The chances are good that the last contact you will have with the automotive industry will be as a passenger in an $80,000 custom-built vehicle. The chances are even better that that custom vehicle will have been built by Accubuilt.
The company is the largest manufacturer of funeral coaches (not hearses, please) in the country, controlling approximately 70% of the small but steady market. Accubuilt's 200 production workers make 1,500 funeral coaches and six-door limousines a year at its 168,000 ft2 plant in Lima, Ohio. To do this they take perfectly good Cadillac DeVilles and Lincoln Town Cars, cut them in half and then rebuild them from the most basic chassis structure outward.
"Perfectly good" in this context does not mean a car that your average octogenarian might drive out of a Cadillac dealership. The cars that Accubuilt performs its creative destruction on are both better and worse than those sold to the general public. Better because many components are beefed up to heavy-duty status; worse because the cars are missing certain things that the average customer might find useful—like the rear glass and the trunk lid. Because the OEMs know that their cars will be cut, stretched and then required to carry heavy loads for many years, they specify several modifications to the cars bound for the funeral industry. Modifications include upgraded shocks, tires and wheels (8 lug vs. 5 lug), axles, powertrain and over 30 structural reinforcements to the frame, such as thicker cross members and shock tower braces.
When a modified DeVille or Town Car arrives in the plant to begin its transformation into a funeral coach, its interior from the instrument panel back is dismantled and placed on a large cart that is coded to each car and remains with it throughout its metamorphosis. The frame is braced with a steel support to preserve its integrity, and then the destructive fun begins. Workers use sawzalls and grinders to slice through the roof just behind the A-pillars and sever the remaining roof supports to create a de facto convertible.
The topless car is moved onto a fixture where it is held in place by pins that correspond to those used by the OEMs at their assembly plants. These pins keep the chassis motionless while it is cut in half. Pre-set stops on the fixture allow the frame halves to be pulled apart until they are the desired length apart. Limousines are stretched 41, 47 or 65 inches and funeral coaches are lengthened by 30 or 32 inches. For the cars destined to be funeral coaches, a pre-assembled cage of welded tubular steel is lowered onto the bifurcated frame and attached through machined and dimensioned locations that ensure both a controlled fit and repeatability. The wheelwells are boxed-out with structural steel, creating two long ledges on either side of the load floor, and a steel frame is welded over the floor which both raises the load floor and adds to the chassis' torsional rigidity. (Limousines forgo the cage and floor modifications, but receive an additional set of B-pillars for their two new doors.) Extensions of the floorpans, rocker panels and roof and side rails are then MIG welded into place. (Continuous bead welds are used for structural components, interference areas and any part that has an FMVSS requirement. Stitch welds are used in less critical areas.)
These chassis extensions are made by Accubuilt at its on-site stamping department, which is located beside the welding station. A wall of parts racks holding work in process separates the two areas and is open to both sides. "This layout has led to a number of efficiencies," explains Accubuilt's senior vice president-Operations Tim Lautermilch. "Visual management is easier because each department can clearly see how much work in process there is, and there are no dedicated material handlers—when the press department finishes a part they put it on the rack and the welding station takes it out on the other side." To help ensure that the structural integrity of the stretched vehicles is maintained, Accubuilt's stamping department actually uses a higher grade steel than the OEM spec (G60 grade galvanized vs. G40 for the OEMs).
Once the rear cage and chassis extensions are in place, the car moves to a station where a huge fiberglass shell is lowered onto it. This shell forms the roof, rear quarter panels and rear close-out panel of the vehicle, and creates the silhouette that is unmistakably that of a funeral coach. The shell is precisely fitted onto the welded cage and then attached to the cage with adhesive that both seals and enhances the structural integrity of the overall frame. After the adhesive dries, the car is ready for painting.
Painting is done by hand in a small booth located near the shell station. Accubuilt re-paints most of the surfaces on the cars it modifies, so color match with the OEM-painted areas is crucial. They work with BASF, which has a representative on site to provide paint related solutions. While funeral coaches don't display the range of colors that passenger cars do – candy apple red doesn't exactly send the right message–they are not all black or gray. In fact, some funeral homes have established a certain color as their signature. So, Accubuilt has to be prepared to match a color that an OEM may have last used in the '70s or earlier.
After painting, the cars' interiors are trimmed out using materials purchased from the same suppliers used by the OEMs to ensure that material matching is precise. Accubuilt builds transformable second row seating for their limousines and makes their interior trim pieces in-house, right down to the stitching of the their logo on interior trim panels. They also custom install just about anything the buyer wants, from flat screen panel displays to chandeliers. Rick Gullette, Accubuilt's chief engineer, reckons that the company applies over 200 custom options not available from the OEMs. Once the interiors are in, with or without the chandelier, the cars are inspected and shipped.
Accubuilt is certified by Cadillac as a Master Coachbuilder and by Ford as a Qualified Vehicle Manufacturer. These designations bring with them the responsibility of hosting annual and spot inspections by the makers, but also carry the benefits of a direct line to technical information and CAD/CAM drawings. This direct link saves precious time during a model change, when Accubuilt has to quickly modify its parts to match the OEM's new design. And since the company is the only one in its industry that crash tests its new models prior to full-scale production, every day counts.
Crash tests and precise computer drawings may be de rigueur for Detroit's behemoths, but these practices constitute going the extra mile in this small industry. Accubuilt employs all of the relatively sophisticated techniques that they do because they want to make the best engineered and manufactured vehicles in their business. Cars that you would be proud to be caught dead in.