Stretching the Limits
The anonymous message showed up in the voice mail of World Class Limousine last month. "It's good you run black cars," the caller said, "because you're going to need them for the funeral."
"I expected some flak over this, but not to this extent," says Major Marcks, the operator of World Class. Marcks and his associate, Arnold "Andy" Poppenberg III, owner of Denver Lincoln Limousine, are waging a frustrating battle to bring tougher standards to Denver's booming -- and highly competitive -- limousine business.
"The fact is, you've got limousine companies out there that aren't following the rules," Poppenberg says. "It's hard for me to follow the rules when most of the others aren't."
Marcks and Poppenberg have contacted a laundry list of state and federal regulators, asking questions about "stretch conversions" -- luxury sedans purchased from a dealer, then chopped and extended by custom coach-builders ten to twenty feet beyond their original length so that they can accommodate from ten to sixteen passengers. The pair claim that most of the mega-limos rolling through the metro area are improperly registered, costing the state and local counties thousands of dollars in lost taxes and fees. And some of the monsters, they say, may actually be unsafe to operate.
"Some of these vehicles don't comply with federal safety standards," Poppenberg insists. "With some of them, you park on a hill at thirty degrees and the parking brake can't hold the weight after five minutes."
State officials acknowledge that Marcks and Poppenberg have some cause for complaint. Thanks to a glitch in the enforcement process, it appears that several stretch-limo operators in the state have paid less than they should in registration fees, which are based on the vehicle's taxable value and weight. The exact dollar amount of lost revenues is unknown.
But federal regulators, citing a lack of supporting data, are skeptical of the claims that stretch limos are unsafe. Longer limos must be properly modified, they say, to deal with the additional weight -- for example, by installing heavy-duty brakes. Still, there are no reports of super-stretches running amok this side of a Stephen King novel.
"More length doesn't make something inherently unsafe," says Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Otherwise, a tractor-trailer would be unsafe. There's no reason for people hiring a limousine to be worried that they're endangering themselves. In general, the industry works with us; they're not about to endanger their customers."
Although they've managed to bend some ears at the Colorado Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Revenue, Poppenberg and Marcks know they aren't going to win any popularity contests among their colleagues. Both men say they've received anonymous threats and have reported them to the police. But the ride could get even bumpier as they push the PUC to take a closer look at the stretch craze -- a segment of the limousine market that has taken off in recent years as clients who rent limos only for proms and other special occasions seek increasingly novel and outlandish wheels.
Poppenberg became aware of irregularities in registering stretch vehicles when he learned that the license plates for his own new 120-inch stretch Lincoln would cost him roughly $1,200. He requested registration records on stretches owned by several of his competitors and discovered that their owners were paying considerably less. The vehicles in question had been registered as sedans at the time of purchase and never reassessed, even though they had subsequently undergone extensive modifications. In some cases, limos that were much longer and more valuable than his had been charged several hundred dollars less in fees and taxes.
"The trick is to buy the vehicle here, get it registered and then send it out to be extended," Poppenberg says. "It's not right. If I have to pay $1,200 for my plates to operate a commercial vehicle, everyone else who operates a similar vehicle should have to pay the same amount."
"There are a hell of a lot of people running stretches that aren't registered properly," says Marcks. "We're conservatively estimating that 80 percent of them in the state are that way."
State law requires owners to re-register vehicles when they add permanent "mounted equipment" weighing more than 500 pounds. But the Motor Vehicle Division deals in paperwork and rarely inspects a vehicle before renewing a registration. The PUC conducts annual inspections of limousines but rarely looks at the registration issue.
Poppenberg's protests didn't go unnoticed. "He's got valid concerns," says Linda Huyghebaert, an administrator with the state Department of Revenue. "We almost never have a reason to say to a registrant, 'Has this vehicle been modified?' This goes across several agencies. Each one of us has our own little niche, but unfortunately, we haven't figured out the mechanism to get it resolved."
But since Poppenberg started making his inquiries, Huyghebaert has met with representatives of the PUC and the state highway patrol to discuss the problem. "We're trying to work it so that everybody is treated equally," she says.
Lee Smith, chief of transportation for the PUC, says his agency will be looking closer at registrations now that it's been notified of the problem. "If we see one that's a limo and is registered as a sedan, we'll probably pass it over to Revenue," Smith says. "What they do with it is up to them."
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."
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."
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