They're a green nightmare, they're getting bigger every year and there are more and more on the road. Jonathan Brown on an unlikely growth industry

Bob is perhaps best known for his record-breaking stretch limousine - a 240ft-long articulated road monster originally called the Sheik but renamed the Patriot after 11 September.

Although he has made cars for some of the most famous people in the world - Eminem recently commissioned him to modify a Ford Excursion Diplomat - he knows exactly where the market for travelling in his gargantuan chariots of excess now is.

"It doesn't matter who the official king or queen of the high-school prom is nowadays," said the former nightclub doorman, real name Robert Strausser, a man who never ventures out into the streets of his hometown without his bulletproof vest or 33lbs of gold and diamond jewellery. "The real king and queen will be the ones who turn up in the biggest limo. These kids will happily drop a couple of thousand dollars to turn up in the most exciting car."

The demand among teenagers is perhaps the major driving force behind the astonishing expansion in the limousine rental market both in the United States and in Britain. Five years ago in the UK there were just a handful of operators. Today it is estimated there are as many as 11,000 offering rides for upwards of £80 an hour.

According to Harvey Muxlow of the National Limousine Association, many of his customers are children determined to arrive at their US-style school proms in the highest possible style. But there are also the hen parties, the stag nights and the birthday parties. It is the latest and most strident manifestation of modern bling culture. It is also enough to make carbon-thrifty greenies weep petroleum tears.

Such is the scale of the growth, Mr Muxlow and his members have been pushing for the UK limousine industry to be regulated as tightly as other forms of public transport. He fears that squeezed operators are putting young lives in danger by cramming as many as 20 passengers at once into the back of the new and biggest breed of limousines. He fears it may be only a matter of time before a tragedy unfolds. Plans to regulate the industry will be debated in the House of Lords today.

The limousine has travelled a long journey from its origins at the birth of the automotive industry at the beginning of the last century. Sleek, long and for the first 50 years at least, the limousine was always black. It took its name, it is said, from the French region of Limousin, where the traditional hood worn by locals was said to resemble the shape of the first luxury motors. Before the advent of celebrity culture, the vehicles were the preserve of politicians and leading businessmen.

Typical was President Calvin Coolidge's 1924 Lincoln Limousine. Central to the appeal was the secure cocoon of the passengers as they travelled inside a separate compartment from their driver. This allowed conversations to be conducted in conditions of utmost privacy. The early years were dominated by Cadillac and Lincoln.

By the 1930s the newly emergent breed of Hollywood stars were clambering on board. Tinstletown's most famous women were among them. Joan Crawford drove a '33 Cadillac, with huge whitewall tyres. Jean Harlow - the original "blonde bombshell" - liked to cruise the Hollywood Hills in hers.

Following the interruption of the war years, the 1950s saw the limousine dramatically change gear and a whole new raft of potential owners arrived with the birth of rock and roll. Elvis Presley was probably as well known for his love of limos as he was for his appetite for hamburgers. The King was also partial to bestowing the odd Cadillac on those that met with his favour. In 1955 he gave a convertible to the Sun Records chief, Sam Phillips. It was a habit he was to continue throughout his life. In 1975 he bought 11 Cadillacs in a single shopping spree, handing them out to loyal friends and family.

The limousine has always been the rock star's transportation of choice. It became the ideal way to ferry performers between the hotel and the venue, insulating them from the admiring crowds while allowing them to continue indulging their bad habits en route to the gig, as well as helping them whisk away a few carefully selected groupies on the way home.

But perhaps the most famous limousine story belongs to Keith Moon, the wild-man drummer of The Who. It took place in 1967 during the band's first tour of the United States, while supporting Herman's Hermits. The occasion was Moon's birthday, the scene was the Holiday Inn in the blue collar Michigan city of Flint.

After celebrating all day, the debauched scenes culminated in a massive cake fight around the hotel swimming pool. The police were called. Moon, now stark naked, sought to escape in the band's hired limousine. Finding he had no keys, he dropped the handbrake and rolled backwards into the pool, narrowly escaping with his life. Moon was arrested, ordered to pay $24,000 in compensation and told never to darken Flint's doorstep again.

Others enjoyed more gentle japes. Neil Young and his band always travelled in separate limos but enjoyed exchanging "pressed ham" greetings with each other by pushing their naked bottoms against the back window.

In the Seventies, the limousine truly came of age. In an era when everything was getting bigger - from bell bottoms to hairstyles - the stretch limo was invented. Modifiers would take a luxury car, typically that ultimate symbol of safe respectability the Lincoln Town Car, and insert an extra 10ft of chassis.

And in would go the "toys" - the TVs, the cocktail cabinets, the music centres, the mirrored ceilings. With the invention of each new technological gizmo the limo would be updated, and it would continue to grow. White cars became the height of fashion, the inserts lengthened, reaching up to 17ft and the add-ons became ever-more extreme, culminating in the ultimate in-car accessory - the hot tub. The number of axles doubled and then trebled.

By the 1990s, Limo Bob was on his third fortune after being cheated and burnt out of his first two fleets. He was to lose his third in a bitter court battle. But his hunger to succeed was not to be diminished.

"This industry is so exciting, I love building cars and making them real nice. You dream it, we'll build it," he said.

The latter part of the decade saw the emergence of the sports utility vehicle (SUV). Already outsized, Limo Bob thought he could make them even larger. Ford came up with the Expedition, then there was the Lincoln Navigator and then the Cadillac Excursion hit the market. All got the cut-and-shut treatment. Since 2003, Limo Bob has been turning out his CEO version of the H2 Hummer, a former military vehicle. With the addition of bullet-proof glass, it is particularly favoured by rap stars. One, built for a UK operator, even has its own on-board casino.

Of course not all chose such monsters. The truly super-rich seem to prefer the £250,000 Maybach 62 with its first-class airline seats that fold down into a full-size bed. Madonna drives one, as does the Premiership footballer and Arsenal captain, Thierry Henry, and Formula One's tycoon, Bernie Ecclestone.

Nowadays there are few marques that don't receive a stretch. Audi, Bentley, BMW, Jaguar Lexus, Porsche, Ferrari and even Rolls-Royce have all undergone treatment at the hands of the custom coach builders. The UK held its first ever Limousine Show this year at Sandown Park racecourse. And who was brought in to show the assembled petrol heads the way forward? Limo Bob, of course.

Limo Bob's automotive giants

* THE GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS, LONGEST LIMO

100ft (30.48m), designed by Jay Ohrberg of Burbank, California. The stretch features a helipad, a swimming pool with diving board, a king-sized water-bed, and satellite, all on top of this 26-wheeled vehicle.

* THE JET LIMO

The Jet limo is designed using a Boeing 727 - it's a wingless aeroplane on wheels. The jet is available to buy at $1m (£582,000) or to rent for $10,000 a week. It seats 30 comfortably, on luxurious leather sofas with fireplace, bar, and wide-screen TV.

* THE 'TEXAS LIMO'

This is a live "stretched" horse that seats three riders comfortably. Limo Bob jokes: "If we can't build it, we'll clone it!"

* STRETCH GOLF CART

This 1997 stretch Club Car gas cart is built using a 1957 Chevy body and seats eight passengers. The hood opens up into a fridge or handy storage area. At just over £5,000, one should drive cautiously across the course. It is equipped with working windshield and side curtains. Described online as very powerful, "brakes work".

* 'THE BEAST' STRETCHED SUBURBAN

There is nothing common about this 2001 Suburban. The inside features a stocked bar and accommodates 14 passengers. The back extension includes a six-seater jacuzzi as well as a mini-golf or lounging area with an outdoor giant-screen TV.

* THE 'LIMO TRIKE'

A customised rickshaw-style limo with a motorbike pulls a luxury 8-seater in behind. This one includes a stadium seating area with convertible roof.

* THE FERRARI SUPEROSSA

This 2002 Ferrari replica is stretched to fit four rows of passengers. It rents by the hour and prices double at weekends.

* THE LIBERTY aka THE PATRIOT

The Patriot has garnered media attention for its side decal of the American flag. This 65ft (20m) limo may display one of the longest motorised flags.

* THE TRAIN LIMO aka THE SANTA FE

This limo has been constructed out of an old passenger train car. It is advertised as the perfect rental for the campaign trail, weddings, or parades. The train seats 20 or so around the cabin, such that briefings and meetings can be comfortably conducted on the go.

* THE TROLLEY

This renovated San Francisco-style trolley corners as if it is on the rails it no longer requires to drive around town. It has been customised for the road and it's street legal.

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