Two corporate travel executives explain how providers can adjust to shifting demands and preferences.
If limousine industry time could be divided between B.C. and A.D. eras, 1983 would be Year 0 A.D. for the chauffeured transportation industry.
But industry time didn’t just start with LCT. There was a vast unorganized, informal, active limousine industry long before there was LCT. What was the industry like before the first trade magazine, Limousine & Chauffeur, published in 1983, and the first trade association, the National Limousine Association, formed in 1985?
In the Beginning
Limousines made their debut in the 1700s. The earliest engine-powered Cadillac limousines began selling in 1914 and were used by the wealthy and elite who purchased them. A 1928 Cadillac Brougham sold for $5,000; they were extremely popular in Europe and used by the Queen of England for travel around London. By 1940, movie studios were buying them to transport movie stars. Hotels operated them to shuttle guests to and from airports. Even the President of the United States got one in 1939. According to Carey International’s website, they launched the first limousine service in the U.S. in 1921 when J.P. Carey opened for business.
During this decade of change, modern limousine services opened up around the globe, renting vehicles to the general public. One of the very first such companies was Dav El, founded in Boston by David Klein in 1966, says Scott Solombrino, current CEO of Dav El.
The company is now one of the largest privately held chauffeured transportation networks in the world, according to Dav El‘s website. Klein would be the “first” at many things. He was the very first limousine operator in New York to install cellular phones in his cars. He ordered 100 units from Motorola before cellular service was even fully launched. He opened offices in Los Angeles, setting up camp at The Beverly Hills Hotel and living there. Next, he opened an office in Washington, D.C.
While Klein got things going in Boston, Howard Risner became the man to know in Chicago. Risner started driving limousines in 1943. “Fabulous Howard,” as he was called, had a limousine that featured a television, a bar, air-conditioning (considered an extreme luxury) and even a telephone system. The telephone system required calling a mobile operator to connect you to your party, while monitoring the entire phone call and then disconnecting the radio signal at the end of the call. Risner moved west to California where the movie stars were. With a price of $10 an hour, movie studios no longer needed to buy their own limousines when they could hire Risner or other limousine services. By the 1960s, he was providing service to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. According to a Chicago Daily News story in 1969, Risner’s limousine was a familiar sight at the homes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Burt Lancaster before he left the West Coast to return to Chicago for good.
Operators such as Klein and Risner began thinking out of the box about how to grow their businesses. Klein focused on expanding with a quality ride, and together with Carlos Allen, built the first commercial Lincoln limousine complete with “suicide doors” (doors that open backwards, like on the old Lincoln Continentals) for use in the Dav El fleet. He pursued and won the business of Air France and British Airways ferrying their first-class passengers between the airport and home.
As more and more limousine services were launched, the industry as we know it today was born. Some were planned and crafted to meet certain markets and some were quite by accident. Ishi Limousine Service of San Francisco is one of the oldest licensed limousine companies in California. Holding permit number 315, and starting in 1972, the company carved a niche market serving Japanese tourists, a focus still today.
California issues permits in numerical sequence, and according to the Public Utilities Commission, the most recently issued permit is 30000. This shows just how many operators have come and gone since the 1970s. Greyhound was the first licensed carrier and holds permit number 001.
Harold Berkman operated a messenger service called Music Express that transported documents for entertainment industry executives. One day, he was asked to put on a suit and go pick up an arriving passenger at LAX. What was considered a favor caused Music Express to change direction forever and become one of the nation’s first large affiliate networks. Meanwhile, Stardust Limousine in Los Angeles was one of the first services to truly market to ordinary citizens. It used license plate frames advertising its name and phone number around personalized license plates that contained some variation of Stardust.
The proliferation of limousine services began drawing the ire of airport officials. Logan Airport in Boston was one of the first to try to regulate limousines. The Massachusetts Limousine Owners Association was born strictly to battle airport authorities and would later become a model for the future National Limousine Association.
As limousines caught on, “limousine shows” began convening around the world, beginning in Europe. The shows in London and France were much different than the trade shows we know. These events were strictly to show off limousines to the general public. The public would pay a fee to get into the show, very similar to a car show of today. They would be able to sit in the back and take photos and ogle the cars of the rich and famous. By the late 1970s, the shows had spread to Las Vegas and Palm Springs, becoming annual events.
By the time the 80’s arrived, the limousine industry was a solid niche. Operating a limousine service was a thriving business opportunity. Those car shows became bigger and bigger as the world craved limousines. The largest of such shows took place in London and Paris and were attended by LCT’s president and CEO, Ty Bobit, along with Solombrino. This may have inspired Ty Bobit to launch the first industry trade show in Atlantic City, N.J. in 1984. Donald Trump showed off his new custom built limousine. Carey Limousine, as it was known, began expanding services by inviting operators to become franchisees in various cities to serve the needs of their clients in any market. Solombrino said they were the second to do so after Dav El. Dav El would later scrap the franchise program but continue to develop an affiliate network.
Dean Schuler, a longtime New Orleans operator and Carey franchisee, began driving limousines in 1977, alternating his driving services in Northern California and New Orleans before finally settling down in the early 1990s in New Orleans. In the mid-1980s, Schuler partnered up with then LCT Publisher Maury Sutton to serve as a writer for Limousine & Chauffeur Magazine. Schuler was a statistics man who thrived on numbers and began pioneering professional standards. He launched the New Orleans Livery Association and later served as a member of the board of the NLA.
Charlie Horky started Charlie’s Limousine Service in 1980 with a single car at the age of 19. What would later become known as CLS Transportation grew over the next decade to include more than 500 vehicles. But that’s according to who you ask. It was widely rumored that Horky counted the car of every affiliate as “his” cars. Either way, he had 500 cars across America moving people and had locked up many hotels, movie studios and corporate accounts as his clients with contracts between them. After many years as a Los Angeles-based operator, Horky now runs CLS Las Vegas, one of the major chauffeured transportation providers in that region.
There were a total of three industry publications in the 1980s, including Limousine & Chauffeur Magazine which later became Limousine & Chauffeured Transportation and now Limousine Charter & Tour. The others were The Limousine Journal and Limousine Legend. The Limousine Journal, a competing industry magazine was launched in May 1989. Despite the blessing and well wishes of then NLA president, Wayne Smith, the magazine came and went. Limousine Legend was another industry trade magazine that existed in the 1980s but failed to last. Both magazines spurred LCT to expand its coverage and influence the industry in a positive manner. Thirty years later, LCT remains as the leading authority on industry topics.
NLA Puts Industry on Its Way
With an expanding industry and increased regulations, Bobit and Solombrino, along with five other operators from around the country, founded the NLA with Chris Portugal serving as the first president of the new association. In a chance meeting at the limo show in Atlantic City, Bobit and Solombrino met an attorney, Jeffrey Burger. Burger would be instrumental in setting up the legal foundation and protocols of the NLA.
Limousine shows as we knew them came together for the last time in 1989 as a public event in Palm Springs with 2,000 attendees, according to an article in Limousine Legend. None of the competing magazines survived. Solombrino attributes this to the vision of Ty Bobit. “Ty was way ahead of his time. He made sure the industry grew through trade shows, connecting coachbuilders with buyers. Together, with Ty‘s vision and LCT Magazine, the face of the industry became what it is today.”
SIDEBAR: The History of The Limousine
The world limousine comes from the word Limoges. This is an area in France where the chauffeured vehicle was introduced sometime in the 1700s and intended for the wealthy. The distinction in these vehicles, as it is today, is that the driver sits in an area separated from the passengers.
Drivers became known as chauffeurs in the 1800s. A chauffeur was responsible for managing fine horses and steam engines. The first engine powered limousine was developed in 1902. The chauffeur sat in an open-air compartment under a covering that was shaped similar to the oversized clothing with hoods that shepherds of Limoges wore while tending sheep in inclement weather.
In 1928, the first stretch limousine was created in Arkansas by Armbruster (later known as Armbruster/Stageway) featuring a Cadillac chassis known as the Brougham 3591. The retail sales price was $5,000. Armbruster/Stageway was eventually bought out by Federal Coach, which sold its branded vehicle lines to other companies in 2009 and 2010.
In the 1930s, limousines were commonly used to transport guests of hotels to and from the airport as well as sightseeing tours. Soon after, the movie industry began using limousines to carry movie actors and actresses.
By the 1940s, the six-door limousine was created for the funeral industry and also built on Cadillac chassis. By this time limousines had caught on. The limousine became known as the most expensive form of auto transportation and was associated with wealth and power.
By the 1980s, limousines entered a resurgent American middle class market as limousine services began renting out stretches to people for special events, such as weddings, proms, and bachelor(ette) parties. Meanwhile, corporate executives riding the wave of wealth creation began using livery vehicles as a way to stay productive while traveling. Coachbuilders popped up everywhere.
By 1987, there were as many as 60 limousine coachbuilders in the U.S. By 2000, limousines became a practical method to travel in comfort and style while sipping cocktails during the night. Drunken driving laws became stiffer with huge fines and jail time. Limos offered a safe alternative for the well-heeled clients who didn’t want to ride in a taxi.
Related Topics: anniversaries, Carey International, Charlie Horky, Dav El Chauffeured Transportation, David Klein, Dean Schuler, Harold Berkman, history of the limo industry, LCT Magazine, Music Express, National Limousine Association, Scott Solombrino, Ty Bobit
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