FOLLOW-UP: Federal Coach shuts down its storied limousine plant that traces its roots to the 19th century stagecoach era. NLA President Diane Forgy and industry consultant Tom Mazza are quoted in a farewell feature.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: For background information on the Federal Coach sale and closure, check out LCT Magazine’s Federal Coach article.
FORT SMITH, Ark. — What was born in Fort Smith, the stretch limousine, may be dying here with the closing this spring of Federal Coach.
The company, a manufacturer of funeral hearses, limousines and buses, announced in December its plans to shut down its Fort Smith plant permanently in the spring, eliminating 140 jobs. Layoffs began March 12.
In December, Bill Flint, vice president of sales and marketing for the J.B. Poindexter & Co. Specialty Vehicles Group that owns Federal Coach, said the company’s bus line sales had diminished to the point that it made sense to sell the line to Starcraft in Goshen, Ind.
Cremations and their increasing popularity have diminished the need and demand for hearses, so the manufacturing of those is being consolidated with Poindexter’s Eagle Coach plant operations in Amelia, Ohio.
It is the limousines that have a long, storied history of manufacturing in Fort Smith.
Multiple online sources cite Fort Smith and Armbruster & Co. Inc. as the place where the first stretch limousines were made in 1923.
According to a 1969 article in Bus Ride magazine, the “first stretchout motor coach” was built in about 1923 when Jordan Bus Co. came to Tom Armbruster to ask if he could stretch out a touring car for its growing bus line.
Armbruster itself was founded in 1887 in Fort Smith by Tom Armbruster, Charles Kaiser and Walter Walkford for the purpose of building and repairing all kinds of horse-draw vehicles, states a May 28, 1967, Southwest Times Record feature.
The firm later moved into the repair of early automobiles before getting into the manufacture of stretch limousines.
When Armbruster began those operations, it expanded the vehicles by cutting a car in two, adding seating and an extender segment to the middle then putting the sections together again.
On May 1, 1950, Ed Robben bought Armbruster. He had ties to the vehicle sales distribution company, Stageway in Cincinnati. Stageway and Armbruster formally merged in 1966, becoming Armbruster/Stageway.
At Robben’s takeover in 1950, Armbruster had five employees and converted about 20 to 25 limousines annually in a 10,000 square-foot manufacturing space downtown.
By 1967, it had 55 employees working in a 50,000 square-foot space turning out 350 to 400 customized units annually.
“The history alone of Federal Coach, then going back to Armbruster, is long,” said Lowell Webb, materials planner at Federal Coach. “It was in the Fort Smith area for 100 years. You said, ‘Fort Smith, Arkansas’ and it was associated strongly with carriages then limousines. Fort Smith and this place coincided with each other. Fort Smith grew and so did this industry.”
Armbruster/Stageway’s manufacturing facilities and work force became Federal Coach in the early 1990s after the company had been sold to Executive Coach Builders a few years before.
Webb’s last scheduled day on the job is April 2, he said.
“Fort Smith? You’re in the limo capital of the world,” said Tom Mazza, co-author with Michael Bromley of “Stretching It: The Story of the Limousine” and a business consultant based in Philadelphia. He said Federal Coach is a good company, and he was sorry to hear about the plant closing.
“I don’t want to say the stretch limousine is dying, but it’s on life support,” said Mazzo. “It’s a cultural thing.”
Stretch limousines used to appeal to two or three markets — corporate customers, wealthy buyers of luxury vehicles and commercial fleet companies that serve business clients and leisure users.
“The SUV has eaten into the traditional buyer of stretch limousines,” Mazza said. “The party bus also has supplanted it. I don’t know the exact number, but I’m comfortable saying that in 1991 we might have built 9,000 to 10,000 stretch limousines. Last year, it might have been only 2,000. The stretch SUV and bus business has helped, but only a few builders are making any money.”
In 1990, where there were about 60 makers of stretch limousines, there now are about 15, he said.
The cost of cars like the Lincoln Towncar that companies would convert into stretch limousines also has climbed, squeezing profit margins.
A company such as Federal Coach in 1990 could buy a Lincoln Towncar for $18,000, convert it and sell it for $55,000. “Now, it costs $37,000, and they’re not getting much more in sale price than 25 years ago,” Mazza said. “The margin has disappeared.”
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recent onset of the Great Recession, corporate renters and buyers of stretch limousines now feel the vehicles are too opulent.
They project an image of wasteful spending, said Diane Forgy, National Limousine Association president. “It really has shifted quite a bit,” she said. “… They shifted out of limousines and into sedans and SUVs.”
Webb said when he started working at Federal Coach 10 years ago, sales still were strong and easier to make. As they have withered, it has been harder and harder.
“It’s not just the history of it alone, but what it affects when it does go,” he said. “I’m losing a job, but look at the companies around here that supply us.”
Mike Copher, president of Shamrock Bolt & Screw, said Shamrock has supplied Federal Coach with parts for about 10 years. It survived for so long when other stretch limo businesses were merging or closing because of its work force.
“The skilled labor was here to do the stretching of limos,” he said. “I feel there were generations who have worked in this business. Certain skills can’t be learned except by being on the job and things of that nature. You have to pick it up to learn it.”
Shamrock will feel the loss of the Federal Coach business, but it won’t affect employment at its Fort Smith location. But the loss will be felt in other ways in the community, Copher said.
Armbruster, then Federal Coach, gave Fort Smith’s own image a luster it might not have had with a more everyday product.
Owners of Armbruster and Federal Coach limousines have included such notable people as National Review magazine founder, publisher, and editor William F. Buckley Jr., the Pasha of Lebanon, heads of state, celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, and assorted royalty.
Copher said it has been disheartening to see Federal Coach lose its vitality in recent years. “It’s something this area has been skilled in doing that other areas were not,” he said.
In 1967, 300 Armbruster limousines were being used at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York alone. Armbruster/Federal Coach was a branded vehicle known and used around the world.
“Unless someone comes back in here and picks up where it ended, it’ll just be a memory,” Webb said. “People just won’t think about Federal Coach here any more.”
Source: ArkansasNews.com/Arkansas News Bureau