While some limousines are owned by individuals, many are owned by governments to transport senior politicians, by large companies to transport executives, or by broadcasters to transport guests. Most stretch limousines, however, operate as livery vehicles, providing upmarket competition to taxicabs. Most builders of stretch limousines are located in the United States and Europe and cater mainly to limousine companies. Few stretch limousines are sold new to private individuals. In addition to luxuries, security features such as armoring and bulletproof glass are available.
Winton Six Limousine, 1915, with driver in a compartment separate from the passengers, a distinctive limousine feature.
The first automobile limousine, built in 1902, was designed so the driver sat outside under a covered compartment. The word limousine is derived from the name of the French region Limousin, because this covered compartment physically resembled the cloak hood worn by the shepherds there. An alternate etymology has the chauffeur wearing a Limousin-style cloak in the open driver's compartment, for protection from the weather.
The first “stretch limousine” was created in Fort Smith, Arkansas around 1928 by a coach company named Armbruster. These cars were primarily used to transport famous “big band” leaders, such as Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, and their bands and equipment. These early stretch limousines were often called “big band buses”.
Lincoln Limousine used by U. S. President Calvin Coolidge, c. 1924
Traditionally, the limousine has been an extension of a large car. A longer frame and wheelbase allow the rear passenger compartment to contain the usual forward facing passenger seat but with a substantial amount of foot room — more than is actually needed. Usually then two "jump seats" are mounted, facing rearward behind the driver. These seats fold up when not in use. In this way, up to five persons can be carried in the aft compartment in comfort, and up to two additional persons carried in the driver's compartment, for a total capacity of seven passengers in addition to the driver. This type of seat configuration has however become less popular in recent limousines, although this design without the two front passenger seats is still characteristic of London's famous Black Cabs.
It is simpler to determine the effects of altering a separate chassis than it is to determine the effects of altering a load-bearing unitized platform body. Coach builders have built models based on SUVs with a separate load-bearing chassis.
This type of vehicle was once rather common in some locations. An example of its use was in the transport of travelers arriving by railroad at Merced, California to travel to Yosemite National Park in the first half of the 20th century and at other remote parks. In Yosemite, passengers would then stay in rustic platform tent camps or more expensive lodges and hike or rent bicycles for movement around the park. In Glacier National Park, the stages were referred to as "Jammers" in reference to the nickname of their gear-jamming drivers.
Some funeral homes maintain six-door stages to carry the family of the deceased between the church and the cemetery. These are usually not used for private hire.
These extensive limousine conversions have been performed on several luxury marques and fast cars, including: Bentley, BMW, Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford, Holden, Hummer, Infiniti, Jaguar, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce and Volkswagen. In the United States the most popular vehicles for stretch limousines conversion are the Lincoln Town Car, Cadillac DTS, Cadillac Escalade, Chrysler 300C, Hummer H2, Ford Excursion, and the Lincoln Navigator. There are even instances of Corvettes, Ferraris, Mini Coopers and VW Beetles being stretched to accommodate up to 10 passengers.
In some countries the driver may need to have a different driving licence to that of a car licence.
In Europe if the vehicle is under 3500 kg gross vehicle weight and can carry eight passengers or less than this can be driven on a category B driving licence. Vehicles under 7500 kg GVW but still carries eight passengers or less than a category C1 Large Goods Vehicle licence is required. Vehicles carrying 16 passengers or less, regardless of the GVW weight require a category D1 licence.
In the USA, Canada and Australia limousines can be any type of car operated by a "Limousine service" or "car service". Such companies offer cars with drivers, often for shared rides on popular routes, such as airport limousines. Limousines usually have to be booked in advance and are not hired on the spot as taxi cabs can.