The Greater Orlando Limousine Association held a festive meeting to close out the year.
The Empire Coach/Tortora Limousine story began in 1949 when Tony Tortora opened a small shop specializing in automobile body work and upholstery. Gradually, the company accepted a growing number of orders for custom vehicles which included a Corvette-shaped Eldorado, Woody Allen’s Nova limousine in the movie Broadway Danny Rose, vintage Packard limousine conversions, and enough other exotic projects that Tony added the equipment to fabricate all of the custom metal parts that were needed. “We learned how to make any automobile feature that a customer could want,” he remembers.
Tony’s Brooklyn facility also became the primary service facility for limousine dealers and operators in the New York area. Working on limousines from all the major coachbuilders in the country, it seemed that many of the cars had the same design problems. In addition to noticing typical problems on the cars, Tony, and his son Al, also noted which features were well designed and suited for livery operations. When they decided to enter the limousine market five years ago, they adapted all of the most successful ideas into their cars and began to develop a strong following which has since spread through many of the eastern states.
Now, Empire Coach builds nearly one hundred cars a year in addition to remaining a busy facility for limousine servicing. They handle all aspects of production except balancing driveshafts. “We’re continually making changes,” says Tony. “We get a lot of ideas from operators, and we’re always trying new features, but we won’t let anything new out until we’re sure it’s an improvement. It takes a lot of doing,” he continues, “but we have one of the best cars on the road today.”
Empire limousines, explains Marsha Tortora who handles marketing, are available in Lincoln or Cadillac rear wheel drive versions and have a standard stretch length of 46 inches. Marsha expects a significant increase in Lincolns in ’85 as “people who never would have considered Lincolns a few years ago have begun switching over from Cadillacs. The Lincoln is a bigger car and has a chassis that builds out into a smoother riding limousine. We generally build Lincolns for our stock cars,” she says. “We even have Cadillac dealers calling for Lincolns,” adds Al.
“Ninety-five percent of our customers are livery operators who want a stylish limousine with a lot of interior features,” according to Marsha, “so our standard models include a bar, color television, stereo, ice bucket, wine rack, glass partition, reading lights, tinted windows, and crystal glassware. When people call, they generally want a loaded car. They say ‘Do you have a blue limousine, and does it have this and this…’ They sometimes don’t even ask whether it’s a Lincoln or a Cadillac. They usually want to know what kind of bar it has, and the other options they usually want are a video cassette recorder and a sunroof.” “Operators have gotten past the desire for the cheapest possible car,” Al says. “They know that the market demands most of the interior accessories,” Marsha adds that “Only about one call out of a thousand wants a stripped car.”
All of the Lincolns and Cadillacs from Empire include the factory towing package, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, and cruise control. The bar is the main difference between the models Empire offers. Corner bars will be standard in ’85, with both wood and chrome finishes available. Empire also featured a custom mirrored bar at the ’84 Limousine & Chauffeur Show which has one of the most elegant finishes in this year’s market.
Tony, Marsha, and Al each contribute to the development of new appointments, such as the mirrored bar with its attractive recessed lighting, and they feel strongly about the need to stay personally involved with their product. This is one reason that the company plans to limit growth. “You can’t double production without losing something,” says Al. “We are proud of our cars and of how well made they are,” continues Marsha. “That’s why we only take our own cars in trade. Customers appreciate the way we stand behind our limousines.”
The direct involvement of the owners also extends to marketing. “We don’t use dealers or distributors,” Marsha says, “because we can supply our market effectively from our factory and avoid having to sell at marked up prices.” Al adds that “We once sold a number of cars to a dealer who marked them up to $52,000 and someone who bought one of those cars came to us wondering why he didn’t have all of the features that should be on a $52,000 limousine. Our cars normally sell for less than $40,000, and if someone pays us $52,000, they are definitely going to get everything.” “We also like having personal relationships with our customers,” says Marsha, “This is one reason that we have a lot of repeat and referral business. Satisfied customers are our best form of advertising. 90% of our business is in the tri-state area so many of our customers come here to see our factory and personally order their limousine. We also work with local associations like the Nassau Suffolk Limousine Association.
With the help of several shop foremen who have been personally trained by Tony and Al over the past few years, Empire has achieved a consistently high level of production quality. Among the design features are all-steel side and floor sections, integral drains in the side panels, and side windows which can be replaced “by anyone in the business,” without the need for dismantling the car. “Our partition is our partition is only 2¼ inches wide which is narrower than everyone else,” according to Tony. “This makes the interior more spacious. We use a 2-arm system to operate the partition, just like in the rear gate of a station wagon. It costs us twice as much but it is narrow and pushes the glass without any rattle. We also have a strap holding the driveshaft in place because if that should drop down, it could flip a car over. The strap should be a law.”
Mel Byalick, owner of Esq. Limousine in New York, was one of Empire’s first limousine buyers and he has bought a couple more limousines from the company every year since his first purchase. “Mel suggested we build an ice chest into the console that would be large enough to hold a bottle of wine or champagne,” says Marsha. “It’s very satisfying for us,” she continues, “to build limousines that have the features that people really want.” For one of their customers, a restaurateur, the features on a fifty-four inch stretch-limousine included a mirrored headliner and side wall which were built to reflect back to a plush bed on the floor of the passenger compartment. “He loves that car,” says Al, “and he is adding another garage to his house to keep it in.” Another Empire customer, who planned to drive his limousine himself, had some special requirements due to his 6 foot-six-inch height and his weight of about six-hundred pounds. To accommodate him comfortably in the driver’s seat, the company cut away a portion of the seat and made a few other custom modifications to a vehicle which eventually became well-suited to the buyer’s special needs. “Comfort in the front of a limousine is as important as elegance in the passenger area,” emphasizes Marsha.
Sensing a market for a luxury bus, Empire is thinking about opening a new production facility in ’85 to develop a truck-based mini-bus with many of the appointments that have been accepted by limousine passengers. The company would appreciate input from limousine operators who are familiar with this type of vehicle. Using such comments, well as their own evaluations of current bus models, Al and Tony expect to combine the best possible design features in the body and furnishings of their new vehicle…Just like they have always done with their limousines.
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