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Armbruster /Stageway: 100 Years Building Specialty Vehicles

Posted on July 1, 1987 by LCT Staff

In 1887, three young businessmen pooled their resources to launch a horse-drawn carriage construction and repair shop in Fort Smith, AR. Together, A.K. “Tommy” Armbruster, Charles M. Kayser, and Walter Walkord laid the foundation for Armbruster & Company When the horse and carriage was eclipsed by the motor-driven automobile, the three men shifted their focus and adapt­ed their construction techniques to provide auto repair, paint and trim for a growing number of automo­bile owners in the Fort Smith area.

VIEW OUR PHOTO GALLERY OF ARMBRUSTER/STAGEWAY VEHICLES HERE.

Until the early 1920s, Armbruster & Company did general repair work on all types of vehicles but, around 1921. Jordan Bus Lines approached the company. Jordan was searching for a way to make its short runs more profitable and the owners wanted to know if an automobile could be “stretched” in a way similar to a small bus.

The interior pillar posts were constructed of oak and covered with sheet metal.
The interior pillar posts were constructed of oak and covered with sheet metal.

Although Armbruster & Company had never “stretched” a vehicle, the idea was intriguing. According to photos in company archives, the first Armbruster stretch unit was completed some­time in early 1923. The first stretch led to more and, by the 1930s, customized stretched vehicles were a regular production offering.

By the 1940s, Armbruster averaged 20 stretched units a year and employed from six to 12 men. In 1949, Kayser was operating the business along with Armbruster, who was semi-retired. When Kayser suffered a fatal heart attack in the fall of 1949, Armbruster decided to sell the business and go into full retirement.

The company was sold to Ed Robben of Cincinnati, OH. Accompanied by his son-in-law, Milt Earnhart, Robben took over the management of a 10,000 square foot plant that employed six men.

Over the years, the firm expanded, and land was purchased to provide more plant space. In 1956, Armbruster & Company was incorporated.

Many of Armbruster’s sales were handled by Stageway Coaches, a Queen, City Chevrolet Company in Cincinnati. In 1962, that corporation was eliminated and the company was incorporated as Stageway Coaches. Stage- way continued to handle Armbruster’s sales, and after Robben’s death in 1966, the two companies merged to form Armbruster/Stageway, Inc.

In 1973, Tom Earnhart, Milt Earnhart’s son, joined the firm. Tom Earnhart began an aggressive advertising program and established a nation-wide distributor network for Armbruster products. By 1980, increasing limousine sales required the company to expand its operations even more.

NEOAX, Inc., formerly Northeast Ohio Axle, Inc., acquired Armbruster/Stageway through a purchase agreement in-March, 1985 NEOAX also purchased several other specialty vehicle manufacturing operations, and placed them in the newly-formed Specialty Vehicle Division. Tom Earnhart was named president of the specialty division, and Frank Norris, Jr., was appointed president of Armbruster/Stageway. NEOAX’s structure allowed greater engineering sophistication, improved manufacturing capacity, and greater product availability due to multi- plant facilities.

Today, Armbruster/Stageway operates at two locations in Fort Smith, and employees approxi­mately 200 people. More than 1,000 limousines, crew cab, suburban, and other specialized vehicles are produced yearly.

Expansion into new markets has continued. In late 1986, Earnhart finalized plans to form an international marketing sales arm to be operated in Europe and the Far East. In 1987, Earnhart relinquished his duties as president to head a new company formed to distribute Armbruster/Stageway products overseas.

This year, Armbruster/Stageway celebrates its 100th year anniversary. The company’s limousines have been featured in national automobile shows, television programs, and movies. Customers include livery operators, funeral directors, sightseeing companies, universities, governmental agencies, celebrities, and heads of state around the world.

 

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