limousine & Chauffeur, published in 1983, and the first trade association, the National Limousine Association, formed in 1985?
1928 Cadillac Brougham
In the Beginning
Limousines made their debut in the 1700s. The earliest engine-powered Cadillac limousines began selling in 1914 and were used by the wealthy and elite who purchased them. A 1928 Cadillac Brougham sold for $5,000; they were extremely popular in Europe and used by the Queen of England for travel around London. By 1940, movie studios were buying them to transport movie stars. Hotels operated them to shuttle guests to and from airports. Even the President of the United States got one in 1939. According to Carey International’s website, they launched the first limousine service in the U.S. in 1921 when J.P. Carey opened for business.
A young, fresh-faced Scott Solombrino started out as a chauffeur.
During this decade of change, modern limousine services opened up around the globe, renting vehicles to the general public. One of the very first such companies was Dav El, founded in Boston by David Klein in 1966, says Scott Solombrino, current CEO of Dav El.
The company is now one of the largest privately held chauffeured transportation networks in the world, according to Dav El‘s website. Klein would be the “first” at many things. He was the very first limousine operator in New York to install cellular phones in his cars. He ordered 100 units from Motorola before cellular service was even fully launched. He opened offices in Los Angeles, setting up camp at The Beverly Hills Hotel and living there. Next, he opened an office in Washington, D.C.
While Klein got things going in Boston, Howard Risner became the man to know in Chicago. Risner started driving limousines in 1943. “Fabulous Howard,” as he was called, had a limousine that featured a television, a bar, air-conditioning (considered an extreme luxury) and even a telephone system. The telephone system required calling a mobile operator to connect you to your party, while monitoring the entire phone call and then disconnecting the radio signal at the end of the call. Risner moved west to California where the movie stars were. With a price of $10 an hour, movie studios no longer needed to buy their own limousines when they could hire Risner or other limousine services. By the 1960s, he was providing service to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. According to a Chicago Daily News story in 1969, Risner’s limousine was a familiar sight at the homes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Burt Lancaster before he left the West Coast to return to Chicago for good.
Fabulous Howard was a chauffeur decades ahead of his time.
Operators such as Klein and Risner began thinking out of the box about how to grow their businesses. Klein focused on expanding with a quality ride, and together with Carlos Allen, built the first commercial Lincoln limousine complete with “suicide doors” (doors that open backwards, like on the old Lincoln Continentals) for use in the Dav El fleet. He pursued and won the business of Air France and British Airways ferrying their first-class passengers between the airport and home.
As more and more limousine services were launched, the industry as we know it today was born. Some were planned and crafted to meet certain markets and some were quite by accident. Ishi Limousine Service of San Francisco is one of the oldest licensed limousine companies in California. Holding permit number 315, and starting in 1972, the company carved a niche market serving Japanese tourists, a focus still today.
California issues permits in numerical sequence, and according to the Public Utilities Commission, the most recently issued permit is 30000. This shows just how many operators have come and gone since the 1970s. Greyhound was the first licensed carrier and holds permit number 001.
Harold Berkman built up a major L.A. limo service called Music Express. Photo from 1992.
Harold Berkman operated a messenger service called Music Express that transported documents for entertainment industry executives. One day, he was asked to put on a suit and go pick up an arriving passenger at LAX. What was considered a favor caused Music Express to change direction forever and become one of the nation’s first large affiliate networks. Meanwhile, Stardust Limousine in Los Angeles was one of the first services to truly market to ordinary citizens. It used license plate frames advertising its name and phone number around personalized license plates that contained some variation of Stardust.
The proliferation of limousine services began drawing the ire of airport officials. Logan Airport in Boston was one of the first to try to regulate limousines. The Massachusetts Limousine Owners Association was born strictly to battle airport authorities and would later become a model for the future National Limousine Association.
As limousines caught on, “limousine shows” began convening around the world, beginning in Europe. The shows in London and France were much different than the trade shows we know. These events were strictly to show off limousines to the general public. The public would pay a fee to get into the show, very similar to a car show of today. They would be able to sit in the back and take photos and ogle the cars of the rich and famous. By the late 1970s, the shows had spread to Las Vegas and Palm Springs, becoming annual events.