Vehicle Review: While the outside is breathtaking, the inside is sumptuous and serene.
FONTANA, Calif. — The shop floor of LA Custom Coach Inc. looks more like a high-end car lot, except the variety of vehicles are in various stages of overhaul and conversion.
A hollowed-out Chrysler 300 stretch getting reinforced side doors stands in front of a Dodge Challenger stretch with newly installed seats parked across the floor from a Ford F550 Freightliner stretch frame being fused together with seam welding. Nearby, a 2013 Range Rover, a Dodge Viper GTS and a classic ‘57 Chevrolet are getting refurbished and upgraded, while other SUV and stretch models are being converted.
Presiding over these unique exhibits of customized construction is Philip Eiselin, the owner and President of LA Custom Coach Inc. On a recent visit, he traversed the production floor several times, readily pointing out and explaining in detail all the mechanical nuances that go into his manufacturing approach. He described body details that strengthen his vehicles and underscore safety. Since he started the company in 2001, he has grown it into a top-quality independent limousine manufacturing operation known for eclectic designs coupled with rock-solid construction.
“Everybody wants something individual,” Eiselin says, reciting a lesson learned from his decade-plus experience in custom limousine manufacturing. “A customer sees what is cool but then wants something different or better. Customer expectations push the imagination.”
A common question he gets from potential clients is: “’What can you do that hasn’t been done before?’”
SEE LA CUSTOM COACH PHOTO GALLERY OF UNIQUE LIMO VEHICLES HERE
No vehicle model represents the LA Custom Coach approach more than its signature pink Dodge Challenger stretch, which was the go-to scene stealer on the trade show floor of the International LCT Show Feb. 5-7 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The 140-inch stretch with a V-6, 3.6 litre engine and an OEM-built police-pursuit heavy-duty alternator has proven a big revenue generator for operators raising funds for breast cancer research and catering to a younger, adventurous clientele.
“It talks to you. It has character and is not just another box going down the road,” Eiselin says of the pink Challenger.
While still a small market niche, the Challenger stretches actually have more width than a Chrysler 300 and more headroom than a Lincoln Town Car sedan, Eiselin says, not to mention its more stylistic body lines and hipper curb appeal. The Challenger has proven popular for Quinceaneras, weddings, nights out, Valentine’s Day outings, birthday parties and bachelorette parties. [On the subject of whether men ride in a pink Challenger stretch, Eiselin mentions that a group of single women typically will rent a pink limousine and then may pick up their boyfriends, who willingly ride along].
Eiselin knew he was on to something with the pink stretch when he converted a Hummer into a pink stretch limousine in 2008 for a Florida client and the model outsold the operator’s other three stretch limo models combined.
Mix of Models
The Challenger stretches are among the top sellers at LA Custom Coach, as well as stretch versions of Chrysler 300s, Dodge Chargers and various luxury SUV brands. It converts about 30-40 vehicles per year. The company also designs and installs limo bus interiors, many of them inspired by the latest interiors from posh nightclubs. “It’s never the same every year,” Eiselin says of the workflow.
A Chrysler 300 takes about six to eight weeks to build, while a Challenger stretch about eight to 10 weeks. Cost-wise, the 300 stretches range in the $70,000s; the Challengers average in the low $80,000s; and a F550 or F650 stretch, which are even longer and wider than typical SUV stretch models, can run about $185,000.
Of all LA Custom clients, about 35% are VIPs and individual customers and 65% are limousine companies.
In 2011, with the effects of the recession still lingering, LA Custom derived about 80% of its business from China, Africa and foreign clients — a situation common to other custom limo builders. In the last two years, the domestic and foreign client mix has balanced out, with about 40-45% of LA Custom’s demand coming from U.S. limo operations and clients. The builder has strong demand from the Las Vegas market, still one of the custom stretch limousine capitals of the world. LA Custom is also seeing strong business from Chinese corporate clients who want customized, ultra-luxury SUVs. Inside the plant, a 2013 Range Rover with an all-welded aluminum frame sat ready for a conversion job for a Chinese client.
Building A Reputation
For Eiselin, limousine design and construction is all about creating a solid structure. When taking on stretch conversion orders, Eiselin won’t just build anything a client requests. He follows what he calls his “daughter rule,” in honor of his 22-year-old daughter, Lisa. “If my daughter and her friends would not be safe in it going out, then I won’t build it.”
And to build it right, LA Custom Coach gets serious about the details, as a recent tour of the shop floor proved.
For example, Eiselin installs square tube side impact bars on passenger doors, an idea he borrowed from his knowledge of racing vehicle performance and construction. As a licensed driver with the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), Eiselin knows how to adapt some of the structural components of race cars, such as the side impact bars, to his limousine models.
Chassis frames are constructed to bend, not break, by absorbing energy from crash impacts that spare passengers the brunt force. In addition to square tube bars, LA Custom Coach uses seam welding instead of spot-welding on all structural parts of the conversion. The structure is linked with 3/16-in. thick steel gusset plates, which connect pillars, beams and/or girders.
He also installs Brembo brakes on select conversions, considered among the highest quality aftermarket braking systems. Brembo brake calipers are known worldwide for their durability, reliability, and maximum braking performance. Brembo makes a wide range of performance brake systems.
As other examples, workers were using “6160 aluminum,” a high-quality aluminum used in aircraft, while building a Chrysler 300 stretch fifth door on the weekday visit in August. A custom-built F-550 240-in. stretch nearby was getting custom air suspension to make it ride as smooth as a sedan limousine. On the Challenger stretch, builders must take a two-door sports coupe and convert it into a 140-in. four-door stretch limousine. Getting the doors right are the big challenge; Eiselin only uses factory OEM doors.
As an aside, he notes that aluminum is about 60% harder to weld and about 45% more expensive when compared to steel. “We spend more time building a car because it’s not a production,” Eiselin says. “Speed and time are not part of the cost analysis if you are looking to build a top quality product.”
The average service time for a LA Custom Coach-built vehicle is about six to seven years, whereas typical limousine fleet vehicle rotations average about 36-48 months. “Our customers expect a longer service life out of our products,” he says.
Eiselin compared the choices in standard model versus custom limousines to buying men’s suits; you can get a standard rack fit at Men’s Wearhouse or a custom-fitted tailored suit at Nordstrom’s. “No one’s body is the same,” he adds.
“The beauty of a custom limousine is it’s tailored to the customer’s needs,” Eiselin says. “They’re not just buying it off the rack. Not everyone’s needs and wants are the same.”
LA Custom’s building standards are especially important for limousines destined for the Las Vegas market, which has a comparatively higher number of drunken driving accidents, he says. Building stretch limousines for that market, Eiselin accumulates a lot of information and experience on side impacts from accidents, which he can incorporate into refining his designs and construction. The company builds stretches for a roster of Las Vegas limo companies, including Exotic Transportation, Elite Transportation, and Mammoth Transportation.
As a custom builder, Eiselin also has the flexibility to experiment and adapt quickly to new innovations, such as LED-color-changing lights which he began installing in 2001, well before all other coachbuilders. “There is more freedom to work with ideas and do a lot of trying out and experimenting with new products.”
Eiselin, who studied engineering in Switzerland and tinkered with cars as a youth, draws upon years of experience building, collecting and racing vehicles. He has a fondness for Dodge and Chrysler models, hence his heavy output of Challengers and 300s. His personal vehicle is a modified Dodge Viper GTS sports car. Growing up in Switzerland as the son of an architect, Eiselin developed his passion for cars and design at age 8 when he got his first car magazine.
He is now fluent in five languages, evident when he spoke Spanish with his shop craftsmen and German with a caller on the phone while in his office.
The LA Custom Coach team consists of about 15 employees, most of whom have been with the company for its duration. That has enabled Eiselin to cultivate skilled craftsmen like himself, able to handle diverse stretch jobs. He economizes on front and back office expenses by keeping all management and non-production related tasks between him and James Checo, general manager and vice president of marketing and sales.
From unique designs, to innovative builds, to a skilled, streamlined business model, Eiselin has found an enduring formula for an independent custom-driven limo shop. Custom coachbuilders can’t compete with major production OEM-oriented manufacturers, so the two coexist as distinct business models serving different but complementary industry purposes, he says.
“Quality and innovation are the beginning, middle and end of building a long-term viable business,” he adds. “You are only as good as your last car. Reputation is everything.”
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