AS the favored car customizer for many moguls and movie stars, Howard Becker fields plenty of unusual requests from exacting clients.
But when a Fortune 500 chief executive wanted an exercise bicycle installed in his Cadillac Escalade, Mr. Becker, whose company makes vans and cars into luxurious mobile offices, asked himself, “How do I do that? And how do I do that and make it safe?”
He cut a $2,000 recumbent bicycle in half, welded the flywheel with the pedals to the floor and transplanted the heart monitor to a side panel at eye level. Then he shortened one of the car’s seats to clear the path for rotating legs. “The key is that we were able to maintain the three-point seat belt,” said Mr. Becker, who noted that the bike-Escalade required no special inspection from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Clients also buy custom mobile offices for many other reasons. Occasionally, a medical condition restricts a client’s ability to drive. Some consider tricked-out Mercedes Sprinter vans and Cadillac Escalades — among the most popular models for mobile offices, customizers say — to be understated alternatives to stretch limousines.
Others just like to show off the plush interiors, which can include granite floors, overstuffed leather couches, walnut foldout desks with mother-of-pearl inlay and voice-activated wide-screen televisions. And many chief executives want to speed down the information superhighway even when their car is stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
In the last year and a half, advances in mobile broadband Internet have “driven business to us in droves,” said Mr. Becker, whose company, Becker Automotive Design in Oxnard, Calif., charges $150,000 to $500,000 for “ultimate mobile productivity machines.”
Faster broadband enables clients to hold back-seat video conferences or download large files. Three-watt signal boosters and roof-mounted cellular antennas improve cellular reception, reducing Internet dead zones.
“How can people go back to working on little screens on smartphones in the back of cars?” wondered Mr. Becker.
Many of his clients opt for a Slingbox, a relatively inexpensive device ($300) that allows viewers to watch every channel they receive on their home televisions in their offices on wheels. Recently, a man from Saudi Arabia rode through downtown Manhattan in his chauffeured modified Sprinter van but fretted about his inability to watch Arabic-language television.
“You can’t get satellite anything in the canyons of New York,” said Mr. Becker. “We sent a Slingbox to his palace in Riyadh. They hooked it up to his TV feed. Blink. He’s got 24/7 Middle East programming, in Arabic, in his van in New York.”
“Everything I can do in the office, I can do on the road,” said Joe Sachen, the owner of an office Escalade. Mr. Sachen, who lives in Aliso Viejo, Calif., says he now looks forward to his commute to Los Angeles, where he often meets clients of his merchandising company. The roughly 120-mile round-trip can last up to five hours in heavy traffic.
“A lot of people come into my office constantly, and when I’m in the car, it’s just me by myself, and I feel I get so much more done,” he said. He now has a larger computer screen (32 inches) in his Escalade than in his office, he said.
Business has long been conducted in cars. “Traveling salesmen were one of the target markets for the first automobiles,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. Ford published a magazine advising salesmen how to convert the Model T to carry product samples.
But the rough roads of the early 20th century were not conducive to writing memos in motion. One of the first cars marketed as a mobile office, the Stout Scarab, cost about $5,000 when it was introduced in 1935 — “a small fortune in the day,” said Mr. Anderson.
The Scarab, designed by William Bushnell Stout, looked like the progeny of an Airstream trailer and a vintage Volkswagen Beetle. It had a large soundproof cabin, a detachable conference table and seats that swiveled 180 degrees. But Mr. Stout sold fewer than 10 cars. “They just looked too weird for mass acceptance,” said Mr. Anderson.
Modern offices on wheels are not meant to stand out. To other drivers, boxy Sprinter vans might be delivering dry cleaning instead of carrying a chief executive who is delivering a PowerPoint presentation to senior staff.
To promote its converted Sprinter vans, Chalmers Automotive in Liberty, Mo., uses the slogan “Inconspicuous by design.” The company’s owner, Jack Chalmers, estimated that sales of modified Sprinters rose 200 percent in the last year. When the financial crisis struck, “a lot of these guys were floating around in stretch limos,” said Mr. Chalmers.“It looked like they were squandering money.”
Cadillac Escalades project more luxury than Sprinters but are still fairly common. “When you park one, it doesn’t mean there’s a celebrity in it or a high-end executive in it,” said Amy Boylan, president of West Coast Customs, an auto customizer in Corona, Calif.
Wealthy executives started distancing themselves from stretch limousines in the early 1990s, Mr. Becker said. “Carjacking began to be an issue. People of wealth became more conscious that a little bit of prudence in their public lives was probably in their best interest,” he said.
Still, some owners concede they enjoy impressing those who look inside their vehicles. Mr. Sachen likes the attention he receives when his Escalade’s doors are opened: “This car is the biggest valet shocker in the world.”
Noel Lee, founder and chief executive of Monster, which manufactures electronic and audio products, ordered a Sprinter from West Coast Customs, in part because he views the brand as an emerging status symbol.
“When you roll up to a red carpet, you don’t want to roll up in a regular van,” said Mr. Lee, who owns 30 other cars. But his Sprinter is more than a plaything. Mr. Lee cannot walk because of nerve degeneration in his back, so he relies on a Segway Human Transporter to get around. His new Sprinter has a motorized lift for his Segway. “Because it’s so tall, I can just roll in,” said Mr. Lee.
Wade Martin, a financial adviser near Princeton, N.J., bought his first Sprinter in 2010 from Midwest Automotive Designs in Elkhart, Ind., after his wife issued an ultimatum. “My wife said I couldn’t text and drive anymore,” said Mr. Martin. He credits “rolling down the road Wi-Fi” in his van with increasing his safety and productivity.
Not every chief executive views a hyper-connected vehicle as a wise investment. Scott Belsky, chief executive of Behance, a portfolio display network for creative professionals and author of “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality,” argues that wiring a vehicle to optimize communication can cost executives more than they think.
“Responding to e-mails feels productive, but deep thought is harder to quantify. Great ideas don’t come from reacting to stuff or being productive. They come from allowing yourself the space to think,” Mr. Belsky said. “Just about the last forced space of disconnection is the shower.”