Custom Coach co-founder Kirwan Elmers pioneered ‘bus conversion’

Kirwan Elmers, an inventor and pioneer in the recreational vehicle business, is being remembered as the “father of the bus conversion” industry.

Custom Coach, the company he launched in 1955 with his father, was the first to commercially convert buses into luxury homes on vehicles, blazing the trail for the converted bus and RV industries that followed.

Kirwan Elmers

His Columbus, Ohio-based business produced motorhomes for musicians, movie stars, and royalty. Mr. Elmers died May 10 at age 91. 

Inducted into the RV/HM Hall of Fame in 2013, Mr. Elmers was a “leader in introducing hundreds of musicians, sports figures, and other celebrities to the benefits of luxury tour bus travel,” according to the organization. 

Industry firsts

Among his accomplishments were installing the first automatic transmission in an inter-city bus shell in 1956, the first back-up cameras in RVs in 1965 and the first to install cruise control in buses in 1967. 

“As simple as it sounds, an automatic transmission was never put in a bus until Kirwan did it,” said former employee and longtime friend Mike Middaugh. “He was not the mechanical type, he was more of the inventor type. He came up with the idea and would tell somebody else to figure out how to do it.”

After working in both the transit and charter sides of the bus business, Middaugh went to work for Custom Coach in 1989. He began his 12 years with the company as a sales manager and eventually was put in charge of the leasing division. The experience inspired him to launch his own Ohio-based company, Coach Quarters, in 2006. 

Kirwan Elmers, right, with Dave Thomas, second from left, in a group photo.

In the early years of the United Motorcoach Association, Custom Coach was a member and exhibitor at EXPO.

‘A real positive guy’

“He was a real positive guy, always full of stories,” said Middaugh, a UMA member. “He was known for taking pictures of everybody and everything, back when everything there was film. He would then frame the photos and send them to people via FedEx.”

Mr. Elmers had lots of photos with his famous roster of clients — including Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles — who toured in his luxurious motorhomes.

One of his customers and friends was Dave Thomas, the founder of the fast-food chain Wendy’s and fellow Columbus businessman.

“Dave would come down and look around. Dave was a bus fanatic, there’s no question about it,” Middaugh said.

The company changed hands over the years, including ownership by Greyhound Lines and Motor Coach Industries. Many MCI buses were converted by Custom Coach into entertainer vehicles, although Prevost now dominates the market.

Still working at 88

In 2002, the company was sold to Farber Specialty Vehicles. Mr. Elmers, age 74 back then, was part of the deal, according to Ken Farber, president of the company headquartered in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. 

Kirwan Elmers and Mike Middaugh

“He stayed active a long time after that,” Farber told The Columbus Dispatch. At age 88, Mr. Elmers was still coming to the office occasionally because he liked being there. He traveled to work in his Jeep bearing the license plate “Bus Man.”

In the 1950s, his father, Miles Elmers, also an inventor, helped come up with the low-sudsing detergent ideal for automatic washers. Monsanto bought the business in 1953, which gave him the capital needed to later buy an interior manufacturing operation. As Miles Elmers was growing his detergent enterprise, he traveled the country and wanted better accommodations than a traditional camper. 

Inspired by family trips

His idea of decking out buses with the comforts of home was inspired by his family’s road trips with a trailer hooked to their vehicle. Buses equipped for comfort and travel seem more appealing.

He first worked with the Flxible Bus Company in Loudonville, Ohio, to create a bus with living accommodations. Built in 1952, the VisiCoach was the first commercially converted motorhome. It was powered by a Buick straight-8 engine coupled with a five-speed manual transmission. For its maiden voyage, the Elmers family drove it from Ohio to Fairbanks, Alaska, along the Alcan Highway, according to the company’s website.

Custom Coach was launched in 1955 with Miles Elmers’ purchase of Flxible’s Land Cruiser Division. In recent years, the business has shifted to outfitting vehicles for emergency response, health, testing labs, and mobile libraries, among other tasks.

Middaugh says he saw Mr. Elmers in November when he took him for a ride in his 1957 Flxible bus. He made sure to get a photo of them sitting together on the bus. 

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