Two Glen Burnie limousine companies are cashing in on a new vehicle that has crowds gawking at the car instead of the cargo.
With the sports utility vehicle craze still going strong and healthy growth in the driver-for-hire business, ZBest Limousine Inc. and All Stretched Out are making the most of both trends. Now when people go tooling around the streets of Baltimore, they may notice a hefty Lincoln Navigator driving by, and by and by.
Casually called "the truck" by the folks at ZBest, their four-wheel-drive white Navigator boasts some impressive features. At 36 feet long, it contains winding, U-shaped tan leather seats that can accommodate up to 25 passengers. The full bar and mirrored ceilings are accented by an array of tiny lights that slowly change color every few seconds. Five televisions and a 1,000-watt stereo system provide the entertainment. The marble floors aren't just for looks; they also make cleanup easier -- especially after a night of toting around binge-drinking partyers.
Mert Onal, owner of ZBest, said the Navigator -- which gets only about 11 miles to the gallon -- cost about $150,000 -- $50,000 for the vehicle and $100,000 to have it stretched. It rents for $230 an hour with a six-hour minimum on weekends. Regular limos that seat between six and 18 passengers start at $55 an hour and top out at $125 an hour.
Students who want the Navigator eight-hour prom package, extremely popular this time of year, must cough up $2,000. ZBest's slightly smaller black Lexus LX450 SUV that seats 18 and features most of the same bells and whistles rents for $150 an hour.
Onal has been in business five years and said his company has grown about 75 percent annually. He has plans to convert two more SUVs -- a Range Rover and possibly a Mercedes.
Nationwide, the limo industry has doubled its business since the 1980s -- from $2 billion to $4 billion annually, said Wayne Smith, executive director or the National Limousine Association. He said the growth is due largely to the robust economy and a greater awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.
Smith said there are probably about a dozen companies in the United States that do SUV stretching, but many probably produce only one or two a year. The industry trend, he said, has shifted away from giant vehicles.
"In the '80s, the business was 80 percent stretch and 20 percent sedan. Now it's 30 percent stretch and 70 percent sedan," he said. "Corporate America does not want to be perceived as riding around in stretch limousines. They can get the same service with a sedan, and it's more cost effective."
But opulence is the name of the game at ZBest and All Stretched Out, which has a 20-passenger black Navigator. Both companies say their SUVs are booked on weekends through June, and many brides have called and reserved them for summer and fall weddings.
Jeff Carter, owner of J.A.C. Communications in Baltimore County, rented All Stretched Out's Navigator earlier this month to celebrate his 10th wedding anniversary with his wife, Elizabeth.
"This thing's phenomenal! It has everything -- it even has Nintendo 64," he said.
"You talk about an ego booster. If you're ever down in the dumps, just ride in this thing and by the time you get out you'll be a new person."
Carter said the Navigator turned more heads than his '97 Corvette.
"We passed one guy who was mowing grass and he turned his head to look at us so long that he turned his riding mower right into a light post," he said.
Randy Murphy, ZBest's senior driver, said onlookers, not the truck's length, pose the only real driving challenges.
"A 20-minute ride turns into a 40-minute ride just because of all the gawkers," he said. "People are actually stopping, especially on Martin Luther King Boulevard for some reason, and getting out of their cars to look at it. They're just oblivious to what's going on -- it's actually quite dangerous."
Bob Haswell, president of Craftsmen Limousines, Inc. in Ozark, Mo., did the customizing for both local companies. Demand in this country is less than a year old, he said, but back in 1993 he turned two Chevrolet Suburbans into limos for a princess in Saudi Arabia -- one "Pepto-Bismol pink and the other we called Barney because it was huge and purple."
He said there's now demand for the limos across the United States., although it's concentrated in Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Ohio, California and Baltimore. Haswell said he's stretched about 30 SUVs since last fall and estimated that there are fewer than 50 SUV limos in the country.
Marsha Tortora, owner of the Empire Coach Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she gets a lot of business from Saudi Arabian royalty. But some of the 25 SUVs she customized last year went to U.S. limo companies that rent them to rap groups. There's also a relatively strong demand from Russia, she said, for bullet-proofed Suburbans that have been stretched and converted into offices.
"I don't know who they were for," Tortora said. "I operate on a need-to-know basis, and I didn't need to know that."
To customize a vehicle, Haswell strips it bare, removing the seats and wiring, and saws it in half. He then builds a steel frame and impact beams for the base and doors, adds an aluminum skin and reconnects the wiring. Throw in some leather seats, fancy floors and a bar, and he's got a brand new limo.
It takes at least three months for Haswell and his 36 employees to finish a truck. But ZBest's general manager, George Rains, said it's worth the wait.
"We try to have the newest and latest and greatest," he said. "When people see it, they're like, 'Wow!' People always want to be in something out of the ordinary."
Pub Date: 5/27/98