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The law says it's the owner's responsibility to report modifications to a vehicle within twenty days. But that's news to many limo operators.
"A limousine could be a thousand things," says Darren Weidenhamer, manager of Ecstasy & Sunset Limousine. "It doesn't have to say 'limousine' on the registration. That's my understanding."
The flagship of Weidenhamer's fleet is a fourteen-passenger stretch Lincoln Navigator. It's registered as a sport utility vehicle with a taxable value of $39,363, despite the additional weight and value of its 200-inch post-purchase conversion. But Weidenhamer says he already paid taxes in another state on the conversion and is unaware of any requirement to re-register. "It's the same vehicle," he says. "It's just like customizing your Corvette. There are guys who are stretching everything -- Hummers, VW bugs, whatever you want. And you pay taxes on every conversion."
A 1993 Westword story detailing Denver cabbies' troubles with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
Franci Ouzounis, president of the Limousine Association of Colorado, says she doubts that improper registrations are as pervasive in the industry as Marcks and Poppenberg claim. "I suppose it could happen," she says. "I don't know that many people who do conversions anymore. Most people buy their stretches straight from the builder, and that's how you're taxed."
But Poppenberg isn't satisfied with simply untangling the registration mess. Last month he filed a motion with the PUC asking the agency to adopt federal requirements for disclosing how vehicles have been modified so that such disclosures would have to be made at a state level. The move is necessary, he and Marcks believe, because the public is unaware of the potential safety hazards involved in the more extreme modifications.
"The general public sees 'Lincoln Town Car' and assumes it's built by Ford," Poppenberg says. "In actuality, there are 46 companies throughout the United States that will make a limousine -- but only thirteen of them have gone to Ford and GM and agreed to meet their specifications for how it should be done."
Last week the PUC denied Poppenberg's request. Even if the federal standards had been adopted, federal regulators concede that they do little actual inspection of the thousands of stretch vehicles that hit the road each year. The industry is self-certifying, which means that when a company modifies a limo prior to purchase, it slaps a label on it attesting that it meets federal safety standards. But when the vehicle is modified after purchase, "there's no requirement that the vehicle be labeled at all," says Harry Thompson, a safety-compliance official with the NHTSA. "It's a little quirk in the law, but that's what we have to live with."
Yet Thompson says he's had few reports in recent years of safety concerns involving stretches. "I hear a few random complaints," he says, "but nothing that would lead me to buy one of these things and test it. I'd be buying a $60,000 vehicle and maybe spending $20,000 testing it. That's not something I'm ready to do on one or two complaints."
Automakers have sought to enlist the stretch-builders in quality-control agreements such as Ford's Qualified Vehicle Modifier (QVM) program in order to produce limos that meet manufacturer's standards. Ford no longer honors warranties on vehicles that have been stretched more than ten feet and has threatened lawsuits against coach-builders to get them to remove the Ford logo from vehicles the company considers to have been altered beyond recognition. Limousine & Chauffeur, an industry magazine, has even declined to accept advertising from conversion companies that don't participate in the Ford or GM programs, citing liability concerns.
But while some operators, including Poppenberg, swear by the certification programs, others swear at them. The critics say the programs are an attempt to limit the market to "cookie-cutter cars" and discourage innovation. "To me, QVM is a farce," says Ouzounis, who also operates White Dove Limousine. "I think some of the QVM builders are not as good as some of the non-QVM builders."
Weidenhamer agrees. "QVM means nothing to me," he says. "I'm not going to buy a vehicle that's not totally safe. That would be stupidity on my part." Although super-stretches like Weidenhamer's Navigator aren't part of Ford's program, he says his conversion company has taken appropriate safety measures and has even crash-tested stretch vehicles. "The only problem with more length," Weidenhamer says, "is that the parts are going to wear out faster. I replace front-end parts on my car every six months."
Poppenberg insists that size matters, particularly when the vehicles exceed what the manufacturer is willing to place under warranty. "If you were to take off the street the cars that weren't built to QVM standards, out of a thousand vehicles, you'd be left with maybe 200," he says. "My argument is that people ought to know."
Ouzounis says her trade association tries to educate operators about regulations and help promote ethical business practices. But members don't always agree on what the standards should be. Out of the hundreds of limo companies now doing business in the state, only a few dozen operators -- including Poppenberg and Weidenhamer -- belong to the organization.
Despite their differences, Ouzounis says the operators who've been around for a few years know how to run a safe, successful business. "It's a very unforgiving industry," she says. "It's high overhead, low profit. Just about when you get all your vehicles paid off, you have to replace them. If you're not a good businessperson, this industry will kill you."