The founder of NYC’s first official livery company started London Towncars in 1959 and New York state’s first industry association in 1967. He was LCT Magazine’s first Operator Of The Year in 1990. Spencer also was a veteran of WWII.
NEW YORK CITY — Stephen Spencer Sr., a “founding father” of the modern-day limousine industry in New York City whose company still bears the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission license number B00001, died July 21 at his home in Newport, R.I. after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 85.
Memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. on Thursday, July 29 at Emmanuel Church, 40 Dearborn St., Newport, R.I. Visiting hours are respectfully omitted.
Spencer Sr. worked at LONDON TOWNCARS as president until 2004 when he retired at age 79.
NEW YORK TIMES OBITUARY HERE at the funeral home web site.
In an interview with LCT Magazine on Monday, Spencer’s son, Stephen Spencer Jr., the president of London Towncars, recalled how his father and two business partners started the company in 1959 with two London-style taxi-cabs.
“It was a novelty thing,” Stephen Spencer Jr. said. “Dad was 6’5” tall and another partner was 6’ 11’, so they wanted the taxi because it had a lot of headroom. They could wear top hats in the taxi so they could [comfortably] go to the opera.”
Spencer Sr. bought out his two partners shortly after the trio had started the company.
Spencer Jr. grew up working in the company and joined it full-time after college in 1983. “When I was a kid, we would help out,” Spencer Jr. recalled. “My Dad gave out small leather diaries, and he would have us label them and mail them to customers.” Spencer Jr’s mother helped answer the phones and took reservations for many years.
Spencer Sr. branched out from taxi cabs to stretch limousines in the late 1960s. His company chauffeured such legendary rock performers of that era as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
In one anecdote from that era, a London Towncars limousine had been dispatched to the airport to pick up the members of Led Zeppelin in the days before huge entourages and roadies, Spencer Jr. said. The chauffeur couldn’t get the trunk closed on all the band members’ luggage, so he went back into the airport to get a rope to tie down the trunk lid. A member of the band, presumably Jimmy Page, got impatient and drove off with the limousine while the chauffeur was still inside the terminal, says Spencer Jr., relaying a piece of London Towncars folklore.
The growth of London Towncars tracked the trends of the industry over the decades as it evolved in the 1970s and 1980s into a corporate sedan and stretch service. By 1990, when Stephen Spencer Sr. was chosen as LCT’s first Operator Of the Year, London Towncars had a fleet of 125 vehicles that consisted of its trademark London taxis, stretch limousines, Fleetwood formals, Buick sedans, and station wagons.
During the last two decades, London Towncars has streamlined to focus on a mostly corporate clientele, with a leaner post-recession fleet now of 58 vehicles. Despite its name, the company does not take its moniker from the leading Lincoln Town Car livery vehicle, but opts for mostly Cadillac DTS sedans instead to advance its luxury brand. Sedans now make up 90% of its business. The company earns about $7 million in annual revenues.
Spencer Sr. also was a longtime leader of the Limousine Association of New York of which he served many years as president. He was a founding member in 1967 of LANY’s predecessor, the Association of Private Livery Companies, which he started with Bob Verde of Bermuda Limousine International of New York and Mike Farrell of Farrell’s Limousine Service in New York.
“He saw the need to pool their resources because the Taxi and Limousine Commission was throwing regulations at them,” Spencer Jr. said. “They needed to pull together so they would have a word in the regulations.”
Stephen Spencer Jr. summed up the business philosophy of his father in an article in the Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010 edition of LCT Magazine: “We believe if you treat your employees well that they will treat the customers well. We don’t want chauffeurs who work for us until the next job comes along. We want career chauffeurs. When you give them job security and let them make a good living so that they can support their families, the customer will see the difference. We have been doing it this way for 50 years and it has worked.”
— Martin Romjue, LCT Magazine