From matriculants to VIPs, South Africans are forking out to ride in grand sedans.
It’s a Friday evening. An extra-long car is idling in a queue outside a Durban high school.
Behind a panel, separating them from the driver, six teenagers are partying like it’s, well, 2017 – lounging on leather seats, bathed in a light that is pure nightclub.
Champagne glasses are to hand, but their tinkling is drowned out by the R&B from the car’s sound system.
The youngsters are en route to a matric dance, waiting their turn to step out of the car and onto the red carpet, to welcoming cheers and a blaze of camera flashes.
It is a scene that plays itself out on most weekends at schools across the country – when hundreds of Grade 12s set off in hired cars for the biggest night of their young lives.
Denzil Maistry, owner of Mount Edgecombe Limo Services in north Durban, says there is “huge demand” for his vehicles at this time of the year.
The youngsters are not fussed about the actual journey, but about arriving in style.
“It’s a big show-off,” says Maistry, who has been operating limos for the past five years.
Apart from the glamour, a big selling point is the safety a licensed and properly vetted limo driver promises.
Johnny Carreira, of Funky Rides in Germiston, tells how one of his drivers hurried a prom princess to hospital and alerted her parents after she was given a spiked drink at an afterparty.
A growing awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence is another reason South Africans, looking for a big night out, like limousines.
But they don’t come cheap.
Like all the operators approached for this article, Funky Rides’ prices vary according to vehicle and length of hire.
Its flagship, a stretched, 12-seater Jeep Grand Cherokee, costs a cool R4 000 for the first hour, with a red carpet on departure and arrival thrown in.
However, take the car for longer and split the costs, and Carreira insists it is a good deal.
“Lots of parents book for the whole night – 12 kids for R12 000,” he says, explaining that the price is for door-to-door service. It frees parents from having to schlep adolescents from one late-night afterparty to the next, and eventually, home.
Maistry, whose limo business is a spin-off of his long-established, everything-under-one-roof wedding venue operation, says he is particularly busy with matric dances in March and April.
However, weddings and bachelor as well as bachelorette parties are his main line of business.
Significant birthdays and the occasional VIP or airport pickup also contribute to revenue.
He operates two Mercedes-Benz limos – an E280 and an ML320 – and charges R2 000 to R2 500 for the first hour.
But what makes a good limo?
The wow or bling factor is non-negotiable, and this has led to competition to offer the biggest, baddest (a stretched Hummer H2, perhaps) or most novel ride.
Funky Rides, for example, counts a six-seater Mini Cooper, an eight-seater Beetle and party buses as part of its 18-vehicle fleet.
Royal Limousine Services, in Ottery in Cape Town, has what it believes is the country’s only Land Rover Discovery 3 limo – a hit, apparently, with the city’s advertising executives and filmmakers.
Natasha Pillay, co-owner of Centurion Limousine Services in Pretoria, cites air conditioning and “a massive sound system” as must-haves.
Lighting is also important, and the checklist includes lasers, LEDs and neon, mirror balls, starlight-effect ceilings, floor lighting, undercarriage lights and illumination for the all-important mobile bar.
A reliable chauffeur is vital too, says Pillay, who regularly dons her black suit, complete with tails, to do the driving – in either an E-Class Mercedes-Benz or an Audi Q7 SUV, both stretched.
Centurion Limousine Services operates as a sister company to an undertaking business.
This is a synergistic arrangement that works for many limo operators, but it is not without its detractors.
One Pietermaritzburg operator, for example, in an online advertisement, goes as far as to state its limo is “strictly for the elite”.
Most operators admit to lending out cars to undertakers for ferrying mourners, but prefer to downplay the link.
On the other hand, Byron Clements, owner of Boksburg-based Smart Limousines, believes operating limos in tandem with undertaking makes sense.
It is all about keeping the cars on the road for as long as possible.
This is a tricky balancing act as demand occurs mainly on weekends.
Clements predicts growth in trade from township customers – “definitely where the money is, especially for funerals” – but discounts this against poor roads that are ill suited to long, low cars and a greater risk of crime.
However, he does not regard limos as a huge money spinner. Demand has gone off the boil, he says, since the 2010 soccer World Cup when his team hardly slept.
Operators, says Clements, need to be good at marketing and have a fair-sized fleet. His establishment has five vehicles to allow for savvy timetabling.
A “mom and pop operation” with only one car will have a tough time making a good return.
“That car has to tap-dance … Then you are talking repairs. Brand new limos, when they break down, are even worse,” he says.
Clements questions whether the relatively high cost of buying and converting a modern car into a limo is likely to be rewarded with an acceptable return on investment.
To add to this, getting bank finance for converted cars is virtually a nonstarter, he says.
On the plus side, though, this serves as a barrier to new competition.
Asked about the challenges facing the sector, Centurion Limousine Services’ Pillay lists competition from Uber drivers and clients who fail to compare apples with apples, only hiring on price.
Shanaas Allie, owner of Royal Limousine Services, refuses to be daunted by tough economic times, when “the first thing people cut is luxury”.
Her company – now in its 15th year, operating five limos and employing 10 staff – works to drum up new business through Facebook promotions.
“We want people to use us all the time … We go anywhere,” she says.
That means sending limos to weddings as far afield as Outapi, just south of the Namibia-Angola border.
More importantly, it is about servicing nearby townships, including Khayelitsha and Langa, where some of Allie’s competitors are wary of going.
With many township children now attending former Model C schools, they too need limos for matric dances, and Allie’s drivers often meet them at local police stations for directions to the pickup.
Like Allie, Maistry subscribes to “the customer is king” philosophy. He says people should go ahead and treat themselves while they have the chance.
He offers this piece of advice: “Don’t wait to pass away to go on a limo ride. A hearse will take you very slowly and you won’t enjoy it.”
SA Limousines in Alberton takes five to six months to build a limo.
It begins with the customer discussing his or her requirements before bringing in a vehicle for conversion. A team of 22 then strip it to a bare shell.
“We mark it and cut it in half with an angle grinder – it’s as simple as that,” says Donald Cameron, the company’s co-owner.
But it is not that simple at all, as Cameron concedes that you need to know exactly where to make that cut.
And, before new sheet metal can be let in to lengthen the vehicle, a steel frame is fabricated and put in place to strengthen things.
With welding out the way, panel beating, filing and finishing begin.
The bare shell is then prepped for painting and sent to the spray booth, emerging in the customer’s colours of choice.
Reassembly takes a month and can be fiddly.
It is neither practical nor economical to buy in all the specialist parts it takes to transform a standard sedan into an extra-long limo.
So, most of the parts are made and fitted in-house, including:
- Lengthened brake pipes and fuel lines;
- Seating and upholstery; and
- Replacing the standard propeller shaft with a five-piece 4.2m to 4.5m leviathan.
Then there is all the cabinetry, audiovisual equipment, smoke machines and lights – lasers, LEDs and mirror balls – necessary to transform the vehicle from a respectable ride to a party on wheels.
The company, which has been in business for 28 years, builds limos from just about any make or model of car, he says.
The Hummer H3 is “very popular” at the moment, but the Chrysler 300C – with its wide good looks and “awesome” handling – is his favourite car for the treatment.
Conversions cost up to R380 000, depending on specifications, with no shortage of orders for custom vehicles, particularly since changes to the law banned the import of left-hand drive vehicles.
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