Terry O’Neill is an elder statesman among limousine dealers. After spending a number of years in his father’s truck and automotive business, O’Neill started a professional vehicle company called Specialty Vehicles, Inc.
From his vantage point in the funeral car and ambulance industry, O’Neill watched the limousine industry develop into a thriving business. After entering the limousine sales and service business in 1974, Specialty Vehicles became one of the major limousine and professional car dealers in the New York area.
O’Neill recently spoke with Limousine & Chauffeur editor and associate publisher Scott Fletcher about the evolution of limousines and professional cars over the past two decades.
L&C: flow long have you been in the limousine business?
O’Neill: In 1929, my father John O’Neill, who has since passed away, owned a company called Metropolitan Equipment Corporation. It was in the wholesale truck business...truck bodies and so forth.
In 1933, he acquired a Superior Coach franchise for funeral cars and school buses. That went on for many years.
In 1960, I spun out of that company and formed this company which has two names...Specialty Hearse and Ambulance Corporation, and Specialty Vehicles. In the beginning, our company was in what we called the professional car industry which included funeral cars, hearses, and ambulances.
We got into the six-door limousine business in 1974 when Tom Earnhardt started setting up distributors for Armbruster/Stageway. Armbruster sold directly through the factory prior to 1974.
L&C: What were limousines like when you started with Armbruster in 1974?
O’Neill: Armbruster was promoting Chrysler six-door limousines and Pontiac six-doors. They also made eight doors for airport transfers.
Sales of big cars were slow in 74-76 but, when Cadillac downsized in 77, the six-door stretch became a more acceptable length and our sales really started to take off. Our relationship with Armbruster has been terrific because they offer every concept of limousine. They have diversified their product very well and they are very honorable people.
L&C: What was the limousine market like in 1981?
O’Neill: It was a fairly new market. I guess it was 95 percent Cadillac at that time. We started banging on the doors of limousine operators who were starting to use that type of car.
In the beginning, it seemed like the more you had on the car...the better. Now it seems to be that people want more conventional types of limousines and are getting away from moonroofs and some of those things. I see a cycle back to a more basic limousine. I sometimes wonder how many TVs are turned on in the back of limousines.
L&C: Who is primarily responsible for limousine sales?
O’Neill: Randye Low oversees the VIP limousine sales. I spend most of my time on funeral cars.
We are members of three associations: the Nassau Suffolk Limousine Association, the Wostchesler Limousine Association, and the North Connecticut Limousine Association. We find the associations are a terrific source of exposure.
L&C: Are there government standards for the construction of funeral cars?
O’Neill: Remember that the funeral car only has one function whereas the limousine has a variety of functions. I think funeral car standards are much less than they are for limousines.
Most hearses, for example, have fiberglass roofs. With a hearse, it doesn’t really make a difference. I can’t say whether standards can be compared. The liability situation is different because a limousine can transport five or six people.
L&C: Do you get customers who want vehicles that can do both funeral and livery work?
O’Neill: That’s Armbruster’s 25-Hour Concordia car.
L&C: Is there a big market for that?
O’Neill: Yes. It’s a successful idea. There are operators who do Christian funeral work in the mornings, Jewish funeral work in the afternoons, and private or corporate work at other times. As a result, there is an excellent market with the New York livery operators for this type of vehicle that can convert from a people mover into a V.I.P. limousine.
Many funeral homes in New York City do not own their own limousines or hearses because of high insurance costs, parking restrictions, and various union demands. So these people rent their transportation equipment from funeral/livery operators who want to utilize the most practical vehicle for all facets of their service. By the way, Armbrustor has just developed a pullman-type center seat design where the seat can be reversed to face the rear or the front of the limousine without being removed. It’s a terrific concept”
L&C: Are there a lot of funeral/livery people?
O’Neill: There are many of them in New York. Some of them just have hearses and some have hearses and limousines.
They find that there are certain clays when their cars aren’t moving and they want to be able to offer their cars to private customers and corporations. With convertible center seats, they have the flexibility to do that.
L&C: Do you think stretch limousines will continue to get longer and fancier?
O’Neill: I really see the car going back the other way. The people who came into the business in ‘83-’84 wanted all of the amenities… I find people are coming back to less of a car.
Operators find that they are not utilizing all of the amenities. They find that limousines are being used as a means of transportation and not as a means of luxury living. ‘They find that people are not playing with the bolls and the; whistles.
In our car, for example, a double partition is approximately a $600 option. I always say you can create the same effect with a cloth-covered glass partition. People don’t drive with the glass partition up, especially at night because headlights reflect off it.
I really find that the limo industry wants a quality product, but they don’t need all the bells and whistles that cost thousands of dollars extra. One of the things I like about Armbrustor is that they have always offered a down-spec car called the Manhattan, It looks like a 1984 Cadillac factory limousine.
I don’t say that I’m the final word on this, but I really find that people are going back to that. Many of the big operators in Now York City have always operated under that premise. Maybe they have a few luxury cars, but the bulk of them are down-spec people-movers.
Of course the prices of fancy limousines are getting outrageous, $55,000 or $65,000 is a tough nut. The financing aspect is another thing. Financial institutions are not handling limousines the way they used to and insurance has gone bonkers.
I’ve had some major leasing companies say they are no longer handling limousines. They have a ton of repossessions and they don’t know what to do with them.
They will not finance a limousine for more than 36 months, their credit has to be A-1, and they have to put a third down. The funeral business is another story because those people have been in business forever. In most cases, it’s a hand-me-down business. They buy funeral business very easily. The difficulty in getting financing may be another reason to buy less of a car.
L&C: What aspect of your business haven’t we talked about?
O’Neill: It’s a “love-hate” business. I love going in the morning...and I can’t wait to leave at night. It’s a challenging business. There’s a lot of competition out there for us, but it’s good competition in most cases.
We are not a multiple line dealer and we will never be a multiple line dealer. My theory is. . . If I had limousines from two different coachbuilders in my garage and you said, “Terry, I’d like to look at a limousine.” I’d be in the position of. . .should I bring out product A or product B? I’ve always felt that to do a good job, you have to have a strong allegiance to the product you represent and we have that in all three lines that we represent. . .limousines, funeral coaches, and ambulances.
In 1987, we were selected as Dealer of the Year by all three of the manufacturers we represent- Armbruster/Stageway, Superior Coaches, and Yankee Coach. I am also very proud to state that two of my sons, Scott and Chris O’Neill have recently joined our company and, hopefully, will continue the O’Neill family traditions for many years to come. It has been very rewarding.