Vehicle Review: The automaker's sedan gains evolutionary styling, but big changes underneath.
Once sights are set, businessmen generally refuse to stray from their predetermined course. But because learning is a continual process, once alternate methods to achieve the same goals are discovered and evaluated, occasionally plans are altered with profitable results.
Consider the case of Ultra Limousine Corporation, once a custom car and exotic limousine manufacturer, catering to the whims and fancies of Hollywood studios and celebrities, is today a rising star in its own right in the coachbuilding industry.
Vini Bergeman, co-owner of the firm, explained the transition. “The plain truth is that until as recently as eight months ago, we had never advertised or even considered advertising. One hundred percent of our customizing and exotic limousine manufacturing were referrals. These same referrals were a direct result of 14 years of performance by the parent company, Kolor Me Kustom, the real creator behind Ultra. In short, a decision had to be made, whether to remain a minor-sized specialty limousine manufacturer with a star-studded clientele with volume customizing, or vice versa. We opted for limousine manufacturing, a giant step at the very least. An ad campaign was initiated and we virtually leaped into uncharted waters. This crucial step proved to be an enormous task; we rocketed from a few limousines a month to where we are at this moment — 25 limousines per month and rising.
“In an eight-month period, that is one hell of a giant leap. During this transition, we attended the Lincoln limousine manufacturers’ shows in Chicago and New York City. Here, all of our enthusiasm was confirmed when we viewed the displays provided by the majors in our industry. We discovered that not only did we provide a competitive limousine, but we were in fact and are today the largest production stretch in the industry. We have a great deal of respect and admiration for the major manufacturers, but the truth is because of our size and dual bench seating, we’re in a class of our own and are not really in competition with the small stretches.”
The size that Bergeman refers to is the 63-inch stretch luxury limousine built on Cadillac and Lincoln frames, in addition to the Chrysler 63-inch stretch and the Mercedes 500 SEL 48-inch stretch produced at Ultra’s La Palma, California headquarters.
Dick Januzzi, sales manager for the firm explained: “The component we lacked until recently was an aging process. That is because we were not a large production operation of stretch limousines. In the past two years we hadn’t experienced a reorder factor which was primarily due to the simple fact that the clientele that we catered to were one-time limousine purchasers. Ninety percent of our volume was the Hollywood crowd: the remaining 10 percent were limousine operators. This 10 percent proved to be a blessing in disguise because in every Instance the operators were reporting that their clients who rode in the Ultra and who had previously ridden in either a formal or small stretch would inevitably request the Ultra the next time around.
“In December 1983, we decided to premiere to the California operators. The attendance was incredible and the reception by the operators to our Ultra was indeed electric. At that premiere our enthusiasm was confirmed and we resolved to initiate and proceed with a national dealership program. The next question was “How to?” We wanted to increase our production but not sacrifice quality and expand too rapidly. What you have to appreciate is that we are not only already in an expansion mode, but we’re constantly innovating which doesn’t leave a lot of time to hire and train new employees to facilitate an additional increase in production. The bottom line is that we intend to reach a production level of 30 per month and remain there until 1985. Our dealership network will be limited in deliveries but it’s just as well because we would like time to set upon our service network and provide our dealers with maximum support. You know the roots of this industry all stem from a background in customizing, so we’re really proud to have risen from this rank.”
Januzzi continued, “It’s really exciting — we’re constantly probing and exploring the interiors of our vehicles, trying to provide space where space didn’t appear to exist before. I guess there is no space age nomenclature for this so we came up with one: “Limonauts.” How about that one? Inner space astronauts exploring interiors of limousines would compute to Limonauts.
“The key to our success is our interior. It’s our life blood, so I can assure you we’ll always be a force to contend with in inner space. After all, isn’t that what a limousine is about? Luxury, comfort and plenty of space for passengers to ride in comfort. Face it, not only are the jump seats uncomfortable and cramped, they’re obsolete. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can match the comfort and luxury of a bench seat.”
The exotic limousines placed Ultra before the public eye. Television shows such as PM Magazine, Rich and Famous and local news feature programs in and out of California have boosted people’s awareness of Ultra’s products. Partners Kraig Kavanagh and Vini Bergeman designed the alluring super stretches just as they now design both the exotic and limousine-service oriented vehicles.
Said Januzzi, “Vini and Kraig are a hell of a combo. Kraig is air and Vini is fire. It’s really gratifying to watch these two in action. The energy levels and creativity are enormous; and they’re fulfilling their fantasies in limousines and enjoying every moment of it.”
Of even greater priority for Kavanagh is to establish firmer relationships among limousine sellers, buyers and lending institutions. Kavanagh is currently assembling a “Blue Book” of limousines, listing prices of new, factory-built limousines. “This will be a boon to all parties concerned,” he said.
The construction of Ultra Limousine’s vehicles lend themselves to foresight and integrity in their assembly, Bergeman explained. “Sure we utilize more steel than the competition but the benefits have already surfaced.
Recently, one of our vehicles was broadsided by a Mercedes, knocked seven feet, totaling the Mercedes front end and leaving our frame intact. In addition to this, another Ultra was rear-ended, again it totalled our rear-end, and totaled the front end of the other vehicle, but our frame held up. I don’t believe any other manufacturer can make that claim.”
Frames are not the only components which undergo changes in Ultra’s factory, Kavanagh explained. “We probably have made 50 electrical modification improvements in the past six months. We’re constantly improving the inside of our vehicle. Our electricians are constantly making it easier for the vehicle to be serviced.
“Ultra installs the fuse panel directly behind its front seat where it is easily accessible. Every limousine is delivered with an owner’s manual wiring diagram.”
Other features on the Ultra limousines are, according to Bergeman, the widest side window in the trade, unitized bodies as opposed to pop-welded ones and, he proudly adds, all inside areas are water-tight to prevent rusting.
“At one point we performed all our production by hand. We went out into the marketplace and purchased in excess of $250,000 in new machinery to improve our production. I guess you could say we’re serious,” Bergeman said.
Back seat roominess and comfort are the standards of all limousines. The problem is where to place all the accompanying amenities and still provide first-class legroom.
“The placement of the bar is essential in providing that legroom,” Bergeman said. The seating configuration is designed to seat six passengers in comfort. That’s our motto: First-Class legroom while others provide coach. If you relate to airlines, you’ll know exactly what we offer and we believe a passenger deserves the first class accommodations.
“The rear facing seat purchased from the appropriate manufacturer is upholstered in-house at Ultra’s headquarters along with everything else with the exception of the driveshaft modifications and floor mats. We take a lot of pride in providing all the workmanship in our limousines,” Bergeman said.
Overall, the Ultra limousines receive detailed attention from Bergeman during construction. He commented, “Before Kraig and I built the first Ultra limousine, coachbuilders manufactured nothing but 48-inch stretch limousines. We weren’t interested in plagiarizing, so Kraig designed the interior and I designed the exterior, and the result was the Ultra limousine.”
“We feel that we construct the safest limousine on the road. We’re not just building a car for exterior lines, we’re building a car that’s going to last for years. That’s why we back all of our vehicles with a five-year warranty on all fabrication.”
In reference to the new dealer network, Bergeman remarked: “Our top marketing areas will be Chicago, New Jersey and New York. New York, which should be number one, is currently number three on our agenda. The reason is old-line thinking. That is, in the majority of my conversations with the elder statesmen of limousine operations, I’m constantly asked if I build a smaller stretch. My response is no, of course, and when I ask why, they respond by saying that a large stretch cannot survive the streets of New York and everyone purchases either a formal or a small stretch.
“Well, I do believe that the New York market is literally loaded with formals and mini-stretches. But I don’t believe that the Ultra will not survive on these streets. In addition to this, the operators who insist on clinging to the formal mini-stretch philosophy are not anticipating the wants of their clients. The key word is want. Sooner or later these same passengers will ride in an Ultra and when that day comes, the East Coast operator will discover exactly what was discovered by operators on the West Coast and Midwest.
“That is, that once they’ve experienced a 63-inch stretch, it will become virtually impossible to induce these same people to ride in a formal or mini-stretch and what then? The tide is inevitable; progress approaches with or without one’s permission or blessing. The key is to prepare and anticipate. We have the car of the future today; those that recognize and accept progress will flourish. Those that don’t...”
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