Sport utility vehicles justify their workhorse reputation in a survey conducted by iseecars.com.
“I want to show you something,” says Vini Bergeman, Co-owner of Ultra Limousine Corporation of La Palma, CA, motioning to a corner of his manufacturing facility where workers tested a new frame for a limousine seat which folds out into a double-bed. This will replace the rear seat and it’s made so the bed will slide out toward the front of the car,” he says while demonstrating how the design works. “We’ll probably be installing these by the time this magazine comes out.”
In the next building, workers welded together the side panels on a thirty-five foot Lincoln limousine. While most limousines are stretched five or six feet, this attention-getter was stretched seventeen feet. The big Lincoln will not only include a bed, but also a private bedroom riding on tandem rear wheels between the passenger compartment and the trunk.
Ultra’s Marketing Director Craig Hoelzel sees the 35-footer as an opportunity for limousine operators to get free publicity. “Limousine operators are constantly attempting to offer what their competitor cannot,” he says. “We are now building our sixth of these long cars and we have orders for four more from individual operators. Not only can they offer something unusual, they are constantly being photographed for newspapers and magazines.
“We just delivered another 35-footer to Detroit,” he continues. “For $125,000, a livery company can get a tremendous amount of exposure and that’s what the limousine business is all about.”
When Ultra delivered a sleek black Mercedes-Benz limousine to Sylvester Stallone last year, a car which appeared in Rocky IV, the vehicle gained national media attention for the La Palma, CA company which was already known across the country for building the “World’s Longest Limousine,” a staggering 50-foot Cadillac with ten wheels, a 12-foot swimming pool, a rumble seat, and a gull-winged door. “We want to be known for our innovative designs,” says Hoelzel, “like the car we had at the Las Vegas Show with the T-top and convertible soft-top. With so many of the cars from other coachbuilders looking the same, there was really no other car like ours in the Show.”
Ultra began building Cadillac, Lincoln, and Mercedes-Benz limousines in an era when few limousines were stretched more than forty or fifty inches. Most limousines at the time had center consoles and seated five passengers. Vini Bergeman, and partner Kraig Kavanagh, had been building exotic cars for Hollywood studios and celebrities, including a few genuinely extravagant limousines. After 14 years in the custom car business, it was only natural that their limousines were like no others in the business. Ultra introduced a 63-inch stretch-limousine with dual side consoles and seating for six passengers on full-size bench seats. This car established the company as a builder of livery vehicles, and also marked the beginning of the industry’s move toward longer limousines and innovative interiors.
The livery industry responded strongly to Ultra’s 63-inch limousine, causing Bergeman and Kavanagh to expand the company’s limousine production and marketing capabilities. Some people, however, greeted the introduction of Ultra’s longer limousines with reticence. “In the early ’Eighties when we were struggling to build our first 63-inch stretches,” says Kavanagh, “every manufacturer, and I mean every one, scoffed and publicly stated that limousines could not function with a sixty-three inch conversion. Now every manufacturer is building longer limousines.”
Three years later, Ultra is still building the 63-inch stretch-length, as well as a 73-inch wheelbase extension in which 10 additional inches are built into the passenger doors. “The service industry likes that big door,” says Hoelzel, “because clients can get in and out real easy. Operator acceptance of the long doors at the trade shows was overwhelming and we are now building an extended door on the curb side of our 63-inch model.
“I read in your magazine awhile back,” he continues, “where everyone was real critical of longer stretch-lengths, saying that they were unsafe. Now, the competition is starting to creep up the ladder, going to 52- and 60-inch cars. The difference between us and the competition is now inches instead of feet. Now that everyone in the industry has converted to longer stretches, who do you think has the most experience and expertise in this field? It’s not the people who have been building limousines for 50 years...It’s us, the guys who were struggling with the original large design in the early ’Eighties. The tide has turned. One benefit of our background in building longer cars is a positive effect on the resale value of an Ultra. The reason for this is elementary — our ’83 models are equivalent to the competitors’ ’86 models in size and design.
“We want to be known as innovators,” he continues. “We’re continually researching the industry and tooling up to build the best car for the livery operator. 80% of our buyers are livery operators and we want to build a car that gives them a competitive edge.”
Hoelzel believes that it has taken the past few years for the company to prove itself to the limousine industry. While it has never been hard for Ultra to attract buyers wanting an eye-catching car, other buyers have waited for the company to establish a reputation.
“I know that, as a livery operator, I was very cautious about Ultra,” he says. “I think that some of our clientele also wanted to see a performance record. They wanted to see that the company was going to be around for awhile. People were particularly hesitant because Ultra limousines were obviously unique. I think we have been able to combine innovation with quality.” Ultra has two engineers responsible for quality control, and the company backs its limousines with a five-year warranty.
One aspect of Ultra’s customer service program is an organization called Team Ultra which serves as a channel of communication between buyers and the company. Team Ultra has a membership of some sixty owners in Southern California which holds informal meetings to get marketing and product information from Hoelzel, develop farm-out relationships, discuss common operating problems, and socialize.
“We have formed a tight-knit group,” says Hoelzel. “Even though they are competitors, they are still all Ultra owners. When you own an Ultra, you try to farm to another Ultra because your clients are used to two feet of added legroom.” Team Ultra’s membership directory includes the name and phone number of each of the members, along with a complete description of each car so that a specific type of vehicle can be easily located.
One of the services provided for Team Ultra members is an advertising support program. Ultra buyers are given color brochures imprinted with their company name, as well as ready-to-use magazine ads, color photographs from which to make color separations, and Ultra brochures for use in direct mail advertising. A co-op program has also been created to subsidize some portions of an operator’s advertising costs.
In addition to their long limousines, Ultra plans to produce two smaller corporate models in ’86. “Corporations are finding that limousines are very cost-effective for transporting their executives, as well as for entertaining clients,” says Hoelzel. The company has already built a number of corporate limousines, some of which have been designed to function as mini-offices. Ultra’s corporate models will have all of the usual interior amenities, according to Hoelzel, but will have a more conservative appearance. “They want the amenities and the comfort, but not all the flash,” he explains Ultra’s thirty-three inch and forty inch corporate models will both feature two full bench seats for six passenger seating.
Another growing product line is the North Forty pick-up truck which gives new meaning to the phrase “urban cowboy.” The passenger compartment in this crew cab pickup is stretched and the interior is appointed with all the trappings of an Ultra limousine.
“We recently placed an advertisement in Western Horseman magazine displaying this creation.” says Hoelzel, “The editor called us after the third day of publication to say that they had never seen as many inquiries as our ad produced. That shows how innovative our vehicles are. We have probably built eight of those trucks in the past few months,” he concludes. Designed for those wanting a first-class ride in truck territory, Ultra hopes to build at least that many again in ’86.
In the past, most Ultra limousines have been sold through the company’s headquarters in Southern California. As the company has grown, however, exclusive distributorships have been set up in Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Northern California Additional distributorships are pending in Dallas and New Orleans. Each distributor is required to maintain the same price levels as every other U.S. dealer. They also operate a service facility, with a parts inventory, or are located near an approved service facility. In either case, service technicians are instructed in the construction and repair of Ultra limousines.
“No matter how well you build a limousine,” says Hoelzel, “a good service program is essential. With a livery car, mechanical items such as the divider and moon roof get much more use than the accessories in a passenger car, and some problems can occur no matter how well you build and inspect each car. Our engineers have given special attention to developing the most reliable electrical system possible. One of the functions of the Team Ultra meetings is to help owners get the service they need. We let them know, for example, when the best times are to come in for routine maintenance like getting new shocks or having a light installed.”
Ultra’s success over the past few years has largely resulted from the willingness of partners Bergeman and Kavanagh to anticipate trends in the livery industry, and to build longer and roomier limousines in the face of criticism from competitors. Ultra’s long and lavish cars, such as the “World’s Longest Limousine,” have brought major media exposure across the country, and have given the company a reputation within the limousine industry for building innovative vehicles. It is a reputation that Ultra takes seriously and is working hard to protect.
“After years of being known for building strange and impractical limousines,” says Kraig Kavanagh, “we are very proud of what we have introduced to the industry.” Vini Bergeman agrees. “We built the first six-passenger limousine, the first side-console, the first Mercedes-Benz stretch-limousine in the United States, the first gull-wing limousine, and were the only coachbuilder listed in the Guinness Book of Records. We have withstood a lot of criticism from competitors and emerged as leaders in design in this industry. We’re kind of like ‘Rocky’ in the limousine industry wouldn’t you say?”
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