Ambition, innovation, commitment to quality, and a no-limit approach to customization are keys to success, reports Dan Harvey.
Who would want to cut a perfectly good car in half? The very idea evokes celluloid memories of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (playing a pair of hapless construction workers in the two-reel comedy “Busy Bodies”) inadvertently driving their car through a giant band saw and splitting the vehicle lengthwise.
But that image dates back to 1933. Today, severing a car in two is a quite serious, necessary and complex first step when converting automobiles into high-class, high-tech stretch limousines – and the deed is accomplished in a far less crude fashion than what the Hal Roach Studios prop men envisioned for their star comedy team. It’s neither slapstick or slapdash.
Indeed, it requires spacious facilities equipped with advanced technology, such as what you’d find at the East Brunswick, N.J. factory where Empire Coach Enterprises builds its limousines.
As Chief Executive Officer Mike Misseri indicates, Empire Coach Enterprises has one of the most sophisticated limousine construction operations in the United States. His company is a cutting edge operation that adapts the newest technologies and utilizes the most advanced, lightest and safest materials, Misseri points out. “We have the best technology and best designs, because we do a great deal of custom work,” he says. “We’re not a cookie-cutter operation. We’re always doing something different and constantly pushing our own limits.”
According to Misseri, Empire Coach is the third-largest limousine builder in the nation, but no competitor offers as much customization to complement the bread-and-butter work. The company, a second-stage limousine manufacturer, provides all of the standard amenities, including the flat-screen televisions and wet bars. But it can also construct a sizeable vehicle that is essentially a corporate office on wheels. “From the outside, it may look like your standard limousine, but we design it with a high-end interior experience,” he says. “We can install weight-powered chairs with electronic leg lifts as well as desks, phones, computers, printers, scanners – essentially, all of the equipment that you’d find in an executive suite.”
Stretching both interior and exterior limits has been an Empire hallmark since the company’s inception. Tony Tortora founded Empire Coach in 1948 as an upholstery and auto body enterprise but, through the years, he expanded his company’s range. “It was initially a custom shop that offered things such as custom seating and interiors,” recalls Misseri. “Later, it moved into sun roofs and chrome grills.”
Then, in 1976, Tortora steered his company into the limousine realm, making it one of the first limousine manufacturers in the United States. As a limousine pioneer, Empire Coach helped establish the Qualified Vehicle Modifier (QVM) program developed in the late 1990s by the Ford Motor Company for businesses seeking to modify Ford’s Lincoln Town Cars into limousines (Ford selected Empire to oversee the QVM LimoCare program).
Empire Coach eventually left the QVM program when it shifted its focus toward SUVs and a flourishing, high-end private car market. But that turned out to be a short-duration detour. In 2006, Tortora left his company to pursue other ventures. That left Empire in Misseri’s hands, and he saw the opportunity to realize his vision for the company as a world-class limousine builder.
One of the first things he wanted to do was engage a new partner. He found one in Quantum, one of the largest second-stage manufacturers for General Motors. Quantum acquired Empire in 2006. Subsequently, its subsidiary, Tecstar Automotive Group, worked with Empire in advancing its limousine manufacturing efforts. The partnership combined Empire Coach’s proven craftsmanship with Tecstar’s advanced technological capabilities. Specifically, Tecstar was well positioned at the leading edge of engineering and alternative fuel technology, particularly in the area of hydrogen-powered vehicles (it had designed a Hummer H2H vehicle for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Second, Misseri brought Empire back into Ford’s QVM program. As a program participant, Empire adheres to Ford’s rigorous standards for safety and performance in the vehicle conversion process. With the program, Ford-Lincoln advances safety standards, quality and customer satisfaction elements applicable to limousines. In particular, to ensure vehicular safety and reliability, it addresses shortcomings in regulatory guidelines issued by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.
“There has been a problem in our industry. Some people think that they can take cars, cut them in half, and build them in their barns and still meet regulations,” says Misseri, stating the problem more plainly. “We have issues with people who do that.”
Misseri also oversaw a significant factory expansion. “In 2006, we moved from a 30,000-square-foot facility into an 80,000-square-foot building in East Brunswick,” he reveals.
The physical expansion has contributed to company growth. “Since 2006, it has increased to about 40 percent,” Misseri reports.
Further, the move makes Empire Coach the only QVM production limousine manufacturer in the Tri-State area, which is considered the heart of the limousine industry.
The facilities include two assembly lines. “On one, we construct the basic stretch Lincoln limousine, the most popular model. These vehicles involve some customization, but not to a high degree,” says Misseri.
Greater customization is accomplished on the second line, which handles the so-called “exotics.”
“That’s where we do the off-line vehicles, such as the Bentley, Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Lexus, Hummers and Cadillac Escalade,” says Misseri. “We do many different cars, whereas some companies wouldn’t touch something like a Mercedes. But we do it all of the time, and we are very proficient at it.”
Proficiency is enhanced by state-of-the-art line capabilities and error-proof, repeatable processes. The first step in conversion involves removing much of the interior and preserving the remaining interior as well as exterior. Next, the car is placed on tracks and is cut and half. “We’ve designed special fixtures that are sunk in the ground, and we drive the cars right onto those fixtures. Sub-fixtures, specific for each car model, marry the car to specific locator holes,” explains Misseri. “When the car is finally fixtured at 100-percent true level it is then cut and rolled back to the desired size. Then we manufacture each part and weld it into place.”
That occurs as the vehicle proceeds up the assembly line, which has 26 stations. “Because we do QVM, we have a lot of checks and balances in place at each station,” says Misseri. “For instance, two men are positioned at each station. When each completes his assigned job, and before the car moves to the next station, the two workers switch places and inspect each other’s work. Then, when the car, moves up to the next station, the next set of workers inspect the work that was done at the previous station before they start performing their own tasks.”
“As far as customization, anything the customer asks for, we’ll provide,” says Misseri.
As a result, Empire Coach has attracted customers that include high-level executives and celebrities, as well as international heads-of-state, dignitaries and royal families from Middle East and African countries. Understandably, such high-profile clients require special security needs, and that has led Empire Coach into bullet- and bomb-proofing its vehicles. “That has become a big market,” says Misseri.
The company provides several levels of security, ranging from B-3 to B7. “Level B-3 involves the light armoring that can be accomplished with Kevlar synthetics and some ballistic fiberglass,” says Misseri. “Level B-7 takes you up to bomb-proofing, which needs to be accomplished with ballistic steel.”
Ballistic steel, he adds, is quite heavy and can’t be bent. “If you need to make a contour, you have to cut the steel into the desired positions and shapes, which can be very difficult and time consuming. It can take us three months just to bombproof a level B-7 limousine,” he reports.
But that long process only underscores Empire Coach’s commitment to its customers. Whatever way you want to cut it, Empire Coach Enterprises is a world leader in limousine construction.