The Long Demise of the Stretch Limousine

Over just a few days in early March, carmakers and limousine firm operators gathered on the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for an annual conference, the place they went to panels and events and admired shiny new social gathering buses, vans and black sport utility automobiles.

However one thing was lacking.

“There wasn’t one stretch limousine on the present ground,” mentioned Robert Alexander, president of the Nationwide Limousine Affiliation, a commerce group. “Not one.”

Many years in the past, stretch limos had been a logo of affluence, used virtually completely by the wealthy and well-known. Over time, they turned extra of a standard luxurious, booked for youngsters’s birthday events or by youngsters heading to the promenade.

Today, it appears as if hardly anybody is driving in a stretch limo. Whereas the limousine title has caught, the limo trade has shifted to chauffeur companies in virtually something however precise stretch limos, which have largely been supplanted by black S.U.V.s, buses and vans.

“The limo enterprise isn’t your father’s limo enterprise anymore,” Mr. Alexander mentioned.

At the moment, the stretch limo represents lower than 1 p.c of companies provided by limo firms, down from about 10 p.c a decade in the past, based on the affiliation.

“The stretch limo is — what’s the expression? — gone just like the dodo fowl,” Mr. Alexander mentioned. “Extinct.”

Limo firm operators and trade leaders say that the demise of the stretch limo will be attributed to the cumulative impact of a collection of blows over a number of years.

The primary, they mentioned, was the Nice Recession. Then got here the rise of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, and a pair of lethal stretch limo crashes that ushered in new laws in New York State, one of many trade’s most vital markets. Over that point, stretch limos regularly fell out of favor, as passengers opted to journey considerably much less conspicuously in glossy sedans or black S.U.V.s.

The birthplace of the stretch limo is believed to have been Fort Smith, Ark. Armbruster Stageway, a coach builder that began off restoring horse-drawn wagons greater than 100 years in the past, is credited with creating the primary combustion engine limousine within the Nineteen Twenties. By 1985, the corporate was one of many main producers of limos in the US, making about 1,000 a yr.

However round that point, many automobile firms stopped making limos. Specialty coachmakers stuffed the void by taking a unique method: chopping a sedan in half, inserting a midsection and welding the whole lot collectively. For about $50,000, customized producers promised deluxe outcomes that would embrace a TV and even a mattress along with the compulsory well-stocked bar.

As extra limos had been produced, they turned extra accessible and commenced attracting a clientele past celebrities and the über-rich. Folks started reserving them for airport journeys. A restaurant in New Jersey provided to select up diners in a limo, drive them to dinner and take them dwelling afterward. And for some suburban youngsters, it turned a ceremony of passage to pile right into a stretch limo throughout promenade season, typically attempting — with blended outcomes — to sneak booze previous drivers thrust into the function of reluctant chaperone.

“Within the best-case state of affairs, any person would use you all day to go to conferences in, let’s say, Manhattan,” Mr. Alexander mentioned, including {that a} driver may then take a shopper to a resort to clean up earlier than whisking the shopper again out in town. “That form of coincided with form of the nightlife of the town coming alive within the late ’70s and ’80s,” he mentioned.

Limousine operators like Scott Woodruff, president and chief govt of Majestic Limo & Coach in Des Moines, made changes for the rising demand. By the early 2000s, an period when the Hummer limo first appeared and social gathering buses had been being tricked out with bench seats, TVs and minibars, stretch limos made up a few quarter of the automobiles in his fleet.

“Yearly, you’d see the limos get bigger and bigger,” Mr. Woodruff mentioned.

Chuck Cotton, who owns VIP Limo in Oklahoma and has been within the enterprise greater than 30 years, mentioned his fleet peaked at 35 stretch limos, six social gathering buses and 4 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, which carry a few dozen folks.

Then the housing market collapsed in 2008, setting in movement the longest and sharpest financial downturn for the reason that Nice Despair — and the start of the tip of the stretch limo.

The downturn prompted firms to chop spending and shed staff. Demand for stretch limo rides cratered, as unemployment and fuel costs soared.

“The market imploded,” Mr. Alexander, of the Nationwide Limousine Affiliation, mentioned.

The nation was nonetheless within the throes of the recession when Uber was based in 2009. Its foremost competitor, Lyft, arrived in 2012, and collectively they shook up the taxi trade and likewise made chauffeured black automobiles extra accessible.

“After they first got here on the scene, folks — particularly, in our trade — actually bristled,” Mr. Alexander mentioned of the ride-hailing companies.

“When a stretch pulls over, everyone turns round to see who’s getting in or getting out,” Mr. Rose mentioned. Today his purchasers want the discretion of a black sedan or S.U.V.

Whereas demand for stretch limos isn’t what it was within the Eighties and even the early 2000s, the limo trade is flourishing. It simply seems completely different now.

Along with the shift to sedans and S.U.V.s, the trade is embracing Sprinter vans and social gathering buses. Barbara White, co-owner and chief monetary officer of VIP Transportation Group in Orlando, Fla., mentioned that her enterprise offered two of its stretch limos in recent times, changing one with a Sprinter van. With a fleet that additionally consists of buses, sedans and S.U.V.s, Ms. White’s firm gives greater than 1,000 rides a yr, largely for weddings, she mentioned.

Matthew Daus, a lawyer and a former commissioner and chairman of the New York Metropolis Taxi and Limousine Fee, mentioned that buses and vans seemed to be the way forward for the limo trade.

“They’re going to be fancier on the within, however they’re going to most likely keep good and discreet on the surface,” Mr. Daus mentioned. “The limousine trade could be very resilient. They bounced again from the pandemic, and they’re muscling into the motor coach and the constitution trade.”

However the days of the stretch seem like almost over.

Mr. Rose mentioned his firm in Queens used to have 4 stretch limos in a fleet of about 30 automobiles. Within the Angle storage as we speak, there are sedans and S.U.V.s, together with Lexuses and Cadillac Escalades, however there isn’t a single stretch limo. He offered his final one eight years in the past.

“And for the 2 years previous to that,” he mentioned, “it was just about a paperweight.”

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