A Tribute to Kirwan Elmers

By Larry Plachno

On Sunday, May 10, 2020, Kirwan Elmers passed away in Columbus, Ohio at the age of 91. He was perhaps best known for being the co-founder, along with his father Miles, of Custom Coach Corporation in 1955. In 2020, Custom Coach Corporation celebrates its 65th anniversary.

            It would take a book to document all of the achievements, innovations and accomplishments of Kirwan Elmers. When you asked him, Kirwan would comment that he was particularly proud of having installed the first automatic transmission in a motorcoach. One of my observations is that Kirwan knew how to relate to everyone. In the morning he could explain bus things to my children, at noon he could speak with entertainers about building their next conversion, and in the afternoon he would meet with a prince from Saudi Arabia who wanted a coach. But my personal observation is that his greatest achievement was in creating the new converted coach industry and in beating a path that the RV industry followed. Having been blessed by owning three Custom Coach conversions over the years, I was aware of much of this and was lucky enough to be among Kirwan’s friends.

            Today, it would be difficult for many younger people to imagine our world without motorhomes and the RV industry. But powered motorhomes were essentially unknown prior to the mid-1950s. While there were a few isolated examples, they were all built individually and for highly specialized purposes. Most were owned by companies or used for various commercial purposes.

            The earliest example we know of was a 1917 Packard that was converted by Pickwick Stages into what might be called a bus route scouting bus. Pickwick was an early bus operation that was founded in California and began expanding routes north and east. This early conversion did have a bedroom, restroom, galley and small living area and could be sent out to explore potential new bus routes. There are records of various circus and show acts traveling in modified buses. We might consider them as the earliest examples of today’s entertainer coaches.

            In 1928, Orville Caesar, general manager of Greyhound, had a Will bus outfitted as a traveling office.  Later, in early 1956, Greyhound had a PD4104 modified for a similar purpose. What may have been the first example of a coach with a simple motor home interior came in 1931. It was a new Yellow Coach Z-250 converted for Augustus Bush of the Anheuser-Bush Brewery in St. Louis. It was used during the 1930s and survives today in the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis.

            What we today might call the camper industry first started in 1928 when tent campers began moving into small trailers. Some were too short to allow people to stand and almost all were small and offered little beyond sleeping and cooking accommodations. Campgrounds began turning into trailer parks as these trailers multiplied. Many were originally home-built but factory versions soon became available. It was with this as a background that Custom Coach was born.

            Miles Elmers, Kirwan’s father, was somewhat of an inventor and entrepreneur. In the post-war years, Bendix and Westinghouse built new automatic washers but encountered difficulties because of the high amount of suds generated by existing laundry detergents. Miles developed a new low-sudsing laundry detergent for these machines called “all.” The small “a” permitted the name to be registered.

            Initially, none of the major soap manufacturers were interested in the product so Miles developed his own marketing and soon had 17 branch offices for his fast-growing detergent business. Miles spent most of his time on the road monitoring his enterprise. As a result he began to tow a house trailer behind his car and bring his family along when he could. Since the available house trailers were small and primitive, Miles built his trailers himself to have more quality and refinements.

            When school was out in the summer, Kirwan along with his mother and sister would travel around the country with his Dad on his rounds. Kirwan said that he had been in 45 of the 48 states before he started high school. (Alaska and Hawaii did not become states until 1959.) Miles began looking for better ways to travel because everyone had to ride on the car when towing a trailer.

            Meanwhile, the Flxible Company of Loudonville, Ohio found in the post-war era that there was interest in using their coaches for various unusual commercial purposes. In 1949 Flxible created its Land Cruiser Division at its Millersburg, Ohio facility to provide these interiors in order to sell more coaches. The buses would be built as shells at the plant in Loudonville and then moved to Millersburg where a special crew would install the interiors. Initial applications included things like X-Ray units and mobile showrooms.

            When Miles Elmers learned about what the Land Cruiser Division was doing in Millersburg, he paid them a visit in 1951. He asked them about building what today would be called a motorhome interior. The Flxible staff was initially skeptical since their experience to date was all with commercial interiors. In the end they agreed, possibly because Elmers already had some experience with building travel trailers. In 1952, Elmers took delivery of the first commercial converted coach with a motorhome interior, a Flxible Visicoach.

            The family took it on a shakedown cruise to Fairbanks, Alaska and back. One of the biggest concerns was the original power train that consisted of a Buick Straight-8 engine and a five-speed manual transmission was a challenge to most drivers. Kirwan, who previously had experience with custom cars and engine swaps, installed a new power train with a big Cadillac V-8 engine and an automatic transmission. This was the first automatic transmission to go into a coach. It was years before automatic transmissions became optional in commercial coaches.

            Two things happened at this time that set the stage for future developments. The first is that Miles Elmers sold his detergent company to Monsanto in 1953 and had more free time. An Ohio State football game at the Rose Bowl prompted driving the Flxible to California. The second thing that happened was when the coach was taken to the Ridings Cadillac dealership in Los Angeles for service, Mr. Ridings was impressed and asked to buy it. Miles and Kirwan flew home after selling the coach.

            Once back in Ohio, they visited Flxible to order another coach. Management at Flxible was somewhat reluctant because these special interiors required more engineering skills and management time than they wanted to invest. The Flxible people suggested that they would rather provide the coach shells and have someone else do the custom interiors. Since Miles had past experience with building travel trailers and Kirwan had experience with custom cars and power trains, they became interested. Miles and Kirwan had come to order a new conversion coach but ended up buying the Land Cruiser Division.

            The new Custom Coach Corporation was established in a small auto service garage in Columbus, Ohio on October 1, 1955. It was a different world back then. Parts of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the first real interstate highway, were open but it was not yet completed. Most motel chains we know today did not exist. McDonalds had opened their first franchise only months previously and fast food was still new. While campgrounds existed, they were geared to small trailers and not for the big Clipper coaches. Customers had to be sold on the concept of converted coaches as well as the vehicle.

            As an industry pioneer, Custom Coach found it necessary to blaze a trail for their converted coaches as well as the RV industry that followed in their wake. The first problem was obtaining components and systems. At first, Custom Coach used a lot of boat and yacht components because the RV industry did not yet exist. Getting financing for a converted coach (then $25,000 to $75,000) was an uphill battle. Bankers would exclaim: “You want to buy a what?”

            Pioneering work also had to be done with government agencies. State licensing bureaus were confused because a converted coach was not a trailer, car, bus or truck and most had no category for powered recreational vehicles or private buses. Insurance was also an uphill battle for much the same reason. Insurance companies had never insured converted coaches in the past simply because they did not exist. Most people fail to understand the amount of pioneering work that had to be done in the later 1950s to make converted coaches viable.  And, it was this work that opened the door to the RV industry that followed.

            A major turning point came on June 20, 1963 when a group of “house car” owners met in Hinckley, Maine to watch an eclipse and ended up founding the Family Motor Coach Association. They were called “house cars” because they were hand made and the earliest recreational vehicles. Kirwan Elmers drove a converted 35-foot Marmon-Herrington to the gathering and was the only commercial company there.

            This founding of FMCA soon sparked the start of early factory RV units that appeared on the market. They were viable only because Custom Coach had already created a path through components, financing, insurance and licensing. Kirwan Elmers was active with FMCA for years, serving on its Commercial Council from the mid-1960s and as chairman of the council from 1990-1999.

            Custom Coach installed the first back up cameras in 1965 and the first cruise control in 1967. There simply is not enough room to list all of the accomplishments of Custom Coach nor the memberships of Kirwan Elmers over the years. However, I do want to mention two things. The first is that in about 1985, Custom Coach developed what came to be called the Q/C or Quick Change rear bedroom. It offered two couches for an executive interior for daytime travel. These could be turned into two twin beds at night or moved together in the center of the bedroom to make one larger bed. This was a great innovation for people who used their coaches for multiple purposes.

            The second item is that in 2013, Kirwan Elmers was inducted into the Recreational Vehicle / Motor Home Hall of Fame for his work at Custom Coach. He was nominated by Charlie Schrenkel and endorsed by Karl Bade, Bob Lee and Larry Plachno. This was long overdue in acknowledging the pioneering work he did in making converted coaches and recreational vehicles viable.

            From a corporate standpoint, Miles remained active with the company for about 10 years after it was founded. Kirwan stepped in during the mid-1960s and purchased the company. In the 1980s it was sold to Alco-Standard but Kirwan remained active. In 1989, the company was acquired by Greyhound and later spun off in 1993 with MCI. Following several years under private ownership, Custom Coach was acquired by Farber Specialty Vehicles.            

Located on the east side of Columbus, Farber specializes mainly in commercial interiors and body-on-chassis shells. Hence Custom Coach, with its private and executive interiors in MCI or Prevost coaches, was a welcome addition to the product line. Kirwan continued to be active with the company well into his 80s and had an office at the Farber location. His accomplishments will be long remembered in the converted coach and bus industry.

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