Limousines stretch the car and the workday, but not the dollar

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If you've ever wondered what it's like inside one of those four-wheeled ocean-liner limousines that often dock at the big hotels in town, come along and we'll put you in the back seat. But before we drive off, meet Lawrence R. Herkimer, a Texan. ``At first I was going to buy a sports car,'' confides Mr. Herkimer, a Dallas businessman. But what did he buy? A limousine.

A limousine?

Well, why not! They're a lot more versatile than a nonlimo-owner might think, even though Mr. Herkimer will never mistake his limo for a Ferrari, BMW, or Porsche 928S.

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The Dallas executive is just one more member of a swiftly growing army of limo-lovers -- show people, sports personalities, diplomats, and industry titans among them -- who use their mile-long, black-top dreamboats not only for business but for personal gratification as well.

By 1990 the demand for stretched limos could zip past 6,000 a year, up from less than 4,000 today, according to Robert T. McMahan, executive vice-president of Hess & Eisenhardt Company of Cincinnati, a subsidiary of O'Gara Coachworks, one of the nation's biggest limousine customizers.

These super-jobs aren't the standard-fare luxury limos, such as the Cadillac Fleetwood 75, which retails for around $33,000, but the elongated species -- dare they be called cars? -- in which a regular-size vehicle is cut in half and a new section welded into place. Supplying all those stretched-out autos are some three dozen companies from coast to coast.

O'Gara itself will ``stretch'' at least 650 cars this year, most of them Lincolns and Cadillacs, according to Robert C. Johnson, vice-president of marketing, who expects the company to grow from 10 to 15 percent a year.

Talking about his new ``car,'' Mr. Herkimer, president of the Cheerleader Supply Company and inventor of the cheerleader pompon, explains: ``My friend at an auto dealership, who had just gone into the limo business, told me I'd have more fun with this thing than I would with a sports car.

``And was he ever right!'' he exclaims, adding: ``At first my kids were a little bit intimidated, but now they really get a kick out of using it.'' The whole family -- up to eight -- goes together to football games ``with one of my sons-in-law behind the wheel.'' Mr. Herkimer doesn't employ a full-time chauffeur, but rather has ``a pool of drivers that I just hire on an hourly basis as I need them.'' To him, ``it's one of the best things we've ever bought.''

Gary Hill, who owns a direct-mail organization in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agrees fully. Mr. Hill switched from a 20-year-old Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, which he drove himself, to a chauffeur-driven supercar a year ago. ``I'm now able to concentrate on the needs of my clients,'' he avers, instead of watching the road from behind the wheel of a Rolls.

Besides, he figures it's a whole lot cheaper than renting. ``If I rent a limo at $50 an hour and use it full time, it may cost me up to $8,000 or more a month,'' he says. The car payment on the limo? -- $800 a month. Has he found any negatives to owning a limo? ``Not a one!'' he shoots back.

The ultimate in limousine mystique may be the new Rolls-Royce Silver Spur, 7-passenger supercar priced at $195,000, the first ``official'' R-R limo for the American market in 18 years. Remember, an ordinary Rolls-Royce can be had for under $100,000. Most limos, of course, cost a lot less.

Britain's Guy Salmon group sells an elongated Jaguar, basing it on the 4.2-liter, 6-cylinder Jaguar Sovereign, for about $46,000, depending on the dollar-pound exchange rate. Even Japanese cars, including the Honda Accord LX, have been ``stretched.''

Curious about the limo business, I decided to drop by O'Gara Coachworks here in suburban Los Angeles and talk with its marketing chief, Mr. Johnson, who also describes himself as the man in charge of both manufacturing and engineering. From his office just outside the shop, you can hear the buzz of the saws and thump-thump of the workers' hammers as they add all those metal inserts to the cars.

``We have two stretches, 46 and 52 inches, and six variations,'' Johnson explains, adding that ``it takes O'Gara about 22 days to do a complete conversion job at a cost of close to $40,000 up to about $62,000.''

O'Gara also has a plant on the East Coast at Bound Brook, N.J. Its subsidiary, Hess & Eisenhardt, built the latest two armored Cadillac limos for the White House -- ``a coup after all those Lincolns,'' Johnson quips.

At Mr. Johnson's bidding, I step inside one of the ready-for-delivery limos, luxuriating in the privacy of a mobile parlor, surrounded by costly fabrics, leather, and plush carpeting. I can pick up the phone to instruct ``my chauffeur'' en route. I can reach for a glass or some food and punch a button or two to control the indoor climate or turn on an elaborate, state-of-the-art stereo system -- all the while surrounded by solid walnut trim, burled elm veneer, and solid brass. Darkened side and rear win dow glass assures me privacy from the outside world.

Equipped with a cellular phone and portable computer, a limo ``stretches'' the workday of the busy executive. It becomes, in effect, an office on wheels, with all the sumptuous comfort of an executive club.

``If an executive can increase his or her productivity through the use of a limousine,'' says Mr. McMahan of Hess & Eisenhardt, ``he's viewed as being efficient and intelligent, rather than flashy and overindulgent.''

The modern limo industry is less than 15 years old even though the idea of the ``stretch limo'' was launched before World War II by Carey Cadillac, a New York limousine service.

Today's limo is a lot less conspicuous than were those of the past, because there are so many of them around today. It's also better packaged and far more fuel efficient. The biggest limo market in the country is New York City -- just stand in front of one of the hotels facing New York's Central Park and watch the limos roll by -- but Los Angeles and Miami are coming on strong.

Limos are generally sold through regular automobile dealership channels. All you need to get one is a suitably fat wallet, lofty credit, or a job with super perks.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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