Designing an Industry: Doug Donalson, acclaimed coachbuilder and designer, reminisces a quarter century in the limousine industry

Posted on March 1, 2003 by Rebecca Christiansen

Doug Donalson started his career in the limousine industry 26 years age as a welder, bodyman and painter at Executive Coach Builders’ plant in Seymour, Mo. He has since been influential in the technical development of limousine production and many industry professionals have come to call him a true industry leader and innovator.

After spending several years at Executive Coach, Donalson joined Corporate Coach in 198S and was instrumental in designing the first widebody limousine. He also contributed to the design of dual batteries, dual dividers and relay-controlled printed circuits and electrical systems.

In 1991, Donalson opened his own company, Coach-Works by Donalson. In 1993, Executive Coach Builders’ president David Bakare rehired Donalson to run the firm’s manufacturing facility. He brought with him a team of eight supervisors who had worked with him for more than 15 years.

Together they redesigned Executive’s plant and manufacturing process, as well as the interior of Executive Coach Builders’ stretch limousines.

So with all this on his resume, what accomplishment stands foremost in his mind? “I’m proud of the people I have, and the ability and flexibility that we have to build and design the unique cars that we do,” Donalson says.

As the years have passed, not only has Donalson grown with the industry, but the industry also seems to have grown with him-especially the cars he builds.

“The length of vehicles has changed tremendously,” Donalson says. “When I first started, they were 36-inch stretches and they had a center console and a pair of jumpseats. Now they’re up to 140 inches with seating for up to l4 people.”

The complication of limousines’ electronics has gone through the roof as well, Donalson points out. During his rookie years, limousines were equipped with a radio, a divider and heating/cooling control, whereas today limousine features are far more advanced.

“Now you’ve got dimming systems and intercom systems and all kinds of fancy things, from strobe lights to elaborate fiber optics.” Donalson says. “In fact, the whole car in 1976 cost less than just parts and labor cost today.”

Yet, Donalson is not surprised by the changes he’s seen and he notes that the limousine industry simply followed the lead of customers’ changing tastes.

“The public pretty well dictates what you’re going to build for them, so we’ve followed their desires and demands as best as we could,” Donalson says. “[Executive] has stayed a little more conservative than some companies”

Donalson’s limousines cater to the more high-end customer and feature less plastics and fiberglass and more real wood. “Quality in our workmanship gives our cars just a little different look,” Donalson says. “We try to be individual. We try not to be a version of anybody else. We try to be our own people.”

In the future, Donalson predicts limousines will feature more gimmicks in response to a younger market placing greater importance on what he calls “things that are flashy.”

“We’re going to see more lighting effects, more XM radio and more technology’ related to screens,” Donalson says, he believes Hat-screen technology is an ever-growing market that will increase its presence in the limousine industry throughout the coming years.

However, Donalson predicts that stretches have reached their limit when it comes to length, with safety precautions most likely prohibiting limousines from expanding beyond their current sizes.

“General Motors or Ford Motors are very conscientious that a car meets all federal requirements in every way,” Donalson says “There’s logically not a great deal of sense to go any bigger because it becomes harder to drive the vehicle and harder to stop the vehicle.”

At present, the largest cars Donalson works on are 140-inch Ford Excursions, which he believes will be crowd-pleasers in the years to come. “There’s been quite a few requests for them so we hope that is going to be a very good product for us,” he says.

As for his personal plans, Donalson is not quite ready to leave the limousine industry. “I’m planning on staying in this industry probably another 10 years, then hopefully I can retire,” he says.

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