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Customizer’s Line Stretches From Limousines to Hearses

Times Staff Writer

Jules Kaplan customizes cars for two types of passengers. For the first group, he saws the cars in half, lengthens them and gussies them up with purple plush, walnut-wood bars, television sets, air conditioning, stereos, tinted windows and telephones.

The other passengers don’t drink, watch television, listen to music, look out the windows or talk on the telephone. They travel lying down. One of the most important extras Kaplan provides for them is lots of room for flowers.

Part of Kaplan’s business, Custom Coach Inc., is building hearses. But Kaplan doesn’t look to the dead for most of his business. For that, he still depends on the people who ride in his stretched Cadillacs and Lincolns. But he points to his firm’s hearse operation as evidence of his savvy as an entrepreneur.

Bid for Recognition

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“I’ve recognized that these days a businessman has to diversify to stay alive. You’ve got to have something that gets your name around,” he said during a tour of his Canoga Park plant.

Kaplan has made a name for himself in at least a couple of ways. His firm is the only hearse maker on the West Coast, according to Mortuary Management Magazine, and also apparently is the only company that stretches Hondas into limousines.

Kaplan, a former certified public accountant, founded the firm in 1983 and quickly grew impatient with the prospect of being just another limousine stretcher. So he decided to extend a car not usually thought of as a luxury vehicle, the Honda Accord, to luxury length.

That work involves slicing the 175-inch Hondas in half and adding 52 inches. He said he has sold 34 since he started making the stretch Hondas last November, selling them to dealers for about $30,000 apiece.

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He also has sold 10 hearses, at prices ranging from $32,000 to $55,000 per vehicle, since he started building them in July, 1984. He hopes to eventually make this 40% of his business, counting in part on the lack of competition in the area. Funeral directors traditionally have gotten their hearses from the Midwest.

Many Optional Features

The variety of optional features for the hearses, which include extra-large doors on each side and electronic platforms that move caskets in and out, accounts for their wide price range.

Kaplan makes most of his money selling limousines, having built 500 so far. In that business, his competition includes O’Gara Coachworks in Simi Valley, a bigger company that stretches and also armors limousines.

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Kaplan said he produced 238 limousines in 1984 and projects that he will make 408 this year. He employs 38 production workers and a sales and administrative staff of 10.

The privately held company does not disclose profits.

Some Use GM Chassis

No major automobile makers produce limousines or hearses. General Motors builds a chassis that can be used for ambulances and hearses, however, and companies that use it to build from scratch are Kaplan’s prime competitors in the hearse field, according to Allan Abbott, publisher of Los Angeles-based Mortuary Management Magazine.

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The new Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals that Custom Coach tears up are bought in volume. Several rows of them stand in one area of Kaplan’s Canoga Park complex, awaiting reconstruction. “Let’s just say I get a very good price for buying a lot of them,” Kaplan said.

Although Kaplan would not say what he pays, Abbott said he believes Kaplan gets discounts of $3,000 to $4,000 off the retail prices of each car, which start at $20,000.

The chopping of the cars is pretty much the same, no matter what they will be turned into: The workers take a hand-held, two-foot hacksaw and, midway down the car’s length, start cutting through the roof. Before doing this, they build a metal scaffold inside the car so the cutting won’t change the car’s shape.

Halves Pulled Apart

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“We cut the car completely in half, going through the frame and everything,” Kaplan said. It could be done with an electric saw, but Kaplan said that such a method is neither as accurate nor as safe for the workers.

Next, the halves of the car are pulled apart to the desired length--between 15 and 37 inches for a hearse, 46 to 60 inches for a Cadillac or Lincoln limousine and 52 inches for a Honda.

“We build a whole new metal section inside the open space,” Kaplan said.

Then workers must add the features that are different for hearses and limousines. The hearse roof has the familiar elongated shape, and there is a rear door that swings open. The limousine company operators who buy most of Kaplan’s stretched Cadillacs and Lincolns almost all want tinted windows. But the funeral directors who purchase his hearses usually don’t.

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“They want the windows clear so everybody can see what a nice job they’re doing with the flowers and what a fine casket they’ve got,” Kaplan said. “Tinted is the last thing they want.”

About 10% of the limousine buyers are individuals. They often have special requests, such as the one from a Palm Springs man who was so enamored of his piano bench that he wanted his wooden limousine bar to have the same kind of finish.

Then there was the order for 20 limousines from Saudi Arabia. Instead of bars, Kaplan had to design special dispensers for tea, coffee and orange juice. Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol.


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