Family Motor Coaching Magazine
The Custom Coach Journey
By Robbin Gould FMC Editor
This month, Custom Coach Corporation celebrates its 60th birthday. It's likely that many long time FMCA members are familiar with this industry pioneer and its co-founder, Kirwan Elmers, Ll45. Custom Coach ranks as one of FMCA's first commercial members - and was the only company represented at the association's formation meeting in 1963.
In the early 1950s, Kirwan's father, Miles, traveled the United States while promoting a variety of products. One was a low-sudsing laundry detergent called All, which he had helped to develop. He also built travel trailers as a hobby.
In the 1950s, the interstate highway system was nonexistent, as were professionally produced motorhomes. After outfitting a travel trailer for a summer business trip so that he could take the family along, Miles decided that a bus would be a great way to travel. He visited the Flxible Bus Company in Loudonville, Ohio. Working with the company, he helped to create a bus with living accomodations. That 1952 Visicoach was the first commercially converted motorhome. It was powered by a Buick straight-8 engine coupled with a five-speed manual transmission. To christen it, the family drove to Fairbanks, Alaska, along the Alkan Highway.
When Miles received an unexpected offer from someone who wanted to buy the coach in 1955, his business career took a different turn. He had sold the All detergent brand to Monsanto Corporation in 1953, which enabled him to purchase Flxlble's LandCrulser division. Miles and Kirwan began to produce Flxible conversions; they also converted ACF Brill, Fltzjohn, GM, and Marmon Herrington buses, operating out of a service facility in Columbus, Ohio. During the 1960s, they built bus shells as well.
Over the years, Custom Coach Corporation wrote a book of "firsts," which became standard in the RV industry. Among them were the first permanently installed automatic transmission in an intercity bus shell (1956); the first rearview backing system (1965); the first cruise control system installed in a motor coach (1966); residential-style bathrooms; development of a forward lounge; the first 40-foot bus conversion (early 1970s); and the Q/C One concept, which transformed a conference area with sofas to a rear stateroom with beds (1985).
Kirwan combined his own technical expertise and congenial nature to grow the business and, over the years, to attract a who's who of clients. The partial list includes country stars Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Lee Greenwood, Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrel, and Conway Twitty, as well as singers Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Chubby Checker. Commercial customers included McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, and Anheuser-Busch CEO August Busch III.
As a network television broadcaster for NFL games , John Madden racked up 100,000 miles on each of his "Madden Cruisers." Political candidates included Bill Clinton. And the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait collectively ordered 24 Custom Coaches over the years; the first was shipped to Saudi Arabia by a C-SA military transport plane. Private individuals also purchased Custom Coach conversions, including FMCA family members.
Kirwan was on hand in Hinckley, Maine, in July 1963, when a group of "house car" owners gathered for a weekend of socializing and formed Family Motor Coach Association. His 1963 35-foot Marmon-Herrington demo was the only commercially built motorhome there.
Custom Coach Corporation became FMCA commercial member Cl4 in 1965, and Kirwan was assigned family member number Ll45. Kirwan was a longtime member of FMCA's Commercial Council; he served as council president from 1990 to 1999. As for FMCA Family Reunions , at last count he has attended close to, if not more than, 70.
In 2013 Kirwan was inducted into the RV/MH Hall of Fame, which recognizes the achievements of individuals who have been involved in the RV industry for at least 25 years. When asked about the honor, Kirwan deflected the praise: "When I think of the benefits the motorhome industry has offered to the public, what [it has] provided for families, it's just been wonderful. FMCA has been the glue that put it all together.•
This month, Custom Coach recognizes its 60th anniversary. The company is now a division of Columbusbased Farber Specialty Vehicles, which produces special-use vehicles for law enforcement, medicine, marketing, and many other fields. Congratulations to them for achieving this milestone.