One of Americas few bus manufacturers specializing in stretchout and custom sedans is the Armbruster & Company of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The coaches are marketed under the familiar Stageway name.
The Stageway name is significant for in its early days of manufacturing, and this dates back to 1887, Armbruster and Company built "holdup proof” stage coaches. Tom Armbruster, Charles Kaiser and Walter Walkford were original partners in this company.
The first stretchout motor coach was built approximately in 1923 when Jordan Bus Company came to Tom Armbruster to ask if he could stretch out a touring car for his small but growing bus line. From then on, much of Armbruster production has been building buses and limousines.
However, up until 1949 when Mr. Kaiser passed away and Mr. Armbruster decided to sell out, production was about twenty units a year. There were about a dozen employees.
The new owner was Ed Robben, who took over the ownership and management May 1, 1950. He had a 10,000 sq. ft. plant and six employees. In 1956 the company was incorporated. Tom Robben, a son, and Milt Earnhart, a son-in-law, became stockholders. When Ed Robben passed away in 1966, Tom Robben and Milt Earnhart became the active officers and operators of the company as President and Vice President respectively.
Armbruster and Company has grown in the past decade. The plant in Fort Smith is now over 50,000 sq. ft. and there are 55 employees. Production is up to 360 coaches a year, about one a calendar day. About 40 to 45 coaches are in production most of the time.
The manufacturing process is well planned. ordinary factory-built cars are not used for the stretchout process. Cars coming to Armbruster and Company have what is called the “Armbruster package". This generally consists of heavy duty rear axle, special suspension, heavy duty shock absorbers, maximum engine cooling package including high capacity fan, special power steering, power disc front brakes, heavy duty automatic transmission, oversized rear drum brakes, special heavy duty 15 inch wheels and 8.90 x 15 inch 8 ply tires plus other special features.
When these special cars of the buyer's choice come from the automobile factories they go to the Armbruster cutting stalls. Workmen with saws and torches cut the cars in half and then proceed to lengthen them out, install a heavy duty frame and fabricate a new roof, floor and side sections. New doors are constructed and installed. A number of the parts are stamped out by the large new press recently acquired. New drive shafts are made and balanced.
Next the coach is completely undercoated with a one-eighth inch coating. Then it is carefully prepared for painting. The original color is matched or a new color to the operators spec ification is applied. The plant has a modern painting booth and drying room.
Next step is the trim shop. Here seats are manufactured to match existing front and rear seats. Also side and roof paneling is installed as well as flooring. Outside trim is also put on at this position in the manufacturing process.
The coach is then finished and ready for delivery. Armbruster & Company even has its own driveaway delivery organization with five men who do deliveries only. Although some buyers pick up their coaches themselves, about 97% are delivered by the driveaway organization.
In the Armbruster/Stageway offices is a map showing where Stageway coaches are in service. Tacks pinpointing the spots where there are Stageway coaches cover the map like a forest. There are over 1,000 Stageway coaches on the four larger islands in Hawaii. Many are found in Canada and even Turkey, Guam, Switzerland, Lebanon, Curacao, Mexico and many other places. An export office in New York handles overseas sales.
The marketing subsidiary, Stageway Coaches Inc. was formed in 1962. Milt Earnhart is the present President of this sales agency. Mrs. Julia Robben is Vice President and Tom Robben is Secretary Treasurer.
Among many users of Stageway Coaches is the Connecticut Limousine Service of New Haven with over a hundred units, and Brown Limousine Service of New York, with close to one hundred units. Brown, incidentally, uses a number of their coaches for transporting airline crews from airports to downtown. Captains of some foreign airline crews will not ride with the crew, therefore Brown must use a coach and a station wagon in these cases. With larger crews anticipated with forthcoming larger aircraft, Armbruster is now building the fifteen and eighteen passenger coach from an International Carryall vehicle.
About seventy -five percent of Stageway coaches are used for airline transfer purposes. Another twenty percent are used for sightseeing and others are in service by small feeder bus routes, hotels, resorts, schools, bands, etc. Toye Brothers Sightseeing Tours in New Orleans are a big Stageway customer. Coaches delivered to Toye Brothers are Plymouths stretched out to make them roomy seven passenger limousines. Airport services in Washington D.C. are operated with similar Plymouths but the seating is with three abreast --- red, white and blue bucket seats.
Another interesting Armbruster product is custom limousines. These are built under a subcontract from the Imperial Division of Chrysler. They are usually regular Imperial sedans lengthened out one section and then installed with a set of plush seats facing the rear. Then a custom built console is built and placed in the rear compartment. It usually contains a television set and a stereo unit. Five of these cars were built last year. They are used mainly by corporation executives, government officials. Production of these special units is limited to about twenty to twenty-five a year.
The Armbruster plant has very faithful and dependable workers. Turnover is less than one half of one percent. The devoted, enthusiastic management has a great pride in the coaches produced as well as the plant itself and of course this reflects onto the work force.
This is the Armbruster/Stageway story. Truly a unique bus manufacturer and serving an important purpose in the bus industry.
Stageway in the Womens Hall of Fame
This 31-foot Stageway was used in the 1950's (probably 1960's, misprint in article maybe?) by the All American Red Heads womens basketball team. It was the first limousine the women used with a working heater. It also had a refrigerator unit on the hood which was used as air conditioning. It was found abandoned and in very dilapidated shape in a field in Arkansas and brought to Knoxville to the Hall of Fame, except there was no Hall of Fame yet.
A crane lowered the car into place and the rest of the Hall of Fame was built around it. The all American Red Heads toured the country between 1936-1986 and played exhibition games in much the same way as the better-known Harlem Globetrotters. All of the women sported red hair. Were they natural redheads? Only there hairdressers know for sure.
Armbruster/Stageway, Inc. began as Armbruster & Company in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1887 and was organized by Tom Armbruster.- Charles Kaiser and Walter Walkford. The business was formed to build and repair all types of horse-drawn vehicles. As the country progressed and the automobile came into its own, these men adapted their talents to provide an auto body repair, paint, and trim shop for the needs of Fort Smith and the surrounding communities.
From the time the business started until the early 1920's, these men were doing general repair work on all types of vehicles. However, in approximately 1921 Jordan Bus Lines approached Armbruster & Company and asked if they could "stretch" an automobile and make it into a small bus since the shuttle bus lines they were running could not operate a large bus profitably on short runs.
This had never been attempted by Armbruster & Company, but it was decided that the idea should be tried. From past records, the nearest anyone can guess as to the completion of the first Armbruster "stretch" unit is early 1923.
The three owners continued building the developing business through the 1920's, 30's, and 40's building an average of 20 units per year and employing from six to 12 men.
In 1949 Mr. Kaiser was operating the business along with Mr. Armbruster, who was semi retired, and six employees. In the fall of 1949 Mr. Kaiser suffered a fatal heart attack and Mr. Armbruster decided to sell the business and go into full retirement.
The purchaser of the business was Ed Robben of Cincinnati, Ohio, who took over ownership and management on May 1, 1950, with six employees and a plant with an area of 10,000 square feet. He was accompanied by his son-in-law, Milt Earnhart. Over the years the firm gradually expanded and seven adjacent residences were purchased and moved to provide more plant buildings, floor space and parking area. Armbruster & Company was incorporated in 1956.
An Ohio Corporation named Stageway Coaches, Inc. operated out of Queen City Chevrolet Company in Cincinnati and handled a large percentage of Armbruster's sales. That corporation was eliminated and incorporated as Stageway Coaches, Inc. in Fort Smith in 1962.
Armbruster & Company, Inc. was the manufacturing firm and Stageway Coaches, Inc. handled sales. After Mr. Robben's death in 1966, the two corporations were combined as Armbruster/Stageway, Inc.
In 1973 Tom Earnhart, Milt's son, joined the firm after graduation from college and having been involved in his own advertising agency. Tom immediately began an aggressive advertising program with a distributor network. The resulting increase in business necessitated building a new plant in 1980.
In January 1981 the firm was purchased by Camartex, Inc. The present officers of Armbruster/Stageway, Inc. are: James R. Mankowski, Chairman of the Board; Ross Barrows, President; and Milt Earnhart, Vice-President.
The firm presently operates at three locations - the original location on North 9th Street, the 28th Street plant, and a third plant on North 3rd Street. Combined, these three locations cover a total of 140,000 square feet and employed approximately 180 people.
Armbruster/Stageway is the oldest and largest custom-limousine manufacturer in the world and currently produces well over 1,000 units a year in limousine conversions, convertibles, crew cabs and suburbans in addition to many very specialized vehicles such as exotic cars, stretched Rolls-Royces and Mercedes.
Customers have included automobile dealers, limousine operators, funeral directors, oil and gas companies, sightseeing companies, schools, governmental agencies, nationally and internationally known personalities and celebrities, Heads of State in the United States, Heads of State and Royalty in both Europe and the Middle East.
Armbruster/Stageway limousines have been featured in countless magazine and newspaper articles as well as having been seen in many television programs, movies, and national automobile shows.