The go-go '80s are over, and so are the days of enormous stretch limos. When it comes to chauffeured transportation in the '90s, conservative luxury sedans are the new status symbol.

So says Chris Hundley, president of the Limousine Connection, who has guided his company through the recession by adjusting to changing trends in the industry. That meant retiring most of the company's stretch limos in favor of sedans, such as the Lincoln Town Car, that attract less attention from both the public and corporate controllers alike.

"The switch over to Town Cars over limousines was due to image, not cost," Hundley said. "It simply wasn't acceptable for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company to pull up to the office in a stretch white limousine, but they still needed the transportation."

As a result, about half of the Limousine Connection's fleet now consists of Mercedes sedans or Lincoln Town Cars. These cars are bulletproof and fully stocked with amenities, "but no hot tubs," Hundley joked.

Claiming to be the oldest L.A. limousine service under the same management, Hundley founded North Hollywood-based Limousine Connection in 1978 with his father as business partner. Hundley was only 19, but as a child actor with an entrepreneurial bent, he had the capital to start his own company. A lifelong love of cars pushed him into the business.

The company started with one used limousine that Hundley and his father took turns driving. The company's fleet now hovers at 20 cars, which serve around 65 clients a day, seven days a week.

The company rode high through the high-money, high-power '80s. The 1984 Olympics in L.A. provided a major boost when Limousine Connection won the contract with ABC to shuttle around the network's executives.

"We had huge business, political and entertainment figures flooding the city for the Olympics, and they all needed limousines," he said. "Of course, it also attracted everyone and his brother into the limousine business, because they thought they could make a killing."

When the Kevin Costner movie "No Way Out," hit the theaters in 1987, Hundley was inundated with calls from people wanting to reenact a sex scene from the film that took place in the back of a limo.

He drove hard-rock band Motley Cr & #252;e to the Grammy Awards. He said the group had been pretty well trained on limo etiquette before they got to his company, and they behaved themselves in his cars. More or less.

Then the '80s ended and recession hit. As a service industry, the limousine business was heavily affected by the crashing economy. "It was a whole new ballgame after the economy crashed," Hundley said. "The rule of thumb was 'stay alive until '95.' "

The company did stay alive, mostly by quickly adding sedans to the fleet.

"Even celebrities are starting join in on the business people when requesting Town Cars," said competitor Marvin Miller, president of Advanced Limo in Beverly Hills.

Miller and Hundley estimate that there are about 200 limo services locally, although that includes a large number of "mom and pop" companies with only a few cars.

"The limousine service is remarkably like the restaurant business," said Hundley, who likens himself to a maitre d'. "It has high overhead, a high attrition rate, and it's service-intensive. My staff and I make absolutely sure that the customers are satisfied."

Hundley knows whether a given client prefers a car in black or white, and what kind of bottled water to stock in the cabin.

"We went through two other limo services before finding the Limousine Connection, and I have no intention of looking elsewhere," said Juandolyn Heard, an assistant segment producer for the morning news show on KTLA-TV Channel 5. "They are an incredibly professional organization that has never failed us."

Heard said the KTLA morning news uses the company at least 10 times a week to transport guests to and from the show.

Hundley's pool of 30 chauffeurs undergoes training in everything from personal grooming standards (dark suits, no obvious body piercing) to handling overheard privileged information (don't repeat anything). They undergo drug and alcohol testing and sign an extensive confidentiality agreement.

"Clients take them to parties. They can get confessional, you can get a real inside look at a life," Hundley said. "My drivers are well trained on how to handle these situations. They would never sell a story to the National Enquirer. We want to have long-term relationships with our clients."

Limousine Connection

Year Founded: 1978

Core Business: Providing chauffeured transportation for corporate clients and special events

Revenues in 1993: $1.9 million

Revenues in 1997: $2.5 million

Employees in 1993: 30

Employees in 1998: 50

Goal: To provide consistent, first-class limousine service

Driving Force: Ability to keep up with the rapidly changing trends in the limousine industry.

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