Over a few days in early March, carmakers and limousine company operators gathered at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for an annual convention, where they went to panels and parties and admired shiny new party buses, vans and black sport utility vehicles.
But something was missing.
“There wasn’t one stretch limousine on the show floor,” said Robert Alexander, president of the National Limousine Association, a trade group. “Not one.”
Decades ago, stretch limos were a symbol of affluence, used almost exclusively by the rich and famous. Over time, they became more of a common luxury, booked for children’s birthday parties or by teenagers heading to the prom.
These days, it seems as if hardly anyone is riding in a stretch limo. While the limousine name has stuck, the limo industry has shifted to chauffeur services in almost anything but actual stretch limos, which have largely been supplanted by black S.U.V.s, buses and vans.
“The limo business isn’t your father’s limo business anymore,” Mr. Alexander said.
Today, the stretch limo represents less than 1 percent of services offered by limo companies, down from about 10 percent a decade ago, according to the association.
“The stretch limo is — what’s the expression? — gone like the dodo bird,” Mr. Alexander said. “Extinct.”
Limo company operators and industry leaders say that the demise of the stretch limo can be attributed to the cumulative effect of a series of blows over several years.
The first, they said, was the Great Recession. Then came the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, and a pair of deadly stretch limo crashes that ushered in new regulations in New York State, one of the industry’s most important markets. Over that time, stretch limos gradually fell out of favor, as passengers opted to travel somewhat less conspicuously in sleek sedans or black S.U.V.s.
Horse-Drawn Wagons to Hummer Limos
The birthplace of the stretch limo is believed to have been Fort Smith, Ark. Armbruster Stageway, a coach builder that started off restoring horse-drawn wagons more than 100 years ago, is credited with creating the first combustion engine limousine in the 1920s. By 1985, the company was one of the leading producers of limos in the United States, making about 1,000 a year.
But around that time, many car companies stopped making limos. Specialty coachmakers filled the void by taking a different approach: cutting a sedan in half, inserting a midsection and welding everything together. For about $50,000, custom manufacturers promised deluxe results that could include a TV and even a bed in addition to the obligatory well-stocked bar.
As more limos were produced, they became more accessible and began attracting a clientele beyond celebrities and the über-rich. People began booking them for airport trips. A restaurant in New Jersey offered to pick up diners in a limo, drive them to dinner and take them home afterward. And for some suburban teenagers, it became a rite of passage to pile into a stretch limo during prom season, often trying — with mixed results — to sneak booze past drivers thrust into the role of reluctant chaperone.