The driver testing the autonomous vehicle was streaming a TV program at the time of the accident.
The intense planning and attention to detail that go into making a high-end luxury interior would astound even the most finicky engineer. The market for one-offs and custom jobs has grown in recent years, as demand for upfitted luxury vehicles spans a variety of uses.
Some clients are looking for a personal party shuttle, complete with big screen TVs in the back for tailgating and extra storage. Others seek comfortable executive transport, and the vehicles are basically high-tech offices on wheels with plush chairs, plug-ins, and a professional decor. Many of these upfitters work on vehicles outside the norm and will convert large-scale motorhomes and buses into command centers, or even private mobile residencies that spare no expense.
Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and custom coach builders employ some of the best and brightest engineers to create high-tech fuel efficient engine systems, reinforced cabin frames with lightweight materials, and cutting-edge vehicle computers.
But for the traveling client, what matters most is the interior comfort and functions. It can be the most expensive and advanced vehicle on the market, but if the seat is not right or the lighting too bland, that will overshadow any amenities.
Vehicle interiors come in all layouts and sizes to fit different seating preferences, and most of the high-end luxury cabins are retrofitted by companies that specialize in bringing existing floor plans and designs to an elite level. To do this, every nook and cranny of the interior must be evaluated for the comfort it will provide to passengers, along with weight, expense, and practical uses in the vehicle.
For manufacturers who do high-end custom retrofit jobs, no request is out of bounds. Although these specialty vehicles aren’t the most common fleet vehicles because of expense, those limo operations that invest in full-scale luxury upfits can enhance a reputation for first class transport.
From The Ground Up
Before a luxury interior can come into play, a vehicle first must have proper modification to its body to ensure a maximum comfort ride. The limousine industry has perfected this concept, producing original body ideas year-after-year on a wide variety of chassis with the flexibility for adjustment. A growing trend has become the upfits of large vans or mini-buses into personalized carriages of luxury transport.
Andy Mauck, CEO and founder of coachbuilder Mauck2 of Columbus, Ohio, turns modified Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Vans into custom vehicles tailor-ordered to client desires. The company first installs a new shell that actually adds 10 inches of width to the cabin. “This is how we can have our captain’s chairs swivel 360 degrees and still have a good aisle way,” Mauck says. The new body adds extra headroom and storage compartments underneath — all in a sleek overall design that complements the interior.
The goal of the body design is to give clients more panoramic views from the windows, and have more head and leg room around the cabin, Mauck says. To maximize the travel experience, Mauck then looks to custom upfitters to work their magic on the interior.
The first thing clients consider when choosing an interior is seating. The overall design, color and feel of the seats are paramount to a high-end luxury vehicle. From fully reclining captain’s chairs to J-shaped benches lining the back, the upfitters must create custom top-quality products that integrate seamlessly into the cabin’s designs.
Josh Gifford of Creative Mobile Interiors in Grove City, Ohio, uses Spinnybeck leather for much of his upholstery. Spinnybeck is a world leader in Italian leather manufacturing, producing different leathers for all kinds of industries. Gifford says it feels like butter.
Another product used for seating is Alcantara, a composite material that has a remarkable feel similar to suede. It is used often in sports cars such as Porsches and Ferraris. Chris Ramos of Detroit Custom Coach says the clients appreciate the smooth feel.
Bill Battisti of Battisti Customs in Elkhart, Ind., uses ultra soft-touch urethane vinyl for his captain’s chairs and bench seating, along with double needle-type stitching for an up-scale appearance and extended lifespan. The captain’s chair style seats are contoured to envelop the rider with comfort, and have foot rests, extra cushioned head and arm rests, three-point seatbelts, and reclining options.
Paneling and Hard Surfaces
After seating, the next interior amenity to denote a true luxury vehicle is the details in the paneling and exposed surfaces. Run-of-the-mill type vehicles will use simple plastics to get the job done, but for top-level clients, laminated coatings and specially made vinlys can transform the cabin into appearing like an upscale metropolitan apartment.
Mauck says the floor paneling in his luxury transportation vans has been favorably noticed by clients. “A lot of interior shops have gone to carpet, which is practical, but I’m really impressed with the composite engineered flooring that looks like wood but without the decay.”
Creative Mobile uses commercial grade vinyl flooring for its upfits. “It’s high-quality finish,” Gifford says. “We can do it all, but you have to factor in weight. Sometimes a customer will make a request for marble finish, which we can do, but I try to steer them away from it.”
Battisti uses a custom hydro graphing technique for his paneling. It gives the appearance of high-gloss woods, and Battisti is able emulate many different types of grains and colors. The pieces are handcut, sanded and routed. Then a film is placed over a tank of water in which the pieces are dipped. A sealant is sprayed on to give it the high-gloss look, and the paneling is placed inside the vehicle.
Let There Be Light
Once comfort and appearance are taken care of, the finishing touches are the lighting and electrical amenities. “It’s a subjective thing,” says Mauck about lighting, “but there is something about the guys who really know about colors and contrast. The cheaper lighted interiors just don’t jump out at you and flow together like the high-end ones.”
The advancements in LED lighting technology have enabled builders to create a full range of moods in vehicles, from strobe-effect party lights and lasers, to recessed colored lighting strips that have a relaxing and soothing tone. “It used to be just halogen lights, but they were hot and power hungry and not very cost effective,” says Gifford of Creative Mobile. “Now we have some great color changing lights and can do a lot of fun things. We have lasers that can follow each other around the whole cabin and be synched up to the music, and even have lights that make it look like there are water droplets on the wall.”
The electrical doesn’t stop there. Customary for ultra-luxe vehicles are wide screen TVs, mobile WiFi hotspots, and tactile control systems for all the entertainment features. “It’s pretty neat the technology that has come around,” Gifford says. “I’ve had the pleasure of being in the industry long enough to remember when we offered TVs that were seven inches thick, and now they’re 32-inch screens but only a half-inch thick.”
Ramos of Detroit Customs says his company really tries to meld design with engineering, and that they integrate the controls for lighting, doors, and TVs, with touch-screen control systems.
Putting It Together
With the highest-end luxury chauffeured vehicles, the craft and detail remain consistent while the commitment to meeting customer needs drives the builders to come up with new and innovative ways of getting the job done. For example, Detroit Customs Coach is working on installing a special “smart glass” partition, which is a glass see-through panel that turns to fog glass at the touch of a button for privacy.
As long as such creativity flourishes among coach builders and clients, innovations for luxury transportation will abound.
Battisti Customs uses a special technique to coat their paneling pieces and give the appearance of high-gloss wood finishes.
1. A finish film is placed over a tank of water.
2. The pieces are dipped through the film.
3. Then sprayed with high-gloss shine.
4. Creating a finished wood-grain appearance.
5. That is installed into the vehicle.
The driver testing the autonomous vehicle was streaming a TV program at the time of the accident.
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