BY ROB SMENTEKDespite being a coachbuilder for 40 years, Al Tortora can tell you, without hesitation, exactly how many vehicles he’s built—5,043. But, oddly enough, it was an act of nature that led to building the one that started it all.
With a 1976 blizzard bringing New York City to a screeching halt and his vinyl top installation business on hold, Tortora had to find something for his crew to do.
“I was looking out the window at my Cadillac, and said ‘Bring it inside, we’re going to cut it in half.’ And that’s how we started building stretch limousines. While we were building it, a guy came into the shop and bought it on the spot.” After his initial impulsive experiment paid off, he started buying used Cadillacs and Lincolns and stretching them, eventually working on new cars by 1978. Soon, Tortora says, they became the go-to limo place in Brooklyn, and then in Atlantic City when the casinos first opened. As the industry boomed in the early ’80s, his garage was cranking out more than 200 vehicles a year.
Despite his almost immediate success in the ground transportation industry, Tortora didn’t plan on entering that field. “Although I had worked in my dad’s garage, I started my career as a dental technician making false teeth,” admits Tortora. “Then, my dad called and suggested we work together doing a few vinyl jobs. After a year, I had eight trucks, a crew, and every new car dealer in the New York City area lined up.”
Within a year, the company expanded and moved into a 30,000-square-foot building where he built that first stretch. As a result of his willingness to take chances and work closely with clients and manufacturers, Tortora quickly made a name for himself as one of the preeminent builders for the luxury ground transportation industry, building vehicles for CEOs, celebrities, heads of state, and even royalty. Tortora soon became known as a guy who could get things done and make his clients happy. This, along with a warm, larger-than-life personality, would lead to the development of great personal and professional relationships.
“I met Al in 1986,” says Frank DeLuca, the one-time owner of Excalibur Extravaganza Limousine. “I traded a car for the first 113-inch stretch built in Florida. The car had had an electrical fire, so I brought it into Al. He built me two more 113-inch cars—which no one had built in New York—but he took the one off me, and duped two more perfectly.”
Tortora would make 75 vehicles for DeLuca, demonstrating an “encyclopedic” knowledge of constructing innovative vehicles, such as a 160-inch Lexus LX470 in 1995 and the first tandem Expedition in 1998. The two went on to develop a lifelong friendship.
“When my daughter was in high school, she got sick and was sent to the hospital. Al got there before my wife and I did, calling and letting us know she was OK. I will never forget that. Ever.”
Tortora wasn’t just willing to take chances on his limousines, but also on people. In the early ’70s, Tortora’s brother gave 17-year-old local Mike Misseri a job sweeping the garage. In a matter of days, Misseri would show his drive and determination and start working on parts and cars, eventually becoming plant manager and then Tortora’s partner.
“Al had a lot of vision,” shares Misseri. “Back in the early ’80s, he was pushing to build a 54-inch limo when the rest of the industry was building 36- to 48-inch cars. Now, we’re at the age where you see cars that are 200 inches without batting an eye.”
“When I started in the business in 1990, Al was the first coachbuilder to buy from me,” says Eric Alpert, president/CEO of Premier Products. “He gave a 20-year-old kid an opportunity when no one else would, and I am forever grateful to him. He was one of a handful of old-school builders who shaped the future of our industry with innovation, quality, safety, and, above all, integrity.”
Tortora’s ability to foster friendships and business relationships was an asset during his role in forming the Limo Industry Manufacturer’s Organization (LIMO) in the mid-’90s. Before then, the industry was largely composed of fierce competitors, but soon LIMO proved the value of working together.
“LIMO was very effective,” Tortora says. “This organization helped get the SUVs pushed into a bus category for DOT, which may have saved the industry.”
In recent years, Tortora traded New York winters for Florida’s warmth, serving as an an active industry consultant to companies around the country and getting involved with real estate properties in New York and the Sunshine State. “He’s been saying he’s retiring for as long as I’ve known him,” joked Misseri. “There’s no way he’ll ever quit totally.” [CD0217]