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Time was, if you were wealthy enough, you could afford a private carriage. Carriages were usually drawn by one or two horses. More than that weren’t typically needed, since private carriages usually weren’t that big. Larger passenger loads were handled in a larger carriage known as a stagecoach or a coach and four (so called because they were usually pulled by four horses). If you could afford a private carriage, that carriage would, in turn, afford you a certain amount of privacy.

A Coach and Four, Another Horseman Following Behind (John Cordray, 1807)

As the 20th century got underway, the automobile started to take the place of the horse and its carriages. Just as you could once hire someone to drive your horses, you could hire someone to drive your automobile. This was nice, since an automobile could go much faster than a horse (when the roads were smooth enough). The problem, however, was the way a driver in one’s employ was now in a position to hear private conversations in the back seat. In a carriage, the driver was outside and out of earshot. In this modern, internal-combustion conveyance, everyone is behind the windshield. The world is too much with us!

A Wolseley limousine from Great Britain, dating from sometime between 1910 and 1915, when the Wolseley plant switched over to military production during World War I.

The problems of the rich seldom take very long to solve. It wasn’t too long before a new kind of car was invented. This car kept the driver and the passengers separate. The driver had his own seat up front, usually (but not always) with windows to protect him from the elements. In the back was a setup that looked a lot like an old-fashioned carriage. It was furnished with two cushioned benches faced each other so that the passengers could make eye contact while conversing, just like in a carriage. Further, the top of these cars resembled the tops of carriages. This new-yet-familiar design was called a limousine. The word limousine refers to the central French region of Limousin. The car was not invented there. The name made sense because it was thought that the tops of these new cars resembled the hoods of the cloaks of the peasants of the region. A cloak in this style is le manteau limousin (since manteau is a masculine noun), while a car in this style would be la voiture limousine (since voiture is a feminine noun). It is from this that the French (and English) word limousine is derived.

Un pésant limousin (a peasant of Limousin) (less than 1 horsepower).

The limousine has always been defined as a car where the driver is separated from the passengers. It might be that the driver was in an entirely separate compartment, as in the early limousines, or it might be that the driver is merely separated by a window that separates the passengers’ part of the car. (In most modern versions, the window can be raised and lowered by the press of a button.) The limousine is often thought of as more than just a luxury car with a driver. This is because of an innovation with limousines that dates to the 1920s. Armbruster & Company, a coach manufacturer in Fort Smith, Arkansas that had been in business since the 1870s, designed what it dubbed a big band bus. The big band bus was a larger limousine designed to carry a number of people—all the members of a big band, it was said. (Some of these cars could hold up to 29 people, which is larger than most big band ensembles were.) These new vehicles were marketed to anyone who would buy them, even if they weren’t in a big band. Armbruster would build these cars by extending the chassises of existing cars. They would do this with any model car that was brought to them. As business picked up, they struck a deal with Queen City Chevrolet in Cincinnati, Ohio, and they filled large orders for modified Chevrolets, but never refused to modify any other make of car. Cars with extended chassises were said to “stretch”, which is where the term “stretch limo” comes from.

An early Armbruster “stretch” limo (circa 1926).

The stretch limousine is still a popular vehicle today. They are mostly rented for weddings and other celebrations. They’re not “stretches” of regular production models of cars, either; “stretch” limousines are designed to be these long luxury cars in the first place. Often a stretch limo will contain a sound system and a wet bar and other amenities like refrigerators and jacuzzis. A smaller sedan can still be a limousine, albeit not as conspicuous a vehicle. As long as the passengers can be separated from the driver behind a partition, that’s all that matters to the definition. Car services are referred to as limousine services today, even if all the cars used by the service aren’t limousines.

Stretch limousine, mid-2010s.


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