Custom Coach Corporation celebrates 50 years in the bus conversion business.
By Robbin Gould
Kirwan Elmers, L145, has been in the driver’s seat for decades. Throughout his journey, he has accumulated decades of fascinating memories associated with motor coaching, FMCA, and individuals he’s met along the way. His vehicle? Custom Coach Corporation “” the company he cofounded with his father, Miles “” which has provided coach conversions to private individuals, corporations, entertainers, and political candidates since 1955. The company celebrates its 50th anniversary on October 1.
Custom Coach “” headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, since its inception “” today is part of Farber Specialty Vehicles, also based in Columbus, which purchased the company’s assets in 2002.
One might say that Kirwan began preparing for this journey in the 1940s. His father was an entrepreneur who traveled extensively around the United States while marketing various products. In the summer months, Miles loaded up the Elmers family and took them along. Interstates were not yet built, and food, water, and lodging varied widely. Likewise, no vehicles existed on the market to accommodate family travel and business needs. The Elmerses eventually solved the problem by building their own travel trailers in which to canvass the country.
“Our family’s soap business [“all” laundry detergent, which Miles established] required a lot of travel and was the catalyst for building the first motorhome coach,” Kirwan said. “We built the first ‘Land Cruiser’ for our own family travel in 1952. When people later began asking how to get one built for themselves, we started Custom Coach Corporation.” It became the first company to commercially convert coaches for private use.
As pioneers in this new industry, Miles and Kirwan learned as they went, engineering, building, and marketing these newfangled units. They constructed motorhomes in various sizes and price ranges, even building their own bus shell for a time.
The company brought many innovations to the conversion vehicle market. In 1956 Custom Coach pioneered the first permanently installed automatic transmissions in an intercity-type bus shell; in 1965, the first rearview television camera. In 1967 it debuted the first cruise control in the coach industry, and in 1976 it incorporated the first contemporary Ultrasuede interior in a motorhome. Custom Coach became the first to move the dinette to the galley area, and one of the first to incorporate residential-style bathrooms. They developed a forward lounge area as well. In the early 1970s the company built the first 40-foot conversion. As far back as 1982, Custom Coach vehicles boasted central air conditioning. In 1986 the company introduced the Q/C One, named for its “quick change” rear lounge, which converted from a lounge with sofas to two twin beds or a queen-size island bed.
The company’s client list reads like a Who’s Who of famous folk. Custom Coach has created units for scores of entertainers, including Lee Greenwood, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Donna Fargo, Merle Haggard, The Marshall Tucker Band, Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, and The Glenn Miller Orchestra. Sportscaster John Madden enjoyed the use of several “Maddencruisers” over the years; the sports world also brought pro football stars Deion Sanders and Jerome Bettis, plus boxing great Muhammad Ali, to the company’s door.
Custom Coach has produced 22 “Big Mac” coaches for McDonald’s, as well as customized vehicles for the late Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy’s fast-food chain, and Anheuser-Busch CEO August Busch III. Ford Motor Company, MTV, Time magazine, and C-SPAN are just a few of its myriad corporate clients. The company converted Clinton/Gore and Dole/Kemp presidential campaign buses, and Senator John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express.” The Goodyear Blimp fleet has been tethered to earth courtesy of Custom Coach vehicles. And 18 coaches have been crafted for the royal family of Saudi Arabia. In 1996 a specially outfitted “Olympic Cruiser” participated in the Olympic Torch Relay.
Custom Coach also has converted dreams on wheels for scores of private individuals. In the 1960s the company completed a GM 4104 conversion for the Dick Graves family, F404, of Reno, Nevada, which the family used to tour Africa and Europe. A photo of the Graveses’ coach, named “Rikajujo” after the four Graves children (Rich, Kay, Judy, and Joanne), appeared on the cover of the June 1964 issue of Family Motor Coaching as it was being loaded onto an ocean liner in Los Angeles just prior to being shipped to Mombasa, Kenya.
Dick and Sarah Huskey, F265148, of Cincinnati, Ohio, took delivery of their very first coach “” an H3-45 Prevost conversion “” from Custom Coach six years ago. Since then, Kirwan said, they have traveled to 46 of the 48 continental states, plus Alaska, with three boys and a dog.
Early on the Elmerses realized the value of solid construction, which remains a company goal. “We do so much repeat business [because] we build what people want and use high-quality components,” Kirwan said. “Our long suit always has been how the coach goes down the road; we build in comfort, safety, and reliability. The buses cost more, but they last longer. Although we don’t use our own shells, they have our touch. People can get service. It’s a well-engineered application.”
The name “Custom Coach” has aptly described the business over the years, as it mirrors the company’s philosophy: to build products specifically tailored to each customer’s wants and needs. The in-depth care Kirwan has shown toward each customer has reaped more than just financial benefits. He has developed close friendships with a number of clients over the years. Photos of many of them line his office walls.
The Farber company moniker likewise has existed for decades. In 1920 the Farber family began selling Model Ts, then eventually Tucker automobiles. In the 1960s the company’s focus switched to recreation vehicles. For the past 25-plus years, Farber has manufactured custom-built mobile units for police, medical, Homeland Security, communications, educational, and business purposes. Farber’s vehicles include mobile command, community outreach, and crime lab units; computer labs and mobile classrooms; mammography, bloodmobile, dental, and medical screening units; bookmobiles; and E.L.F. (extremely low floor) vehicles.
A second family business, Farber RV Superstore, also based in Columbus, represents Winnebago, Fleetwood, Newmar, Forest River, Keystone, R-Vision, and Damon RVs.
Custom Coach was “a perfect fit” for Farber Specialty Vehicles, according to Steve Farber, company president. “They’ve always been going down the same track as us; they did big buses, and we did everything else. Now we’re doing buses that are high-tech on the inside.” He noted that Farber’s experience in constructing vehicles for military, police, and medical uses, among others, which often involve high-tech applications, has been a boon to Custom Coach conversions. By the same token, many of the Custom Coach craftspeople, experienced in years of creating high-quality interiors, remain with the company, now working on all types of Farber vehicles. Farber also has remained committed to repairing, building, and refurbishing buses and servicing Custom Coach customers. Approximately 100 employees work at the company’s 50,000-square-foot facility.
Depending on the customer’s wishes, Farber vehicles can be built on semi-trailers, commercial vehicles, bus shells “” whatever is needed. Similarly, Custom Coach conversions are built on any bus shell the client desires.
Although Custom Coach still produces conversions for private individuals, Kirwan said, “the business has sloped toward people who buy a coach and use it for more of a business application, or toward coaches sold to corporations. We have a little different slice [of the market] than a lot of other manufacturers.” He added that it’s a more rigorous application, because many of these corporate vehicles typically are used for frequent, high-mileage travel, as opposed to some motorhomes that may be parked for long periods between being driven to another destination. The heavy usage of Custom Coach conversions dictates that they be constructed using heavy-duty materials, he said.
Recently Kirwan had the opportunity to revisit one Custom Coach conversion that the company completed in 1975 for Anheuser-Busch. The coach’s new owner visited the Farber company offices with a contingent of fellow Iowans. “It was a 30-year-old coach and still looked good,” Kirwan said. “It was nice to see how much they were enjoying it.”
Many of Kirwan’s treasured memories involve FMCA, with which he was closely allied from the start. He attended the inaugural meeting of “house car” owners in Hinckley, Maine, in July 1963, which led to the formation of the Family Motor Coach Association. In 1964 Custom Coach joined FMCA as commercial member C14.
“Our company was helped a lot by the start of FMCA and its wonderful magazine as it helped ‘spread the gospel’ of private motorhomes that families could buy and truly enjoy. In those days, a motorhome was a brand-new idea and the FMCA publication was truly a ‘bible’ for those interested in finding out more about this new way of life for families to enjoy,” he said. “And, since we were the only one with the really big coaches, it was a big help.”
For many years, Kirwan served as president of FMCA’s Commercial Council, a group composed of FMCA commercial members from within the RV industry. In addition, he has attended nearly all of the association’s 74 international conventions. He has said that being close friends with people in the industry “is the only way to go.”
“I have great admiration and respect for Kirwan, both in business and personally,” said Bob Lee, founder and chairman emeritus of Country Coach Inc., C2132. “It was a complete pleasure serving on the Commercial Council with him for so many years.”
Kay Toolson, chairman and CEO of Monaco Coach Corporation, C2111, noted, “I’ve known Kirwan for over 30 years and his dedication has always been to make FMCA a better and more enjoyable organization, and to improve the whole RV industry,” said “He is a great human being and I am proud to call him a friend.”
Where does the journey lead next for Custom Coach and Farber Specialty Vehicles?
“Expansion. More employees. Keeping the economy rolling,” Steve Farber said. “Moving to more high-tech [applications]. To have the vision of what no one’s done before and just doing things better. Perhaps the biggest goals are to maintain customer service, maintain craftsmanship, and continue to stay ahead of the technology curve.”
Now arm-in-arm with Farber Specialty Vehicles, Custom Coach will continue to serve discriminating clients who seek the comfort, quality, and luxury of the company’s conversions.