That burning question is front and center at the upcoming LCT Technology Summit.
In the early 'Eighties, while most of the country was just awakening to the use of limousines, New York was already home to thousands of stretch limousines. As regional representative for a Midwest limousine builder, John Gore knew what he would do as a coachbuilder... open a facility to manufacture top quality limousines as well as provide service in the fast growing New York area.
"My perception was that no one in New York at that time was really going to the extent that my company was to build precision limousines," says Gore. "I knew that if my company didn't commit itself in New York by opening a service facility, then someone else would."
In 1984, finding his company reluctant to expand eastward, Gore joined with Martin Averbuch to form Southampton Coachworks. Located in the New York suburb of Farming-dale, Southampton set out to be the area's foremost builder of quality limousines.
Gore and Averbuch started by recruiting some of the most experienced coach-building talent in the industry. As foreman, Southampton lured Bill Gravitt who had previously worked for Executive Coachbuilders and DaBryan Coach. With Gravitt's help, Southampton was able to select other experienced limousine craftsmen. In all, Southampton attracted 18 people with previous limousine manufacturing experience to form the core of the company's production staff.
"The quality of our people is unique in the industry. They are just fantastic," says Gore. In addition to Gravitt, Southampton's key production people include Jeff Hampton in the wood- shop, electrical supervisor Mark Smith, and Peter Bass in interiors. Company co-founder Martin Averbuch is also involved in Southampton's design and production process.
"I consider our company to be a leader in the industry in terms of production," says Gore. "Our entire operation is completely computer- controlled. The computer controls our parts inventory and manages the flow of production. If you purchase a car from us, you're going to get it on schedule."
In a few short years, Southampton has become a major factor in the New York market. With a monthly production of some 20 units, Gore believes that his company is, in fact, New York's leading coachbuilder.
"Leadership in the limousine business means building vehicles with integrity," says Gore, "and then you have to treat the customer properly. We have daily contact with our customers here. If I build a limousine, I have a responsibility to service it. A few other companies in the industry are doing that, but we are really set ting the standard here in New York."
Jim Powers, owner of All Star Limousine Service, Ltd. in Lindenhurst, NY, was one of Southampton's first customers when the company opened in 1984. "I think I bought the third limousine off the production line," he says. Powers has since bought a total of 12 limousines from Southampton.
"I've had cars from other companies," says Powers, "and I think Southampton builds one of the best cars in the business. They use quality parts and John Gore is the kind of guy who will take you in the factory and show you how they build the cars."
"Southampton limousines are not cheap," continues Powers, "but they're competitively priced, and they hold their value. The lines on the sides of some makes of limousines are crooked, and sometimes you see a gap around the door that you can stick your finger in. Southampton cars are straight as an arrow and there is no gap around the doors at all. And their soundproofing is unbelievable. The cars are so quiet that a lot of my customers think the limousines were built by Lincoln."
Powers is also impressed by the engineering of Southampton electrical systems. "A lot of other cars are electrical nightmares," he says. "With Southampton, there are separate circuits for the front and rear of the car. If you have a problem, you can easily tell whether it's in the con version part of the car or in Lincoln's original circuit."
Powers also likes the fact that chauffeurs have control over all electrical accessories in a Southampton limousine. "If you do a prom," he says, "the chauffeur can just disconnect the bar."
Southampton's 60-inch Luxury Series conversion is the company's biggest seller. The fully-equipped limousine has become a popular high-end limousine among New York livery operators. "We must be building the right product," says Gore, "since we sell 90 percent of them right here in our back yard."
The model lineup also includes a 60-inch single-cut limousine, a 70-inch double-cut conversion, and a 66-inch long-door model. Southampton also manufactures a moderately priced 60-inch Limited model which "isn't really a typical people-mover," according to Gore since it is equipped with a bar and TV.
With the corporate-minded New York area in mind, Southampton offers a 44-inch formal limousine with a single rear bench seat. Also geared for the corporate traveler is a modified Lincoln Town Car featuring interior and exterior enhancements. "We have a joint venture with E&G Classics to build the Town Car," explains Gore. "They are making fiberglass parts, and we equip the car with rear reading lights, an extended passenger door, and a squared-off roof for additional headroom.
"From front to back, the quality of our cars is absolutely uncompromising," says Gore. "There just isn't any thing more we can do to our cars structurally. As far as woodwork, electrical, and upholstery are concerned...it's top shelf the whole way." The conversion portion of Southampton limousines are warranted for 100,000 miles.
Standard equipment includes oversize tires, heavy-duty Borg Warner springs, dual batteries, and vinyl- insulated electrical connectors. Wiring harnesses are manufactured to aircraft specifications and are tested prior to installation. "If we wanted to," maintains Gore, "we could spec our cars with electrical components costing half as much, but we simply don't cut any corners." says Gore.
Nestled in every Southampton interior is a remote control Sony TV that electrically swivels out of the way when not in use. "We've been doing that for the past two years and it's one idea that I can really hang my hat on," says Gore.
Among other standard features are an overhead control panel for passengers and a complete control panel allowing a chauffeur to control every electrical function in the car.
The rear-facing bench seat is original equipment from Lincoln. "Some companies use an unsparing rear- facing seat,"-says Gore, "but ours is a high-tech design that Lincoln spent a fortune developing. It really makes a tremendous difference."
Sunroofs are standard on all Southampton models except the people mover. "We are one of the few coachbuilders using Webasto sunroofs," says Gore. "Webasto sun roofs are super quiet and super thin. They give passengers extra headroom."
Many of Southampton's standard features are designed with reliability and safety in mind. "Downtime is minimal for our customers," Gore maintains. "That not only saves money for an operator but a reliable limousine retains its resale value. Trade-in values are great on Southampton limousines. In fact, you can't really find a used Southampton for sale in New York because there is such tremendous demand for them."
Safety is another area where Southampton sees itself as an industry leader. Gore has long been a sup porter of standards governing the safety and quality of limousines.
"We've worked with numerous departments of transportation, including those in New York and New England, concerning what a car needs in order to be safe. They have come out to our facility to study the stretching process and we welcome other government agencies to do the same. The industry needs guidelines in the areas of wiring, impact beams, seatbelts, and construction materials."
Gore feels that such standards would lead to safer vehicles as well as, perhaps, lower insurance rates for operators. Gore believes that a well-built limousine actually provides more protection for passengers than a normal passenger car. "In our limousines," he says, "all of the metal we use in the mid-section of the car is a higher gauge than Ford's original equipment.
"We even take the crystal out of the car and put plastic glasses in special racks so they can't go flying. There have been numerous articles and TV stories done about our involvement with safety," says Gore.
Southampton supports customers by providing product liability insurance coverage. "It costs us $700 per car...and we've never been the tar get of a product liability suit...but it's something that every limousine builder should carry and every buyer should look for," emphasizes Gore.
While becoming a strong presence in the New York area, Southampton has also begun to build a dealer network in other parts of the country. Dealers have recently been appointed in Boston, southern New Jersey, North Carolina, and Florida. Continued expansion is planned for other areas in the East, South, and Midwest.
"The limousine industry is maturing in a lot of ways," believes Gore. "Limousine operators are becoming more knowledgeable and that has made the coach-building business more competitive. Until we have regulations concerning limousine construction and safety, buyers have to do their best to keep coach- builders honest. We listen to our customers and respond to them. That's why I feel Southampton is a leader in the limousine industry."
That burning question is front and center at the upcoming LCT Technology Summit.
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