Innovative designs and a keen interest in accommodating the discriminating customer have paved this company’s path to success.
By Lazelle Jones
In 2002 Mark and Jocelyn Fechner, founders and owners of American Carriage Originals, C7791, of Tehachapi, California, relocated their coach conversion business from a 7,800-square-foot production facility to a new multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art complex. The new facility sits on five acres; houses 28,000 square feet of indoor bays, shops, and office space; and includes five full-hookup sites for visiting coach owners. In the nine years that Mark and Jocelyn have been growing this privately owned custom coach conversion company, they’ve taken quantum steps.
During a visit with the Fechners, I toured the new facility and talked with them about the history of the company. Their story underscores how a young couple can realize the American dream, even while raising a family (they have three children, 12, 13, and 15 years old). I learned what sets an American Carriage custom coach conversion apart from other such vehicles, especially in an industry in which a relatively small number of companies compete for essentially the same customers. I also gained an insight into Mark and Jocelyn’s plans for future growth of the company.
First, a bit of history. In 1990 Mark was building custom homes in Southern California and decided to buy a bus and convert it into a custom motor coach. Before starting, he penciled it out and calculated that the project could be completed for approximately $40,000. But not long after purchasing a used Eagle bus and bringing it home, he recognized that the costs were going to be at least double that figure. The realization stopped Mark in his tracks, so he turned around and sold the bus. However, the fellow who bought it hired Mark to finish the conversion. He then asked Mark to complete several more conversions, which were used as executive coaches in the entertainment industry.
Mark continued building custom homes and converting coaches simultaneously until 1995, when he and Jocelyn decided that together they would pursue what by then had developed into a passion. They began building custom coach conversions full-time.
Since opening its doors for business in 1995, American Carriage has delivered 24 new custom-built coach conversions. Today the company produces four coaches a year, and the Fechners noted that they are satisfied with that level of production. In fact, with their current backlog of orders, should a customer put down a deposit, he or she may have to wait 15 months before taking delivery of a finished coach conversion.
Not long ago Mark and Jocelyn added another word to the company name: “Originals.” “We did that because that’s exactly what we design and build “” originals,” Mark explained.
I asked how long it takes, on average, to create an American Carriage Originals coach. Mark replied that it is on the high side, estimating that approximately 12,000 man-hours go into each conversion. In fact, Mark and Jocelyn identified a list of features they incorporate in the Prevost custom coach conversions they produce. As Mark described some of the modifications and additions they make to the new Prevost shells, I wasn’t surprised by that man-hour figure.
Their company will design, build, and install slideout rooms in new Prevost bus shells “” up to four slideouts, as a customer requests. Why is this done, I asked, since Prevost installs its own slideouts? They explained that if a client wants a conversion with original Prevost slideouts, they will gladly accommodate those wishes, and Mark was quick to praise the quality of Prevost’s factory-installed slideouts. But by offering American Carriage clients the option of adding the slideouts during the conversion process, floor plan designs are not limited because of constraints that might be posed by preinstalled slideouts.
“We can build any length of slide we want,” Mark explained. “We can build a 15-foot rear bedroom slide where the stateroom and the bathroom extend and retract as a single unit. The same goes for the forward slideouts. We can make them the length and depth that will accommodate the kind of preferred floor plan design a client wants.” He added that Prevost has approved the American Carriage Originals slideout design as not compromising the integrity of the monocoque construction inherent in Prevost bus shells.
Mark and Jocelyn described other original design features that they incorporate in their coach conversions. One is the rear video camera that articulates in and out from behind a door that opens and closes on the rear of the coach. They said that they are the only Prevost converter to install a pneumatically powered entry step that moves in and out below the door. The interior stairwell cover is designed so that it not only opens and closes (slides in and out) pneumatically, but it also raises up to make the surface of the floor below the passenger’s feet flush with the fixed interior floor of the coach. Another innovative exterior design element is found on the front of each coach: Mark removes the factory-installed front trim, which is made of stainless steel, and replaces it with his own stainless-steel design that bears the company logo.
As we walked through the coach conversion that American Carriage exhibited at a recent FMCA convention, Mark and Jocelyn pointed out more noteworthy features. One is a coffee table that rises up out of the floor in the living area; the table is cleverly disguised in the surface of the floor itself until controls are accessed to raise it. Hydronic radiant heated floors are also found in most American Carriage Originals conversions, and this one was no exception. Small, closed-loop tubes lace the floor of the coach below the surface (underneath carpet, granite, marble, wood, etc.) and circulate heated fluid from the hydronic system, creating a warm and comfortable environment.
The interior ceiling on the show coach we toured was designed in such a way that regardless of whether the slideouts in the living area or bedroom are extended or retracted, the slideout ceiling and the fixed interior ceiling remain visually flush with one another at all times. I was particularly impressed by this feature.
I asked the Fechners to walk me through the design and building process that’s associated with the creation of an American Carriage Originals coach. They began by showing me the 52-inch plasma screen that rises out of a solid-surface table in their design center office. With a keyboard and a mouse, the client(s) and the Fechners sit at the table and, through the use of computer-aided design software, the dream coach begins to unfold. Lining the walls of the design center is a gallery of luxurious fabrics from which the client may choose. However, the choices are not limited to what is on display. Jocelyn recalled how one couple requested a fabric that was created and woven just for them. The price per square yard: $400.
All cabinetry is designed and constructed in-house, and we walked through the cabinet shop where this takes place. We also toured the electrical shop, where the electrical systems are designed and built before being installed. Mark pointed out that all of the electrical wiring throughout the coaches is run inside conduit to provide protection. All of the exterior paint and custom graphics are applied in a state-of-the-art paint booth.
Also inside the American Carriage facility, five bays house the coaches during construction. Two additional bays are reserved for customers who bring their coaches in for service. If a coach needs to remain overnight or for several days, its owners can live in it while it is parked in one of the five full-hookup RV sites at the facility.
“We always respond immediately to our clients’ needs. They are put at the top of the list, regardless of whether they have an appointment or not,” Mark said. “That’s the way it has to be.”
What does the future hold for American Carriage? Mark and Jocelyn said that they intend to remain at their current level of production into the foreseeable future. One reason is that the service they provide is so specifically tailored to each client’s needs that to do otherwise would compromise the image they have worked so hard to cultivate among custom coach aficionados. For Mark and Jocelyn, and especially for each of their clients, every American Carriage coach truly is an Original.
American Carriage Originals, 1401 Goodrick Road, Tehachapi, CA 93561; (800) 631-0951, (661) 822-1767; www.americancarriage.com