Featherlite Coaches always have different paint schemes on the outside, Jimmy Adams said. This is the company's show coach. Courtesy Photo.
Featherlite Coaches always have different paint schemes on the outside, Jimmy Adams said. This is the company's show coach. Courtesy Photo.

A sight to see

Published 9:34pm Monday, March 17, 2014

If you’re living it up in your RV this spring, you might think you’ve got the best four-room apartment on wheels that money can buy — until you spot one of these babies on the road.

They’re the envy of wanderers and tourists everywhere. Campers want to be them; people want to own them.

These luxury coaches, designed and built in Suffolk, seamlessly combine the arts of automotive technology, electrical engineering, cabinetry, painting and interior design.

Jason Edwards works on the belly of a new coach at Featherlite Coaches.
Jason Edwards works on the belly of a new coach at Featherlite Coaches.

Amadas Coach/Featherlite Coaches builds these bombshell buses on Obici Industrial Boulevard, where they take shells of luxury coaches from Prevost and outfit them with anything the customer wants, from hot tubs to mirrors with hidden televisions.

The best NASCAR drivers and biggest names in country music are among their regular customers.

“Probably half of the Cup drivers are in Featherlite products,” said Amadas vice president Jimmy Adams, referring to NASCAR’s elite circuit.

But there are plenty of less-recognizable people with enough capital to make their dreams come true. Many of them have done well in sole proprietorships, Adams said. Others frequently come from the upper tiers of the trucking, oil and finance industries, as well as fast-food franchise owners. Amadas-branded coaches also are sold to companies as marketing tools on the road.

Amadas Coach started in 1997, a spinoff of Amadas Industries, which has been making peanut-harvesting technology in Suffolk for more than 50 years. It started after becoming majority owner of another coach building company. Amadas Coach acquired Featherlite — and the considerable customer base and intellectual property that came along with it — in 2009, after the downturn in the economy hurt Featherlite’s business and left it ripe for acquisition by a company that had prided itself on slow but steady growth.

Josh Davis works on elements of a new show coach.
Josh Davis works on elements of a new show coach.

Since that time, many big names have visited Suffolk to take delivery of their new coaches, learn how they work and take them for a spin around town. The company’s NASCAR customers include Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, legendary team owner Rick Hendrick and more.

Musicians who have traveled in Featherlite coaches include Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Hank Williams Jr., Keith Urban and the Dave Matthews Band, although the market among musicians for actually owning their own coach is drying up. These days, many prefer to lease, Adams said.

These are far from your average RV. The shell alone, which comes with a temporary driver’s seat as its only amenity, costs $500,000. Fully outfitted, the finished product can run from $1.8 to $2.3 million, depending on the options.

And the options are almost limitless. Anything that can fit on the coach is fair game, and that includes the space under the living area and on top of the bus.

The employees at Amadas Coach are more like artists than technicians, creating each luxury vehicle especially to each client’s specifications. Here, Gary Combs works on a project.
The employees at Amadas Coach are more like artists than technicians, creating each luxury vehicle especially to each client’s specifications. Here, Gary Combs works on a project.

Many clients outfit the belly of the bus with an outdoor entertainment center, including television, refrigerator and grill. But some want extra storage — if they ditch the grill, they can use that space as a garage for a four-wheeler, golf cart or motorcycle.

On top, slide-up rails can be installed that make the bus a safe venue from which to watch the race, and it wouldn’t be unheard of to have a television and fridge up there, either.

But in the middle is where the living really happens. Two iPads that come with the bus control the electronics, which can even include a 60-inch flat-screen television. Many have a guest bathroom as well as the master bathroom, in addition to two or three couches, one of which can fold out to make a guest bed. Some coaches have kitchens that are capable of churning out a Thanksgiving feast, and a washer and dryer are pretty standard equipment.

All of this is put together at the Amadas facility in Suffolk. A client visits with Adams and his employees to pick out everything he wants, from floor and wall coverings to where he wants the couch. Some clients travel to Suffolk for this visit, but others meet Adams elsewhere. Adams takes a show coach to about a third of NASCAR’s races each year to meet the drivers where they are.

“It’s hard to sell these things from a brochure,” he said.

From there, engineers develop floor and building plans, and a small army of about 30 employees goes to work on the Prevost shell, making it exactly to the customer’s specifications. Teams of woodworkers, electricians, painters and others work together to make the client’s dream a reality.

While a new coach can be quite pricey, some trade-ins are available for less than seven figures. NASCAR champion Terry Labonte’s old coach, for instance, now is owned by a local guy, still sporting an inspection sticker from Labonte’s home state of Texas and a tan-and-black paint scheme.

Adams said Suffolk is a strategic location for the business, because it’s centrally located to many tracks on the NASCAR circuit and features the Suffolk Executive Airport a scant two miles away, making for convenient and discreet travel for the clients.

It also has an abundance of water, which is important, because the marine industry translates well to building luxury coaches.

“These things have more in common with a yacht then they do an RV,” Adams said, noting several employees have come from marine concerns.

Each coach takes about six months and 10,000 man-hours to complete. The location finishes about six to eight a year, but Adams said the company is ramping up its hiring to be able to do 12 a year, meaning more big names than ever before will be in Suffolk to pick up their new vehicles.

So if you spot a shiny new coach driving down the road or catch a sighting of your favorite short-track hotshot at a local eatery, don’t wonder how they got there. Thank Amadas.

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