Vehicle Pick of the Week: This used minibus will wow all types of clients, from brides to wine tour connoisseurs.
ANZA, Calif. — If The Midnight Rider could be attached to a train, it would have to be the VIP nightclub car. At cruising speed, passengers enclosed in its plush 19th Century railroad interior cannot tell if they are on the tracks or a freeway.
For operators Michael and Pamela Machado, THE MIDNIGHT RIDER has taken the concept of chauffeured transportation to its zenith. The custom-built, luxury outfitted 18-wheeler tractor-trailer is the largest and heaviest — but technically not the longest — limousine in the world.
The Machados keep it parked in a warehouse garage in the rural town of Anza, elevation 4,000 feet, which lies in a mountainous region of Southern California about two hours southeast of Los Angeles. The location gives the Midnight Rider room to be restored and refitted for its runs, and puts it within reach of major Southern California and Las Vegas attractions.
“It’s like a night club on wheels,” says Pamela Machado, executive vice president. “They party on board. Once we are at the destination, they often don’t want to get off when they get there. Since there’s a full bar on board, they don’t need to go to clubs.”
Wheels to history
The four congregating areas aboard, or lounges, separated by split levels and stairs are called: the Pullman Lounge, the Observation Lounge (highest level), the Fifth Wheel Lounge, and Jake Brake Bar (lowest level).
Midnight Rider is modeled after the look of a Pullman Presidential railroad car that was used by President Ulysses S. Grant, who served from 1869-1877, says Michael Machado, president and manufacturer. The interior design features abundant genuine, raw, polished brass railings and fixtures, solid birch wood, and authentic fabric materials. There are no plastics, composites, imitations, powder coatings, veneers, staples, or fasteners, which are not authentic to the construction of the period.
The results can be seen in the details; solid brass welding jobs betray no seams or lines; interior fabrics were hand-selected by Pamela via multiple trips to the Los Angeles garment district, to name a few. The luxury “railroad car” also reflects the mechanical balance of mitigated sound, weight distribution, air-ride suspension, six tons of hidden, efficient HVAC equipment, and an array of structural precision the average client never sees but benefits from. Even the bathroom is decked out in all brass and birch wood.
The Midnight Rider is the largest and heaviest limousine in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, but the longest limousine is still a 100-foot white Cadillac stretch in Burbank, Calif. that is not street legal.
Midnight Rider reaches close to the largest allowable dimensions for a semi by the U.S. Department of Transportation: 13-feet 8-inches high, just four inches underneath the 14-foot federal limit; 8.5 feet wide; and 70-feet long with a 310-inch wheelbase. The interior is 416 square feet across four levels, with the lowest ceiling at 6-feet 6-inches, and higher ceilings in all other lounges.
The luxury behemoth weighs 25 tons and its NTC 400, 435-horsepower, Cummins-powered engine in a Peterbilt truck can pull the tractor up to 90 mph on a flat surface and up to 40 mph on a 6% grade, although Michael emphasizes he never exceeds speed limits with clients on board. Midnight Rider holds 300 gallons of diesel at an estimated $700 cost to fill up, he says. Gas mileage is about 4-5 mpg. It takes two men 18 hours to clean it between each run.
“We built it to have fun with it,” Pamela says, but word-of-mouth soon got it to be a profitable venture. “We had no intention of getting the world record.”
The Midnight Rider originally was intended as a touring vehicle for runs between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Now, it’s taken on a steady corporate and leisure clientele, averaging four to five excursions per month, up from two to three per month during the recession. About 35-40% of Midnight Rider clients are corporate, with the rest consisting mostly of bachelor/bachelorette parties, birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, and reunions.
The Midnight Rider carries up to 40 people — it could handle many more, but the Machados cap the passenger count at 40 so there is enough room for all to stretch and maneuver among the three lounges. Client groups have included the Blue Angels pilots and a few federal agency clients, to name a few.
Last summer, Midnight Rider was rented for a few weeks by a Spanish royal Contessa and her family and entourage for a West Coast tour. The cost of each run or journey is customized, depending on the route, number of days or hours, and number of clients. Minimum run: Three hours.
A common sample reservation is to make a round-trip one-night weekend between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where the Machados have discounted hotel room arrangements with certain resorts and casinos. Such an overnight round trip for a group of 40 would cost about $10,000 to $12,000 for the entire run. A five-hour trip in Southern California would cost about $5,000 to $6,000. The Midnight Rider also is available for excursions nationwide; however that carries a minimum fee of $30,000 since the limo and its staff of five have to drive several days just to pick up the clients.
Each route is planned in advance, often with a preliminary “scout run” in a car to evaluate parking/turning areas and potential obstacles to maneuvering at destinations. Even before the Midnight Rider can pull out of its garage, the staff must follow a 37-point checklist of maintenance, operational, and service procedures.
All aboard amenities
In each of the three lounges, sound systems are designed to stay “local,” so clients in each lounge can enjoy different types of music. Among the three lounges, a phone system enables riders to call each other and “down to the bar” to order drinks.
Midnight Rider only carries top-shelf liquor, and yes, it is an open bar all the time for all clients. The refrigerators and microwave ovens in the service vestibule off the bar and hidden from clients can accommodate multiple hors d’oeuvres and light meals. For one client group, the Midnight Rider staff served a record 126 drinks in less than one hour. “I’ve never seen so many people consume so much,” Michael recalls.
The Machados enjoy seeing clients having a good time; most are well-behaved. The Midnight Rider policy is to have any unruly patrons who interfere with the safety of others ejected at the next available stop, where a cab is called to take the patron elsewhere. The fine for someone getting sick and damaging any materials is $1,000 per incident. Every group is given a 15-minute orientation before a run starts, and the inside features red/green lights advising when passengers should be seated because of road conditions. “We can take the scenic route, but it doesn’t matter; they’re not looking out the window,” Pamela adds.
Keeping it classy and fun
Consistent with a classy atmosphere, Midnight Rider does not feature any floor to ceiling entertainment poles, but does have one solid brass “half-pole” that extends from a counter to the ceiling for support. High-end corporate clients do not want entertainment poles, Pamela says, but that doesn’t stop some precocious patrons from jumping onto the counter and swinging around the pole. “Some people get crazy and carried away,” she says, “but to watch people have so much fun is why we built it.”
Michael says most first-timers are about as excited as children, running around and exploring the whole insides. “They like to get on the phone and talk to the engineer and call the bartender for drinks,” he says.
A common thrill for passengers is to stand head-up in the windowed roof observation area as the limo barrels toward a bridge overpass; the oncoming illusion provides the sensation of an impending collision before the Midnight Rider safely zooms inches beneath the bridge. “It looks like the top of the truck is going to hit the bridge and everyone screams,” Pamela says.
A crew, not just a chauffeur
Mike and Pam Machado still think of it as their baby; both insist on staffing each client run, with Mike driving and Pamela serving as onboard hostess. In fact, it takes a total of five people to operate the Midnight Rider with an average payroll cost of about $1,000 per day. In addition to Mike and Pamela, the semi staff includes a navigation, sound, and DJ “engineer” who sits at a control console in the tractor cab where there is typically a bed chamber; a bartender; and a server, who can continuously serve drinks to all three lounges for those passengers who don’t want to belly up to the bar. Each lounge has an order phone to call up a drink or request a tune. The engineer in the front cab keeps tabs on all activity via security cams; operates the three sound systems (one for each lounge); monitors the satellite TV; and takes requests for music and DVDs to be viewed on flat-screen TVs. The isolated surround-sound in each lounge doesn’t “bleed” thanks to strategically placed speakers and sub-woofers.
A labor of love
Michael Machado and his team built The Midnight Rider in phases over seven years, from 1997 to 2003. Much of that time was spent in trial-and-error, making sure each detail was perfected and every regulatory rule obeyed. That meant taking apart sections of the tractor-trailer, only to start over again to get it right. It also had to pass multiple inspections from a nagging, alphabet-soupy polyglot of regulatory agencies at every level: NTSB, CPUC, CHP, CDOT, and the state Dept. of Health. Michael recalls some agencies sending multiple inspectors at different times who had different rules — such as for windows — that at times contradicted each other. What’s more, Warren Buffett’s company was the only one that would insure Midnight Rider at the time it was ready to hit the road.
“We were not prepared for what was involved in the building and licensing of it,” Pamela says. “Nothing like this existed before. When you’re building something as a prototype, there are no plans for it.”
The Midnight Rider cost about $2.5 million to build, since it is almost completely customized and upfitted with top quality parts, accessories and materials. It took about four years to recoup those costs, paying for itself by 2009. The Machados — who also run several other businesses, including a construction company, heavy equipment and truck leasing company, and multiple real estate ventures. — estimate it is worth about $5 million.
Exposure invites opportunity
The Machados have not actively marketed or advertised Midnight Rider, since they have fielded consistent calls based on word-of-mouth and free media exposure. By virtue of its size and singularity, the Midnight Rider already has attracted global media attention, with exposure on the Fox Network, Discovery Channel, and HG Theater’s World’s Most Expensive Rides.
They expect more business the longer Midnight Rider runs, fueling discussions and tentative plans to build four more in coming years, each with a distinct theme, such as “Ghost Rider.” Now that they have developed specific plans to build one, it should not take as long as the trial-and-error seven years needed to build Midnight Rider.
Midnight Rider is available for affiliate relationships with chauffeured transportation companies worldwide interested in “farming out” the corporate or group limo party of a lifetime. East Coast clients have a big interest in Midnight Rider. “Sometimes it’s hard to get our vision across to some people because they’ve never seen it or understood what it is,” Pamela says.
STATS & FACTS:
• Location: Anza, Calif.
• Owners: Michael Machado, president/manufacturer; Pamela Machado, executive vice president
• Construction start: March 14, 1997
• Completed: June 15, 2003
• Length: 70 feet
• Width: 8.5 feet
• Height: 13.8 feet
• GVW: 50,560 lbs.
• Travel range: 600 miles; 12 continuous hours @ capacity
• Crew: 5
• Passenger capacity: 40
• Truck-Tractor: 379 Peterbilt w/ driver cab and communication center
• Engine: 895 cubic-inch Cummins
• Horsepower: 435
• Fuel capacity: 300 gallons
• Average refueling cost: $696
• Most expensive “limo” run: $45,000
• Cost to build: $2.5 million
• Website: www.themidnightrider.com
• Phone: (951) 763-4790
• Email: [email protected]
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