How Limousines Work

A parked limo with its door open in front of a red carpet.
The 727 limo sits on a bus chassis and is a great example of decadence on wheels. Robert Daly / Getty Images

­When thinking about the various trappings of wealth, you probably imagine huge mansions, enormous swimming pools, fancy clothes and, of course, beautiful limousines stocked with expensive alcohol and state-of-the-art electronic gadgets. While limousines were once a luxury enjoyed mainly by the extremely rich, today they're a staple of airport transportation and a favored way to arrive at formals, dances and weddings.

What exactly is a limousine? For many people, the word "limousine" conjures up the image of an incredibly long car with lots of dark-tinted windows. Actually, a limousine can be as simple as a nice Lincoln Town Car. There's no standard limousine make or model -- instead, the word refers to a vehicle that has a larger compartment in the back half of the car than your average automobile. To call a car a limousine, you really just need a nice car that has a lot of leg room in the rear compartment. It also helps if you have a driver, or chauffeur, driving the car for you while you relax in the back.


The word "limousine" comes from a town in France called Limousin. The original limousine wasn't a vehicle at all -- it was a piece of clothing. Shepherds in Limousin created a raincoat with a hood to protect them from the elements. They called this hooded cloak a limousine. Eventually, coach-builders in Paris began to call covered coaches limousines (some speculate the first coach-builder to do so was from Limousin). Wealthy passengers could sit under cover while a driver handled the horses [source: Lancashire Limos].

Stretch limousines like this one are popular choices for people going to formals, dances and weddings.
Photo Leo Cinezi, SXC

As the horseless carriage became popular, the term was applied to automobiles driven by a hired man to transport passengers, who sat comfortably in the back. Limousine services sprang up in places like New York City, where entrepreneurs foresaw a market for visitors who wanted to travel in luxury. As early as the 1920s, businessmen began to create limousine companies, some of which still exist today [source: Limo Broker].

In this article, we'll look at some of the popular vehicles used as limousines straight off the factory line. We'll also look at how independent companies convert standard vehicles into stretch limousines. We'll sample some of the amenities you can find in most limousines, as well as a few more exotic options. Finally, we'll look at some facts and figures regarding limousines and chauffers.

In the next section, we'll learn about the common vehicles used as limousines.


Limousine Manufacturers

A classic stretch limousine
Photo Ivaylo Georgiev, SXC

While the limo isn't a specific model of car, several car companies created vehicles that are well-suited for limousine service. Early luxury cars included vehicles from LeBaron, Fleetwood, Willoughby, Derham and Fisher. Early Cadillacs also saw use as limousines. You could hire out practically any luxury automobile with a driver and call it a limousine.

Bentley built 20 specialized Arnage limousines, making them one of the most rare limo models in the world. Bentley allowed those who purchased one of the limousines practically limitless options to customize their car. Their choices ranged from the color of the interior and exterior to custom-made drinks cabinets and their choice of electronic gadgetry. Bentley is more of an exception to the rule, though -- most car companies don't even come close to offering that kind of customization.


Conversion shops can turn exotic cars like Humvees into stretch limousines.
Photo SXC

The Lincoln Town Car is still a very popular choice for luxury car limos. These cars are famous for having a roomy interior and a smooth ride, and so are often used by limousine services. Conversion companies frequently choose the Lincoln Town Car when building stretch limousines.

Many limousine companies also offer services using a Cadillac or Mercedes-Benz. These manufacturers have built a reputation on comfort and style. For many years, Cadillac was the only domestic car company producing limousines -- events during the Great Depression and World War II severely impacted the limousine industry, and Cadillac was the only domestic company able to survive in that market.

Many limousine services also use classic automobiles. You can find limo companies offering customers a chance to ride in a luxurious Rolls-Royce in almost every major city. Rolls-Royce built cars with elegant and mysterious names like the Silver Cloud, the Phantom and the Wraith. Some of these models even left the driver's compartment uncovered, harkening back to the days of horse-drawn coaches.

Most people think of amazing stretch limousines with lavish interiors when they talk about limos. Enterprising limousine companies have capitalized on that image by converting everything from Lincoln Navigator SUVs to MINI Coopers to Lamborghinis in an effort to entice customers and please fickle celebrities. Some go to even further extremes and use vehicles never meant for the street.

In the next section, we'll look at the conversion process to turn an ordinary car into a stretch limo.


Limo Conversion

The interior of a stretch limo, complete with bar and entertainment center.
Photo Marc Dorset, SXC

A company called Armbruster built the first stretch limousine in 1928. They built the coach -- otherwise known as the compartment where the passengers sit -- specifically to transport larger groups of affluent people. Armbruster and other companies built these cars from the ground up rather than convert an existing vehicle; the cars were always meant to be longer cars that could hold more passengers than your average automobile.

Eventually, Armbruster merged with a company called Stageway Coaches and stopped building its own cars. The new company began to convert Cadillac and Lincoln cars into stretch limousines, mainly for funeral processions. As stretch limousines became more popular, other companies began to enter the market, converting everything from classic luxury vehicles to high-end sports cars and SUVs.


Rolls-Royce cars like this one were often used as limousines.
Photo Getty Images

Some companies use more sophisticated tools than others, but the actual series of steps remains pretty much the same among companies. First, they strip the interior out of the car and protect everything remaining with fire-resistant paper -- including any glass. Next, mechanics mount the car on a set of rails. You can adjust the rails to elevate the car off the ground. The rails help keep the front and back of the car aligned properly. Usually one side of the rails rests on a rolling dolly.

Mechanics then cut the car in half -- the most crucial part of any conversion. Some mechanics use laser-guided machinery to make precise cuts while others rely on the skilled hand of an experienced mechanic. The back half of the car mounted on the rails' dolly section is pulled back.

Next, mechanics weld a base to the front and back half of the car, extending it to its ultimate length. They weld in temporary braces to keep the frame from twisting or warping -- any errors in this step could cause the vehicle to become unsafe or even impossible to drive. Mechanics extend the drive line from the engine back to the rear axle by connecting multiple drive lines together. They extend the electrical components using connectors between the original wiring and the new wiring that will extend the length of the car.

Once the mechanics put the base in place and extended the driveline -- the parts of the power train -- pillar posts are installed where new doors will attach to the body of the limousine. The floor pan (the floor of the limousine) is installed, covering up the driveline and framework. Mechanics must also reinforce the brakes, suspension and steering mechanisms for the car -- adding more mass to the car means that it becomes more difficult to control and stop due to inertia.

Next, a prefabricated exterior is installed over the limo's frame and the vehicle is outfitted with a new interior, including any lavish amenities. Finally, the limo goes into the paint shop, where painters give it a uniform, brand new paint job.

In the next section, we'll look at some of the amenities you can find in the world's most luxurious limousines.


Limousine Amenities

Hugh Heffner and friends pose in the highly stylized Playboy limousine. A swank limo interior with neon lighting
Photo David Klein, Getty Images Photo © Demonike |
Hugh Heffner and friends pose in the highly stylized Playboy limousine. A swank limo interior with neon lighting
Photo David Klein, Getty Images Photo © Demonike |

Most limousine companies (and car manufacturers) feel that doubling the length of the original vehicle is about as long as you can go before a car is no longer able to pass the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), though some push this a little further than others. In an industry where owners have to differentiate themselves from the competition, the only option, apart from going longer, is to make the interior as opulent, technologically advanced or outrageous as possible.

Practically every limousine has a bar or drinks cabinet containing enough alcohol to keep a rambunctious bachelor party going for hours. Some bars include fancy glasses made of crystal, polished counters lined with neon lights and even a sink with running water. Some limousine bars can give Las Vegas clubs a run for their money in terms of glitz and excess.


Another big focus in limousine amenities is the entertainment system. You can rent a limousine with plasma screen televisions, DVD players, surround-sound systems with theater-quality speakers, satellite radio and video game consoles. Some companies convert buses into limousines and even include a dance floor or karaoke system.

Other signs of excess in the limousine industry range from mirrored ceilings to crystal chandeliers. Some limo interiors are filled with blinking lights and neon tubing. Many have funky seats upholstered in leather or other expensive materials. Bentley's limousines contain handcrafted cabinet work, expensive veneers and expensive communications systems so that you can stay in touch with the office even as you ride in complete luxury.

Many limousines include intercom systems so that passengers can communicate with the limo driver without lowering a privacy barrier. Most limos also have telephones installed so that you can call your best friend and ask, "Guess where I'm calling you from?"

In the next section, we'll look at some facts and figures in the world of limousines.


Limousine Facts and Figures

A Mexican limousine company converted this 727 into a luxurious stretch limousine.
Photo Victor Serra, Getty Images

You might be surprised to find out that you may need a special license in order to operate a limousine or that manufacturers have to pay a "gas guzzler tax" --"intended to discourage the production and purchase of fuel-inefficient cars" [source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency].The facts and figures below can help sort out gas mileage, safety and costs associated with owning or renting a limo.


There isn't a standardized licensing requirement for chauffeurs from one state to another. Some states require chauffeurs pass a specific test to become licensed, while others simply require the applicant to fill out a form. Many states don't require anything more than a standard license, though some might require that the chauffeur apply for a commercial license if the limousine is going to carry large numbers of passengers at one time.



Limousines have to meet the same safety standards as other vehicles. In theory, every conversion shop has to put every vehicle variation through a battery of tests, including crash tests, to ensure the safety of the driver and passengers. The government periodically inspects vehicles and requests proof from limousine companies that their vehicles have been tested.

Gas Mileage

In general, limousines get lousy gas mileage, though it varies from vehicle to vehicle (and even a Lincoln stretch limo from one company might get vastly different mileage from a different company's stretch Lincoln). Limousine companies have to pay a "gas guzzler tax" on each vehicle [source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]. Essentially, this is compensation to the government for all the pollution the limousine will create over its life of service.


In a similar vein, the cost of limousines range from bargain buys to extravagant purchases. A custom-built Arnage limousine might be more than $300,000, while a used stretch Lincoln might go for less than $30,000. Conversions can range almost as much depending upon the base vehicle, the length you want to stretch it, and the amenities you choose to include.

Services and Dealers

There are hundreds of limousine services in the United States that rent limos and provide drivers to the general public. There are also hundreds of private operators who either hire themselves out to anyone or become a personal driver for a wealthy person. Before you rent a limo -- or purchase one for yourself -- it pays to do some research on the limousine company. Make sure the company tests its vehicles and, if possible, find out what the certification process is for its drivers. Reputation in the limousine industry is very important, so try to pick a company with a good one. That way, when you're riding in the back with several of your friends, all you'll have to worry about is what everyone wants to drink.

To learn more about limousines and related subjects, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related How Stuff Works Articles

More Great Links

  • "Airplane-limo goes out for a spin." El Universal.
  • CoolFuel Roadtrip.
  • How do they make a Limousine?
  • History of Limousines. Limo Broker. information/limo-history/index.htm
  • Qualified Vehicle Modifiers. Ford Web site. vehicles/QVM_F.asp
  • The History of the Limousine. Lancashire Limos.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Gas Guzzler Tax.