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Armbruster & Co.; Armbruster / Stageway
Armbruster & Company, 1887-1966; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Armbruster / Stageway, 1966-1989; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Cincinnati, Ohio
Associated Builders
Earnhart & Johansen - 1987-1989 - Fort Smith, Arkansas; Cincinnati, Ohio

Armbruster & Company was formed in 1887 by Tom Armbruster, Charles Kaiser and Walter Walkford to build and repair horse-drawn vehicles in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Fort Smith is located along the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, and at the time was a busy supply depot catering to settlers moving west into Indian Territory. Armbruster built "holdup proof” stage coaches that featured secret compartments for valuables that were built into the coaches floors and interiors, compartments that would re-appear during prohibition.

Twenty-five years later Armbruster & Co. was in the midst of the automobile revolution and offered their coachbuilding talents to owner of the internal combustion engine. By 1920 the firm was a thriving auto body repair depot and enjoyed a great reputation in and around Fort Smith and Tulsa, Oklahoma which was located 120 miles to the Northwest.

Sometime between 1921 and 1923, Jordan Bus Lines, a Fort Smith bus company, commissioned Armbruster to build them an extended-wheelbase multi-door touring car-based coach that could be used for short inter-city runs as Jordan had found that using a half-empty full-sized 25-29 passenger coach on short runs was a money-losing operation.

(Armbruster's advertisement in the 1954 Silver Book stated "builders of automobile extensions for over 25 years". That dates their first "stretch" to at least before 1928. Local sources date their first stretched vehicle - the Jordan Bus Lines job - to 1923, and one states the bus was ordered in 1921 and completed in 1923.)

With their first "stretch" under their belt, Armbruster developed a small regional market for their extended-wheelbase multi-door auto-coaches and built around 20 per year through the start of WWII.  Until the late 1940s, Armbruster had no real competition and was the only firm producing Chevrolet-based airport buses and multi-door limousines in any quantity. Built using both Chevrolet passenger cars and Suburbans, these 12-passenger people movers were used by hotels, taxis, airlines, corporations, and tour companies. 

Armbruster also built on Buick, Cadillac, Checker and Chrysler chassis, but had an arrangement with Queen City Chevrolet, a large Cincinnati, Ohio dealer. The dealership supplied Chevrolet chassis to Armbruster, who, in turn, sold completed coaches through Queen City's distribution firm, which was called Stageway.  Because of the reciprocal relationship, Stageway was able to sell Chevrolet-based airport limos cheaper than anyone else, although they were not Armbruster's only distributor.

Stageway, located at 414 East Court St. in Cincinnati, was managed for Queen City by Cincinnati native Ed Robben. Earlier on Robben had developed a lasting relationship with Armbruster & Co. while transporting Chevrolets to and from the Fort Smith plant.

Soon after the War, Tom Armbruster had decided to retire and when Charles Kaiser, the other remaining partner, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1949, Armbruster offered the business to Robben.

Robben took over Armbruster on May 1, 1950, accompanied by his son-in-law, Milt Earnhart who was appointed vice-president. At the time Armbruster had only six employees and a small 10,000 sq. ft. plant on North Ninth St. Under Robben and Earnhart's leadership the firm grew, and eventually purchased seven adjacent properties, incorporating the firm in 1956 as Armbruster & Co., Inc.

The All American Red Heads women's basketball team (a Harlem-Globetrotters-like exhibition squad) used an Armbruster coach in the mid-1950s and Willy Nelson toured in his own 1959 Armbruster 8-door Chevrolet during the early 1960s.

The reciprocal relationship with Stageway/Queen City continued through 1962 when Robben finally convinced the Marx family, who owned Queen City, to sell him their Stageway subsidiary.

Robben immediately relocated Stageway to Fort Smith, incorporating it as Stageway Coaches, Inc. with Milt Earnhart President; Mrs. Julia Robben, Vice President; and Tom Robben, Secretary Treasurer. Technically still separate entities, Armbruster appointed Stageway their exclusive national distributor.

During the early 1960s Armbruster started building their higher-priced coaches on Pontiac chassis and even built a prototype Pontiac flower car built using a 2-door 1962 Catalina sedan. The unusual car featured the 2-door sedan's roofline and front doors and also included a pair of smaller rear side doors for easier access to the space behind the driver's seat where a pair of forward-facing jump seats were installed even though though the car was not intended to be used as a limousine. The rear side doors didn't include any upper section with windows, and ended at the beltline, making the longer front doors necessary for access to use the jump seats. Instead of an Eastern style deck, the vehicle had an open stainless-steel well similar to the ones found on McClain flower cars and may have been removable as well.

Through the late 1960s they also built a long-wheelbase Pontiac limousine with jump seats and a slightly raised roof. Although the Armbruster's roofline looked similar to Superior's Pontiac Embassy limousines,  the main difference was in the rear doors - Superiors used extra-wide rear doors, while Armbruster used stock front and rear doors. To provide additional rear legroom some had extra sheet metal behind the rear doors starting at the C-pillar while others were lengthened by inserting a center section between the two doors, just behind the B-pillar.

When Ed Robben died in 1966, the two Fort Smith operations were combined as Armbruster/Stageway Inc. with Tom Robben, Ed's son, appointed President and Milt Earnhart, Ed's son-in-law, Vice President.

About the time of the Armbruster/Stageway was chosen by Chrysler to produce the new Imperial LeBaron limousine when their existing contract with Ghia expired. Built on a 163-inch wheelbase, they were built from stretched Imperial 4-door sedans and included a rearward-facing rear seat. Typically equipped with a rear console that contained a television, stereo, and wet bar, about 25 were produced between 1967 and 1971, when Chrysler eliminated the expensive vehicle.

By 1969 the Armbruster/Stageway plant had grown to cover over 50,000 sq. ft. with their staff of 55 full-time employees producing over 350 coaches annually.

A January 1969 article in Bus Ride Magazine described the manufacturing process:

"The manufacturing process is well planned. ordinary factory-built cars are not used for the stretchout process. Cars coming to Armbruster and Company have what is called the “Armbruster package". This generally consists of heavy duty rear axle, special suspension, heavy duty shock absorbers, maximum engine cooling package including high capacity fan, special power steering, power disc front brakes, heavy duty automatic transmission, oversized rear drum brakes, special heavy duty 15 inch wheels and 8.90 x 15 inch 8 ply tires plus other special features.

"When these special cars of the buyer's choice come from the automobile factories they go to the Armbruster cutting stalls. Workmen with saws and torches cut the cars in half and then proceed to lengthen them out, install a heavy duty frame and fabricate a new roof, floor and side sections. New doors are constructed and installed. A number of the parts are stamped out by the large new press recently acquired. New drive shafts are made and balanced.

"Next the coach is completely undercoated with a one-eighth inch coating. Then it is carefully prepared for painting. The original color is matched or a new color to the operators spec ification is applied. The plant has a modern painting booth and drying room.

"Next step is the trim shop. Here seats are manufactured to match existing front and rear seats. Also side and roof paneling is installed as well as flooring. Outside trim is also put on at this position in the manufacturing process.

"The coach is then finished and ready for delivery. Armbruster & Company even has its own drive-away delivery organization with five men who do deliveries only. Although some buyers pick up their coaches themselves, about 97% are delivered by the drive-away organization.

"Among many users of Stageway Coaches is the Connecticut Limousine Service of New Haven with over a hundred units, and Brown Limousine Service of New York, with close to one hundred units. Brown, incidentally, uses a number of their coaches for transporting airline crews from airports to downtown. Captains of some foreign airline crews will not ride with the crew, therefore Brown must use a coach and a station wagon in these cases. With larger crews anticipated with forthcoming larger aircraft, Armbruster is now building the fifteen and eighteen passenger coach from an International Carryall vehicle.

"About seventy-five percent of Stageway coaches are used for airline transfer purposes. Another twenty percent are used for sightseeing and others are in service by small feeder bus routes, hotels, resorts, schools, bands, etc. Toye Brothers Sightseeing Tours in New Orleans are a big Stageway customer. Coaches delivered to Toye Brothers are Plymouths stretched out to make them roomy seven passenger limousines. Airport services in Washington D.C. are operated with similar Plymouths but the seating is with three abreast --- red, white and blue bucket seats."

After graduating from college, Milt's son, Tom (Earnhart) had hoped to open his own advertising agency. However, his family interjected, convincing him to enter the family business in 1973.

Shortly after joining the company, Earnhart introduced six-door limousines to a local funeral home to replace its factory Cadillacs. This project led to the company's line of Silver Hawk limousines based on 1974 and 1975 Chryslers, which were marketed nationally by Superior. The Silver Hawk was a revolutionary product for the funeral industry. For the first time, coachbuilders had a viable product with which to compete with the Series 75. Earnhart also entered into an agreement with Superior to build a few hearse using converted Buick stations wagons for them starting in the mid-1970s, an arrangement that would last until 1981. 

In the summer of 1974, Armbruster introduced a line of Cadillac 6-door limousines built from a Fleetwood Brougham that were to prove popular with funeral directors who needed more doors than Cadillac's Fleetwood 75 had to offer.

By 1979, Armbruster had its own national sales network, and the company was on its way to becoming, for a time, the largest limousine builder in the nation. Earnhart's aggressive advertising program proved so successful that a new modern, 80,000-square-foot plant on South 28th Street was built during 1980.

Earnhart sold Armbruster/Stageway to Carmatex Inc. in January 1981 and a few months later purchased the assets and trade name of the now-defunct Superior Coach Co. from its parent company, Sheller-Globe.  Earnhart had wanted to own one of the old-school firms for a number of years and became acquainted with the Ohio firm when he built the Chrysler Silver Hawks for them in 1974-75.

Earnhart then licensed the Sayers & Scovill trade name from Hess & Eisenhardt and transferred all S&S production to Superior's Lima, Ohio facility which was run by Darrel Metzger, Superior's long-time funeral car and ambulance sales manager, and later on - its president. Although 1981-1984 S&S hearses were produced on the same assembly line as Superior hearses, they used totally different tooling through the 1984 model year.

To further complicated matters, Earnhart merged with Northeast Ohio Axle in 1985 and the new firm NEOAX Inc, purchased Carmatex Inc., the same firm that had purchased Armbruster/Stageway from Earnhart just 4 years earlier. NEOAX Inc. (aka Earnhart) now owned Superior, Sayers & Scovill, Armbruster/Stageway (Carmatex), and Northeast Ohio Axle.

The firm's 1987 Coaches included a special "100 Years" badge below the standard Armbruster/Stageway badging. Combined output of all NEOAX-built coaches exceeded 1000 vehicles in Armbruster/Stageway's anniversary year and NEOAX had over a third of the North American professional car market.  In its final years, the Arkansas plant's limousines accounted for the bulk of its sales but they also produced extended-wheelbase Chevrolet Suburbans, 4- and 6-door crew cabs plus a handful of Cadillac convertibles.

In addition to a few Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz conversions, Armbruster created a small series of stretched Toyota Camry executive limos in 1987 and 1988. In an attempt to distinguish the imported chassis from Armbruster/Stageway's American-chassised coaches, the stretched Camrys were badged and marketed as Earnhart & Johansen coaches.

Celebrity owners of Armbruster/Stageway limousines included King Olav V of Norway, actor Sylvester Stallone and William F. Buckley, the conservative author and editor of the National Review.

By the late 1980s Armbruster/Stageway employed 180 people with 140,000 sq. ft. spread across three separate Fort Smith plants - the original location on North Ninth Street, the 28th Street plant built in 1980, and a third plant on North Third Street.

NEOAX sold off Armbruster-Stageway to Executive Coach Builders in 1989 but kept S&S and Superior, first renaming it S&S/Superior of Ohio, Inc., then NEOAX Inc. Superior Coaches Div. and finally Accubuilt Inc. in 1989.

When Executive relocated Armbruster's Fort Smith operations to Springfield, Missouri later that year, Chris Witte, a Fort Smith businessman, purchased the vacant plants from Executive and opened a new limousine company called Federal Coach. Staffed by former Armbruster employees, another former Armbruster/Stageway and Executive Coach employee - Dewayne Thompson - oversees day-to-day operations of Federal which is now one of the largest coachbuilders in the country.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -, with special thanks to Bernie DeWinter IV.





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Stageway- Bus Ride Magazine - Jan-Feb 1969

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Pictures Continued

1955 Armbruster Plymouth Airport Limousine

1960 Armbruster Ford Airport Limousine

Armbruster Shop circa 1965

1969 Armbruster/Stageway AMC Ambassador Limousine

1979 Armbruster/Stageway Buick Limousine


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