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Traditionally, Rolls-Royce limousines have been manufactured almost exclusively by Rolls-Royce Motors, Inc., or by one of a select few authorized coachbuilders. One reason that the Rolls-Royce motor car is not stretched more frequently by American coachbuilders is that it is a costly process which requires extensive hand-crafting, and imported materials. A Rolls-Royce limousine is an elite vehicle... designed for a select market.
Concept Coachbuilders, Ltd. of Milwaukee, WI, has taken a new approach to building Rolls-Royce limousines. Scott Sampson, President of Concept Coach, locates used Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows and Silver Spurs across the country... and converts them into elegant limousines costing approximately half the price of a new Rolls-Royce limousine.
Converting a used vehicle presents some different problems to a coachbuilder than stretching a new vehicle. The engine, first of all, must be reconditioned or replaced. Concept Coach pulls the motor out of every car, performs a complete diagnostic, and makes the necessary repairs. At the request of a customer, the original engine can be replaced with a General Motors powerplant.
Other components, such as springs, batteries, tires, and upholstery may also need to be replaced. At Concept Coach, they also strip a car down to base metal before painting it... a process that is not required of other coachbuilders.
Despite the fact that a Rolls-Royce conversion from Concept Coach may cost twice as much as a Cadillac or Lincoln limousine, the result is a genuinely remarkable automobile... one that is finding its way into the top echelon of the limousine service industry.
Scott Sampson spoke with Limousine & Chauffeur recently about how he developed Concept Coach.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How did you develop the idea of converting used Rolls-Royce automobiles into limousines?
Sampson: Well, I had been buying and selling cars (on speculation.) I purchased a 1982 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit that I sold to someone in Florida, and I took a ’69 Rolls-Royce in on trade. It was suggested that I convert it into a limousine. The idea interested me, so I contacted some people in Florida who thought it was a viable idea.
I decided to subcontract the construction to a restoration company at a reduced rate. When regular rate work would come in... my order would just sit, so I thought about doing it myself. I drove down to Chicago and met with “Pete” Peterson (pioneer coachbuilder and founding partner of Lehmann Peterson.) He agreed that it would be something to pursue.
So, I raised some capital and purchased the restoration company An R&D man from Excalibur was hired, and he brought in some additional people. That was the start of Concept Coachbuilders, Ltd. At the time, we had a 7200 square foot facility and it became a little too small for what we wanted to do so we moved into our present facility, made all of the necessary equipment purchases and building improvements.
It took eight to nine months to make the first prototype of the car. We joined the National Limousine Association. I attended all the seminars, and just listened to find out what I could about the industry. I went to the Las Vegas show and looked at all the cars to see what had been done before. We really did our homework in terms of what was needed for creature comforts and serviceability.
Our idea was to build a quality car, with the amenities that operators want, but without a lot of frills. We wanted to build a car to be functional, but tasteful, and most of all to make a statement. It had to be luxurious and elegant because it was a Rolls-Royce. It’s not just a quality car... it’s a car that was built without cutting corners.
Initially, we didn’t do much work on the engines of the cars. We went over them, but we didn’t really recondition them the way we do now. For the most part, anything that needs rebuilding... is rebuilt, and anything that needs to be replaced... is replaced.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How do you feel your conversions compare with a Rolls-Royce factory limousine?
Sampson: They really are two different cars. We offer the customer the options of overall length, equipment, and colors. Their car is extended forty-two inches, and has standard amenities and colors.
Let’s say you buy a Rolls-Royce Silver Spur for somewhere around $100,000... and we perform the conversion for $55,000. You can now have whatever interior leather colors you choose, whatever exterior paint colors you choose, whatever amenities you choose, and whatever extension length you choose.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Does Rolls-Royce frown on what you’re doing?
Sampson: They have never contacted me to say how they feel one way or another. Originally, I harmlessly advertised... “Simply the finest limousine in the world.” They felt there was a trademark infringement because their ads read “Simply the finest motorcar in the world.” I really don’t think they would say anything about our conversions since we are, for the most part, working with pre-owned cars. In addition, I do not advertise our cars as “Rolls-Royce Limousines.” Let’s face it, you see people putting Rolls-Royce grilles on Volkswagens.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Aren’t you really helping Rolls-Royce by increasing their exposure?
Sampson: I would like to think so, and I feel we are doing it tastefully. Granted, I am biased, but we take something that is really beautiful (the base Shadow) and give you more of it. In many cases, we are almost recycling the cars; we’re giving them a second life.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Did you have any automotive background before starting this company?
Sampson: I have a business background, but my philosophy is to surround myself with highly skilled and competent people. As I said, I had a research and development man from Excalibur. I hired people that I knew were good, and who had been in the automotive business for a long time. Our Head Coachbuilder is Bill Leahy who was with Lehmann Peterson and Moloney for many years. Our staff must have well over a hundred years of experience in automotive restoration, fabrication, or service.
We are not a production line. Each car is unique. We might have one car that comes through with a roofline that’s half an inch higher than the next one... or another that needs more mechanical work or body work. You can’t say, “Well, this is how many hours we’ll work on a car because you’re always going to run into different problems. Each car is hand made.
Limousine & Chauffeur: When you investigated the limousine service industry, is that where you saw the greatest market potential?
Sampson: That was the largest market segment out there. At the present time, we are building twenty-five cars a year. I don’t really see us going over thirty cars because we really want to make sure that every car is right. It is not the kind of car you can mass produce.
There is a private market, but I don’t think there is much of a corporate market. It seems corporations are going to the “black cars.” They want a car that’s a little more sedate because they don’t want to stick out. The record industry and the entertainment industry are markets. There is also the international market which we haven’t even tapped yet.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Have any of your cars been on the road long enough for you to know whether they are depreciating or appreciating in value?
Sampson: Only one of our cars has been re-sold, and they sold it for $2000 more than they paid for it. We are starting with a base car which, in many cases, is 11 to 15 years old. It has already depreciated before we started. Unfortunately, interest in Silver Shadows has risen, so the base car is now selling for $2,000 to $6,000 more per car. It’s like stocks because it will flatten out again.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Your conversions retail for about $55,000?
Sampson: $55,000 for a Silver Spirit/Spur conversion... Silver Shadow conversions are $45,000.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Now a Cadillac conversion is around $10,000?
Sampson: Probably $10,000 to $15,000.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Is it the hand-work, the engine work, and the materials that make a Rolls-Royce conversion more expensive?
Sampson: Yes. First of all, were using Connolly leather for the upholstery. Most conversions that you see for $10,000 or $15,000 are not using leather. In most cases, they are using brand-new cars so they don’t have to reupholster an entire interior. Plus, many of their materials are reuseable.
Limousine & Chauffeur: $30,000 is a pretty big difference. Are you looking at refining your process so that the cost gets closer to that of a Cadillac conversion?
Sampson: We’ll never be alongside their prices. Our base car, in some cases, costs a third more than their base car. A delete-package Lincoln
“We are building a statement and a flagship.”
or Cadillac costs from $18,000 to $20,000. I pay anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 for my base cars and I still have to recondition them.
We are replacing tires, springs, and we even strip the paint down to bare metal. We then shoot the entire car with a zinc rust inhibitor primer and four coats of Sikkens polyurethane paint. Our cars also have a hand-painted pinstripe. It is important that our cars be consistent with the Rolls-Royce.
Limousine & Chauffeur: So you’re really building it for the luxury user, or the private buyer, rather than the typical limousine service?
Sampson: I wouldn’t say that. People that privately own limousines, and people that use a service, both like luxury. We are building a statement and a flagship. One that is numbered and exclusive due to limited supply. We have found that our cars rent anywhere from 30 to 100 percent more than a conventional limousine with comparable equipment.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Do you feel you’re going to put an end to the Mercedes-Benz limousine that some companies are selling for $100,000 to $150,000?
Limousine & Chauffeur: Do you think that your car is a better buy?
Sampson: As I said, I am biased. Again, our car will rent for more per hour, it has already depreciated, and there are fewer of them.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Do you get a lot of requests for other types of conversions?
Sampson: Yes, we get requests to do some Lincolns and Cadillacs, and we receive quite a few requests for Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Where are most of your potential buyers located?
Sampson: Well, the livery industry is a tremendous market. We are getting at least six to 10 calls a day from livery companies. We’re also tapping into the hotel and resort market. This isn’t a car that will be used for airport runs. It’s a car that goes to a restaurant and sits, and then goes to a wedding reception and sits. So you only put 15,000 to 20,000 miles on a Rolls-Royce limousine in a year.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Do you have salespeople representing Concept Coachbuilders?
Sampson: We have one in-house Sales Manager. We also do most of our own advertising and marketing.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Do you foresee a closer relationship with Rolls-Royce Motors in the future?
Sampson: I doubt it. They have one licensed coachbuilder now, and I don’t perceive them as going further I feel we have a pretty good relationship with some of the Rolls-Royce dealers. They don’t resent the fact that we’re here, and they trust the quality of the car. We provide them with schematics so they know what our modifications are and they don’t have any hesitation in working on the cars.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Those are your parts sources?
Sampson: We purchase some parts from our local dealer and we have other sources. In most cases, there is not a part that we do not carry in our inventory or that we cannot have the next day.
Limousine & Chauffeur: What colors are popular?
Sampson: It’s funny. Our first few cars were black and blue... people would call and say, “I would take it if it were white.” For the most part, our cars are all white now unless there’s a special order.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How many have you built?
Sampson: With everything out today, we have done fifteen cars.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Could you convert older Rolls-Royce models like the Silver Cloud?
Sampson: Yes, but it is not cost-effective for the livery industry. The body cowls would have to be handmade and would be difficult to duplicate. It would probably cost between $65,000 to $80,000.
Limousine & Chauffeur: What is the base unit cost for one of those cars?
Sampson: You can buy those cars from $8,000 to $35,000.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How has your market been in the two years you’ve been around?
Sampson: Rapidly increasing. We have built name-recognition. People are getting to know about us. Plus, they can see and inspect our cars at the Limousine & Chauffeur shows. The people I have spoken with have recognized and appreciated the quality.
Limousine & Chauffeur: How do you warranty it?
Sampson: We warranty our coach-built modifications for three years. We do extensive work in the mechanical area, we rebuild every transmission, and we re-core every radiator but we do not warranty those areas. However, with the GM engine conversion we developed, there is a warranty on the engine from GM.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Who are your key production people?
Sampson: Bill Leahy is our Head Coachbuilder. Bob Bennett is our Operations Director. Dale Urbaniak heads up the Trim Department. I have to say that, in our operation, everyone is key to production... that includes Marge Pinto our Office Manager.
Limousine & Chauffeur: Do you expect to have competition from other coachbuilders who might start building Rolls-Royce limousines?
Sampson: There is always competition. There are other coachbuilders who are extending Rolls-Royce motorcars, but no one else specializes in them. I would like to think that Concept Coach Builders is becoming synonymous with extended body Rolls-Royce limousines.
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