That burning question is front and center at the upcoming LCT Technology Summit.
This coming November will mark Doug Donalson’s eleventh anniversary as a limousine builder. He began building limousines when Executive Coach-builders was founded in Springfield, MO, in 1976. In 1985, Donalson became a founding partner of Corporate Coachworks.
Over the years, Donalson has established an excellent reputation as a craftsman of high quality limousines, and as an innovator in limousine design. Donalson recently reflected on his career as a coach-builder with Limousine & Chauffeur.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How long have you been in the coach-building business, and how did you first get into it?
Doug Donalson: I started in November. 1976 with a man by the name of John Baumgarner who was the original owner of Executive Coach-builders He asked me, and a couple other individuals including Rick Bryant who owns DaBryan Coach now, to build some limousines. None of us had a great deal of background in limousines although I’ve been involved with a lot of fabrication in building airplanes. My Dad was an aircraft engineer and we built experimental aircraft as a hobby.
It didn’t look very complicated to me to build a limousine and, in those days, limousines were very simple. There just wasn’t much to them. There wasn’t even an ice compartment in them at that point. Nor did they have dividers.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How did you meet John Baumgarner?
Donalson: John used to have some limousines repaired at a little body shop I worked at, and I had just barely been in town a month when I met him. He was in a wholesale limousine business at that point. He brought a couple limousines up out of Texas that were called Phaeton Coaches. They were the original stock of a company called Eagle-Allen. Eagle was Eagle Lincoln-Mercury, and Allen was Carlos Allen who now runs Allen Coachworks. They split off... one of them became Phaeton, and Carlos Allen moved to Mexico and started his company.
So we bought a couple of their limousines and, in all honesty, they were so terrible that we had to tear them apart. We told John, “Well, we can build one that’s better than this.” So he bought a couple cars and we started a small garage and built them. We only produced four or five the first year. We also had a very hard time getting rid of them.
Limousine & Chauffeur: In those days, did you have the awareness of craftsmanship that you have now... or was that something that developed?
Donalson: In those days, we were trying to equal the craftsmanship involved in the basic vehicle itself. But as far as the relationship to what it is at this stage now... it’s nowhere close. We were in the learning stage.
There were only about three manufacturers in existence at that time. There was Phaeton, Moloney, and Carlos Allen. Armbruster at that time really wasn’t into any limousine conversions that I am aware of.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Could you order a longer limousine from Moloney or Carlos Allen?
Donalson: No. None of them were over 36 inches. That was a long stretch in its day.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Did Executive come into existence in 1976?
Limousine & Chauffeur: And you moved into a larger production facility?
Donalson: Yes. We moved to a warehouse where we lasted about a year. Then we moved to a better facility where we stayed another year and a half. Then we moved again into a bigger facility.
Limousine & Chauffeur: What were your responsibilities in those early days?
Donalson: I initially started out in charge of construction of the vehicle but, within a year, I was running the shop. I just stayed in that position all the years I was there.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Do you remember your output in those early years?
Donalson: It took us three or four years to get to 12 limousines a month. And then, two years later, we were doubling our production each year.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Twelve a month was a tremendous number for that time, wasn’t it?
Donalson: Yes it was because we might have had three or four of them sitting around trying to get rid of them. It was about 1980 before we got to that number.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Isn’t that because there was really not a demand from the limousine industry at that point.
Donalson: No there wasn’t. There were a lot of the old factory Cadillacs, the ’73, ’74, ’75 and ’76 models, in use at that point.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Could you compete with them in price or were you higher?
Donalson: The first ones we sold for $19,000. But back then the base units were only $9,000. Today they’re $22,000.
Limousine & Chauffeur: So the conversion cost was $10,000 in those days?
Donalson: Yes. Now, the labor alone costs about that. It was considerably cheaper at that point.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Did you use the same basic materials and principles in building those cars that you use now?
Donalson: We sure did. The construction methods are the same but the detail has been improved and there’s some new factors thrown into it. Basically, the first car ever built was constructed almost identically to the late cars. It was really a foolproof thing and it’s never given us any trouble.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Is there a reason that you were building Lincolns?
Donalson: We were building some Lincolns and some Cadillacs. Basically, everybody preferred a Lincoln and, for some reason, that’s all they wanted.
Most people who are doing Cadillacs don’t like Lincolns… and vice versa. The Lincolns really had a good market even at that time. Everybody who wanted a Cadillac was still buying the factory limo. People would go out and buy that for $20,000 when they didn’t want to spend $24,000 for a limo.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Did limousines have partitions in those early days?
Donalson: The first partitions came along in about ’78 — and they started out as a glass sleeve that slid from side to side like the old Cadillacs. Then we went to a motor system that came out of a tailgate of a Ford station wagon.
Then in ’78, I had a customer who wanted to enclose the car, and they only had clear windows at that time, so I went and made a dual divider. I took the same divider and dropped it from side to side and made it so it worked on both sides. At that time it was new and it was years later when it finally became a standard item on cars. It was really almost ’85 when everybody pushed into those.
Limousine & Chauffeur: There was a period when there was a fear of going, much past 50 inches. Now it seems like we’re fearless doesn’t it?
Donalson: There were a lot of companies, at one time, who said it wouldn’t work if cars got bigger than 50 inches. There is a limit... but I’m not quite sure what it is.
One thing, though, is that if someone stretches a car 120 inches, they had better improve the brakes and other details on the car to make it safe. We do a lot of upgrading on our braking, but the truth is that there is only so much you can do. There is a practical limit on a car’s ability to stop.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Do you feel that there are dangerous limousines on the market?
Donalson: Yes. There are some that should not be on the road. I don’t think that they are necessarily built that way purposely. I think that some people who’ve been building them for the last umpteen years just don’t know what’s right or wrong.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Can you tell me what’s wrong with some of the cars?
Donalson: One thing is seatbelts. Some parts of the country already require seatbelts in the car for additional seating, and I think that should be a standard whether the customer uses it or not.
There needs to be good impact resistance built into the center portion of the car. Not a waffle-thing or a light-gauge beam, but a heavy gauge beam to strengthen the factory rear door.
The vehicle’s frame construction needs to be considerably stronger so that if there is an impact, you’re going to reduce the damage to your car, and the possibility of a disaster. Some of these features are tied into the cost of liability insurance. If standards were better, maybe the costs would come down. The other thing is that the wiring in a car needs to be brought up to the highest standards possible.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Would you like to see coachbuilders required to carry product liability insurance?
Donalson: Everybody needs product liability insurance even though I’ve never heard of anyone using it. If there were some standards involved, maybe it would bring the price down for everyone.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How do you judge who is a reputable coachbuilder?
Donalson: I think the only way you can answer that question is not by how long have they been in business or how big they, but by whether their vehicle is built to a reasonable standard. If there was a standard indicating that the frame was built safely, and the wiring was safe, and the braking was modified correctly... it would be nice.
Limousine & Chauffeur: What do you do to the brakes?
Donalson: We do a couple things. One... if your suspension is set up correctly, then your braking will work more efficiently and you won’t have excessive wear. They won’t chatter or bump. Your tire size also relates to the braking ability of a car. We also upgrade the pads in the front of the car. I use a pad made by Robusto which lasts considerably longer than a conventional pad, and they stop better than a semi-metallic pad.
Limousine & Chauffeur: What do you recall about the early ’Eighties as far as limousine development and your own contributions?
Donalson: In the early ’Eighties, I don’t think everybody knew what was wanted in a limousine. There weren’t too many options. Video was just coming into development at that time, and the units were huge. They were 16 inches wide and six or seven inches thick. We were just starting to put those in. Moon roofs and dual partitions had just about become standard.
I was starting to look for some variations... I was interested in other locations for the bar in order to get a little more seating. I didn’t like the idea of being separated by the center bar so we came up with the side bar. The next step was the split bar.
The construction didn’t change a lot on the car. There were some improvements in the methods involved. The sheet metal shapes have changed through the years, and the floorboard designs have changed, but the basic sheet construction really didn’t change much until about ’85.
In ’85 when Corporate Coachworks was started, we began to tie the car together structurally. Up to this point, it was more like a car with a piece added to the center of it. Now the piece in the center became part of the car structurally. We welded it into the car.
We took the partition area of the car, which up until then had been a wood product, and turned it into a steel product which we tied to the car with quarter-inch steel straps. We put a roll bar effect into the roof to provide a little more strength in that area. We went to welding more things and put additional body mounts and cross-members in the car.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Had there been problems with cars not holding together?
Donalson: No, there’d never been problems about them holding together... but there are degrees of holding together. It’s like the Mercedes that’s got 100,000 miles on it and there’s not a squeak or a rattle in it. That is the point we were trying to reach towards. A lot of vehicles are real good the first 30,000 miles, then they have a deterioration.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Are you still close to the manufacturing process?
Donalson: Yes, I work right at the plant.
What should the consumer look for in a limousine?
Limousine & Chauffeur: What should the consumer look for in a limousine?
Donalson: Well, if a car looks real good inside and out, then there’s a good chance that the car is going to be a good vehicle. If you have enough pride to make sure that the paint is right, the interior is installed correctly, and the upholstery is right... chances are that pride is going to carry through.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How did the Wide Body limousine come about?
Donalson: It was something that I had in my head for years and when Corporate Coachworks was started, it was the first car we built. It was originally intended for private buyers, but a lot of them have been sold to livery services. Almost everybody who’s bought our Wide Body for a livery service uses it as a part of their advertising.
We are only producing a limited number, even though it is very popular, because of the labor time it needs. It involves a tremendous amount of hand work, and takes four times as long to construct as our standard limousine.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Did you redesign your vehicles after leaving Executive?
Donalson: We completely redesigned about a third of the way the car is constructed. We redesigned the interior, and not one part of a Corporate Coachworks car resembles an Executive. We redesigned the overhead systems, the seating designs, the console systems, and the wiring system.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How would you describe your philosophy as a coachbuilder?
Donalson: We don’t want to get into the boat where we are building four or five hundred cars a year and find that we are sacrificing quality. We want to continue building a quality car. We don’t want increased production to hurt the quality of our products.
Time for innovation is also important. I want to maintain flexibility in our production program so that we can produce cars to meet customer’s needs. We don’t want to fall into the position of building all of our cars in the same colors… and with all of the same features.
We want to make our cars special for the individuals that own and drive them. That’s what I have always found satisfying during eleven years as a coachbuilder.
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