This 35-year-old company continues to carve its niche in the minds of discriminating motorhome customers.
By Lazelle D. Jones
Family owned and operated since its inception in 1968, Liberty Coach Inc. has grown to become a pivotal player in the coach conversion market. The rich traditions of craftsmanship Frank Konigseder started a generation ago are today carried out by his sons, Frank Jr. and Kurt, who now oversee the company.
In August 2003, I paid a visit to Liberty Coach’s North Chicago, Illinois, home office and plant complex to examine the Liberty Coach product and explore how the company managed to remain an important player in the ultra-high-end luxury custom coach conversion market. I was able to garner a firsthand accounting of the company’s rich history, which is intertwined with FMCA’s own story.
Frank senior’s father, also named Frank, arrived from Germany during the 1920s. Drawing upon his skills as a pattern maker in the foundry industry, the eldest Konigseder started a foundry of his own. The foundry “” located across the street from Liberty Coach’s offices “” is still in operation and still owned and run by the Konigseder family. Frank senior learned the foundry business from his dad, just as Kurt and the youngest Frank would learn the business from theirs.
As a family, Frank senior and his wife, Jeanne, enjoyed taking their two boys on family camping trips. Their camping lifestyle evolved from using tents to traveling with a truck and camper. During the week, Jeanne would use the company truck to pick up and deliver parts for the foundry. On weekends, Frank senior would slide a camper into the truck’s bed, and off they’d go to the woods. They did buy one motorhome, Frank junior told me, but it was a debacle; it broke down all of the time.
In the late 1960s Frank senior decided to buy a used bus and convert it into a motor coach, a project that many FMCA members no doubt remember as being popular at that time. It was a Greyhound bus on a GM 4104 chassis that was powered by a 6-71 Detroit Diesel engine. To this day, the Konigseders say, the bus is still being used somewhere in the Tucson, Arizona, area. Frank senior first conceived of the idea of using a Greyhound bus because his foundry had a contract with the Greyhound Corporation to cast the aluminum plaques (in the shape of a greyhound dog) that were placed on the outside of every bus. He knew Greyhound was always trying to figure out ways to dispose of its used buses, so he decided to buy one for his first coach conversion.
Frank Konigseder Sr. created Liberty Coach Inc., naming the company after his hometown, nearby Libertyville, Illinois, located five miles west of the factory. For the next 10 years Liberty and the Greyhound Corporation would do conversion business together, with Frank showing the bus conversions at RV shows around the country. To underscore the opportunities and possibilities a bus conversion offered, Greyhound also provided an empty bus shell for display alongside Frank’s completed coach conversion. For several years, this business arrangement between Liberty Coach and Greyhound worked well for everybody concerned, and helped Liberty Coach to become a name that has maintained great equity in the coach conversion business over the years.
Frank took this first bus conversion to the July 1972 FMCA convention in Essex Junction, Vermont, and immediately sold it. Over the next six years he would complete a dozen used bus conversions, showing and selling them at FMCA conventions. But everything changed for Liberty Coach at the 1978 summer FMCA convention in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This particular convention proved to be a milestone event, not only for the future of Liberty Coach but for the entire custom coach conversion industry.
Prevost, a bus manufacturer that was then owned by Andre Normand, had long recognized the potential market that existed for custom bus conversions. In 1978, Andre approached Frank with a proposal. Prevost would provide Liberty Coach with an empty shell that Frank’s company would convert and then show at RV events. According to the agreement, at the end of a year Liberty Coach could either buy the coach shell from Prevost or sell the coach conversion to recover costs. Frank agreed to the idea and took his first-ever, all-new Liberty Coach Prevost custom conversion to the March 1979 FMCA convention in Del Mar, California.
That first Liberty Coach Prevost was priced at $149,000 “” a small sum when compared to today’s converted coach prices, but at the time there was concern it might be too expensive to generate any real interest. However, Frank wrote 12 orders for new Prevost coach conversions at the convention, and he promised that Liberty Coach would deliver all 12 coaches to their new owners within 12 months. As one can imagine, returning to North Chicago with orders for 12 custom coach conversions dramatically and forever changed life not only for the Konigseder family but for every one else at Liberty Coach as well. And yes, Liberty Coach did meet all 12 of the promised one-year delivery dates.
To date, Liberty has completed more than 560 custom coach conversions, with the plant in North Chicago currently operating at a capacity of 28 conversions a year. Located on the same property and immediately adjacent to the original foundry that Grandfather Frank started back in the 1930s, the Liberty Coach facility today occupies 30,000 square feet of floor space. It includes a full-service, five-bay customer service center, but no showroom.
A sales and service center for new and preowned coaches was opened in 2001 on seven acres at 635 S.E. Monterey Road in Stuart, Florida, just north of Palm Beach. This location features one of the largest, if not the largest, indoor custom coach showrooms (16,000 square feet) found anywhere. A total of eight coaches can be displayed inside. The service department includes six service bays and hookups to accommodate as many as 15 customer coaches.
The Stuart facility reflects the business decision made by Frank junior and Kurt to offer factory-direct sales, in lieu of making their unique product available through independent dealers or a middleman. To the benefit of the customer, this means the client deals directly with the folks who design and build the coaches, the people who know and understand the product best. In addition, the costs associated with selling through independent dealers are eliminated.
So, who are these two guys (Frank junior and Kurt Konigseder) who today stand at the helm of Liberty Coach? Both grew up working in the family foundry and then at Liberty Coach under the direction of their father. Frank junior has a degree in mechanical engineering; Kurt has a degree in business. No two disciplines could be more compatible in the world of converting custom coaches. From those days back in 1968 when it was their job to remove all of the seats and strip the interior of that first Greyhound bus so their dad could begin converting it, Kurt and Frank junior have known that they wanted to follow their dad’s lead, to guide Liberty Coach into the future.
The family element at Liberty Coach extends beyond Frank and Kurt and includes their spouses. Frank junior’s wife, Carolyn, is responsible for the creation and design of all exterior graphics and paint schemes. She also plans, coordinates, and directs all of the Liberty Coach Club rallies. Kurt’s wife, Kim, is the resident Liberty Coach interior designer, the person who works directly with each client, helping him or her make the many decisions facing new coach conversion customers. As were their parents before them, Frank and Kurt, along with Carolyn and Kim, are dedicated to ensuring the satisfaction of each and every Liberty customer. And as Liberty Coach customers will tell you, the Konigseders do their job very, very well.