Vehicles

How The Exotic Custom Stretch Limousine Evolved

Jim Luff
Posted on November 24, 2015
From the early 1900s to today, the exotic stretch limousine underwent many changes, trends, and improvements, but the basic concept remained: A chauffeur separated from a passenger compartment.
From the early 1900s to today, the exotic stretch limousine underwent many changes, trends, and improvements, but the basic concept remained: A chauffeur separated from a passenger compartment.

From the early 1900s to today, the exotic stretch limousine underwent many changes, trends, and improvements, but the basic concept remained: A chauffeur separated from a passenger compartment.

From the early 1900s to today, the exotic stretch limousine underwent many changes, trends, and improvements, but the basic concept remained: A chauffeur separated from a passenger compartment.
From the early 1900s to today, the exotic stretch limousine underwent many changes, trends, and improvements, but the basic concept remained: A chauffeur separated from a passenger compartment.
The word “limousine” was coined in the early 1700s in Limoges, a town in the Limousin region of France. The original limousines were horse- drawn carriages reserved for people of privilege who rode inside a luxurious compartment while their carriage driver braved the elements of the outside, wearing heavy coats known as “limousines” to protect them from the wind and rain.

This set the standard over time for vehicles to have a separate compartment for the passengers and drivers. By 1916, a limousine was defined as “a closed car seating three to five (people) inside with the driver’s seat outside.” That was further defined by a “berline” model where the driver’s seat was fully enclosed, or a “brougham” model with no roof over the driver’s seat, according to the Society of Automobile Engineers.

First Auto Stretched
The first stretched limousine on an automobile chassis came in 1928. The vehicles were first produced by the Armbruster Company in Fort Smith, Ark., as a practical way to transport big bands and their equipment. The Benny Goodman Orchestra and Glen Miller were first purchasers of these new stretches, and other bands soon followed. The original “big cars” were commonly known as “big band buses,” although they were really just a stretched car. This time period also was the start of Hollywood’s Golden Age when big stars like Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino began stepping out onto red carpets from limousines, fueling the desire for more luxury in these vehicles. In the 1930s, limousines started to become popular for taking guests between hotels and airports. First used just by wealthy people, the limousines became common among tour guides to transport groups. The movie industry acquired limos to carry film crews and stage members to movie sets.

By 1940, the large cars were taking well-heeled folks all around as manufacturers such as Packard, Cadillac and Lincoln produced stretch limousines. While “airport stretch coaches” had none of the amenities of the modern limousine, they got the job done and offered extended leg room for three passengers. Later editions had two “jump seats” that faced rearward and increased the passenger capacity to five. Soon, manufacturers and third-party coachbuilders introduced funeral homes to stretches with two or three rows of forward-facing seats. Cadillac’s last factory built limo was made in 1987. Packard and Lincoln exited the stretch limo business in 1939 and 1954, respectively, although Lincoln continued dabbling in the business by offering special order editions known as Lincoln Premier cars sold to the likes of Elvis Presley with an expensive audio system, refrigerator, VHS player and bar. Lincoln also provided stretch limousines for the President beginning in 1939 with its Sunshine Special built for President Roosevelt. The Sunshine Special was built on a 160-inch wheelbase by Brunn Coach in Buffalo, N.Y.

Getting Bigger
By the 1960s and 70s, stretches were well on their way to securing their place in high society among the rich and famous. One of the most well-known stretches of the 60s was the 1961 Lincoln Continental made to serve President John F. Kennedy. Made by Hess and Eisenhart of Cincinnati, the vehicle was stretched 33 inches. In 1974, the first six-door funeral car was introduced to make it easier for families to get in and out. This added an extra row of seats and doors compared to the 1940s version of funeral cars. By the mid 1980s, companies such as Eureka, American Pullman and Maloney were making elegant stretches built on Cadillac chassis, including a five-door 1986 Fleetwood stretched 54 inches that became a standard length of the era.

Go Big or Go Home
By the late 1980s and early 90s, coachbuilders became artists in glitz and glamour by adding color televisions, sound systems, telephones, rope lighting and custom bars. Adding these items inspired coachbuilders to stretch their vehicles even more to accommodate more people and add more amenities to interior coach compartments. These alterations to the manufacturer chassis sometimes drew the ire of the manufacturers and many state motor vehicle departments when the weights of the coaches exceeded mandatory limits. There were concerns about safety and exhaust systems as well. In some cases, coachbuilders went to the extremes of manufacturing an additional load-bearing chassis to support the extra weight of amenities such as hot tubs and helicopter landing pads. None was as famous or large as American Dream, a 60-foot, 16-wheel over-the-top creation of Jay Ohrberg, a show car builder. American Dream debuted in 1985 and featured a swimming pool, hot tub, waterbed, helicopter pad, crystal chandelier, microwave oven, coffee maker and big screen TV in addition to three other TVs to serve up to 50 guests, according to an article in the now defunct Limousine Legend Magazine. The stretch weighed in at 20,000 pounds. Over the years, coachbuilders have not only stretched Lincolns and Caddys, but Bentleys, BMWs, Hondas, Jaguars and even a 10-passenger Volkswagen Beetle in their quest to be flashy.

Along with the glamour of limousines, practical features emerged in the 1980s. Fifth door limousines may be all the rage after a tragic limousine fire in 2013, but they have been around since at least 1989 when Concept Coach Builders introduced a wheelchair accessible limo long before ADA Compliance was a common phrase. Sterling Access claimed in 2007 to be the first to introduce a wheelchair accessible limo, but they were 18 cars too late to claim being the first.

As for the average limousine of the late 1980s, the “ultra-stretch” as they were called, had grown to 113 inches and was referred to as “double cuts,” with price tags of about $50,000. Models produced by NCE (National Coach Engineering) were advertised featuring two color TVs, a VCR, mood lighting and moon roof, and were advertised as capable of seating up to 10 passengers.

This May 1989 edition of the former Limousine Journal shows how coachbuilders constantly experimented with various amenities and unique features on stretch limousines, such as this Lincoln Town Car sedan.
This May 1989 edition of the former Limousine Journal shows how coachbuilders constantly experimented with various amenities and unique features on stretch limousines, such as this Lincoln Town Car sedan.

Today
The stretch limousines now easily can seat 20 passengers on an SUV chassis. They are equipped with refrigerators, audiovisual systems, multiple bars, video game consoles, custom woodwork and laser light shows or fiber optics.

Operators and clients alike are seeking ever-more unique, creative and distinct custom stretches, so as to stand out and be seen in something that gets noticed.

The rental market continues to demand more flash and more glitz as passengers want to command attention during their charter time. Safety regulations have been established by the FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) that prohibit stretching a vehicle more than double the length of the original vehicle without rigorous safety tests.

SIDEBAR: Author’s Tribute to Dean Schuler
Dean Schuler was a fixture in the limousine industry for three decades until his untimely death in 2010. He was a writer for LCT Magazine and the former Limousine Digest. Awarded Operator of the Year by multiple magazines and associations, Schuler also served the NLA board and frequently worked as a speaker, moderator, presenter and contributor in the industry. Known as a legend and pioneer of the industry as we know it, Schuler bequeathed a treasure trove of artifacts to LCT’s contributing editor, Jim Luff. The stories and photos from yesteryears magazines such as Limo Legend and The Limousine Journal were used extensively to document the evolution of the stretch limousine.

Related Topics: Cadillac, Cadillac DeVille, Cadillac Fleetwood, coachbuilders, custom coachbuilders, custom stretches, Dean Schuler, history of the limo industry, Jim Luff, Lincoln, Lincoln Town Car, stretch limousine

Jim Luff Contributing Editor
Comments ( 3 )
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  • Joe Cole

     | about 12 months ago

    Believe it or not, the first large size transportation vehicle, what we now refer to as a limousine, was built in 1928. These "extra large" cars were primarily used to transport famous “big band” leaders, such as Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, needed additional room for their band members and the band equipment. Eventually the cars were built more stylish and comfortable. The band members seemed to enjoy the rides of comfort. This was the initial birth of the stretch limousine. Now it is a standard form of transportation for almost any big event such as a wedding, bachelor party, or business function. Feel free to contact http://www/bronx-limo.com for any questions relating to limousines and auto transportation.

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