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Sunday, November 01, 2020

SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND: The Coachbuilders, by Wiggia

A random post from JD about a rather special car... brought about this piece.

When most people buy a car there is no doubt that the aesthetics are as important as the practicality. Even with today’s computer-generated automobiles that have very generic shapes because of the demands of aerodynamics, some still manage to stand out from the crowd and sales are boosted by that look. In the early days it was no different, except that there were fewer constraints on design and cost was less of an issue; hence these amazing vehicles.

A Daimler Double Six 50 Sport Corsica Drophead Coupe 1931 with originally a body by Thrupp and Maberley but later altered by Martin Walter and then again after an accident by the firm of Corsica; and very nice too.

The car here won the Concours at the world famous Concours event at Peeble Beach in California in 2006 which for motor-heads is a drool day as so many exotic and rare automobiles are on show at what many people believe to be the premier show of its kind anywhere.

What the show also highlights is the preponderance of coach-built cars that the rich and famous sponsored in the pre war years. Almost every prestige car, and there were a lot of them pre war, had coach-built versions on the road; the standard models were simply not enough for many people who had the money to create something different, and some indeed ended up improving on the original factory designs.

As I related to JD I have a very close old friend whose father worked for Park Ward, known mainly for their coach-built Rolls Royces. This was after the war when this type of business was struggling for obvious reasons but the same man showed us kids how to coach line a car body freehand, something that today is a lost art.

Park Ward themselves merged with another coach builder H J Mulliner in 1961 and all was owned by Rolls Royce Motors anyway, which in 1971 became Rolls Royce Motors Ltd.

Captain Cuthbert W. Foster, heir to the Birds Custard fortune, commissioned Park Ward to build a body on a rare (one of only six) Bugatti Royale - a design not dissimilar to a Rolls Royce he had Park Ward build earlier for him. Sunsequently acquired by the reclusive Schlumpf brothers, it is now  in the museum in Molsheim, France, a place no self-respecting car buff should miss, where it sits alongside Ettore Bugatti's personal Royale known as the coupe Napoleon.

The Bird's-Eye Bugatti !

Other French cars that received the coach-builders loving touch included many Delage and Delahaye  and Talbot top-of-the tree automobiles pre-war. The Delahaye below is a 135 convertible by lesser known coach builders Franay but what a wonderful job they did with this model:

The list for inclusion in this short piece would fill a library book so I have attempted to give just a representation across the board; those who know about these things will scream 'why was so and so not included?' But the reason is simply space.

Another Delahaye below is the 1949 175 Saoutchik Roadster. Saoutchik was originally a cabinet maker and moved from the Ukraine to Paris in 1900; he then spent the next fifty years involved in designing some of the most desirable cars on earth.

'Saoutchik was commissioned to produce the spectacular work-of-art by flamboyant English collector, Sir John Gaul. The design was based on the first post-war Delahaye chassis from a 175 S Roadster (chassis number 815023) producing 165 bhp from an engine much larger than the pre-war Delahayes ran – a 4,455 cc naturally aspirated overhead valve inline six cylinder engine with four-speed electro-mechanically actuated Cotal Preselector gearbox, Dubonnet coil spring front suspension, De Dion rear axle with semi-elliptic springs, and four-wheel hydraulic finned alloy drum brakes. The wheelbase was a whopping 116 inches.'

Saoutchik could be said to have been the leader of the French car designers/ coach builders in the Art Deco period.

This particular Delahaye was once voted the most beautiful car in the world; difficult to argue with that.

Pourtout were the firm responsible for this magnificent Delage:

Delage D8 120S Aero Coupe 1937

In the UK, apart from the above mentioned we had Barker, Hooper James Young, Gurney Nutting and many more specialist coach builders mainly working with Bentley and Rolls Royce chassis.

This beautiful and restrained version of a Rolls Royce Phantom 11 Continental Sport Coupe 1933 is by Hooper & Co.

The Italians have a very diverse body of coach builders. Many have been involved with versions of cars like Ferrari Alfa Romeo and Maserati as well as saloons. It is very difficult to select a few as there are so many; my favourite Alfa I have shown before, so a link will do for that one:

Alfa probably had more coach built versions of their cars during the pre- and immediate post-war period than anyone else so just one or two here will have to suffice: Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring Berlinetta 1939 by Carrozzeria...

... and a more modern Alfa:

There were many different versions of Alfa’s TZ. Many were racing-only versions as well as the road models. This one by Zagato, a TZ3 Stradale, is not strictly an Alfa, one of nine built in 2010 as a celebration of the anniversary of the TZ. The first of these was a one-off built for a German enthusiast with an Alfa 4.2 V8 engine from the Alfa 8C but the others all had Dodge Viper engines of 8.4 litres in V 10 configuration pumping out 640hp-  a modern coach-builder's classic.

Elsewhere Ferrari has had many one-offs built on their chassis. The Drogo-bodied Ferrari here is extremely rare and is built on a Cooper Climax grand prix chassis from 1957; really, the description in the text is best.

As an aside, it was interesting to see who had survived from that golden age; amazingly, quite a few but of the better-known names most are Italian: Bertone, Castagna, Fantuzzi, Guigiaro-Ital Design (who should be forever damned as having anything to do with the redesign of the awful Marina and its reincarnation as the ITAL, no doubt a decision they still regret and indeed it doesn’t exist in their list of works on their Wiki page - shame), Pourtout in France, Pininfarina, Touring, and Zagato... but then design has always been a big part of Italian production of anything.


This below is a Ferrari! Bodied by Ghia in 1952, the 212 Inter Coupe is really is a one-off, sold in ‘53 to the President of Argentina, one Juan Domingo Peron; I am sure his wife Evita would have loved it but she was dead by then.

In the USA before the war, they were spoiled for choice of material to work on: Duesenbergs, Packards and others were world-class automobiles. Many like Packard were leaders in new technology, which is difficult to believe seeing the post-war cars that were based on lumbering V8s and basic suspension.

This is the only surviving example of three built by Murphy &Co of Pasedena California: a Packard 343 from 1927. I would have this one for the colours alone - they are original Packard colours; note the matching central hinged doors.

Now the Cord, a brand named after the owner one Errett Lobban Cord, an automotive entrepreneur who produced this luxury car at the Auburn Automobile Company in Indiana, who were known for innovation as for example producing the first American car with front wheel drive and hidden headlamps; they also had a form of electro-mechanical gear shifting.

All Cords had a very distinctive front end as seen here; the ribbed exhaust was a feature used in Duesenbergs and Mercedes in Europe.

Though innovative, Cord suffered from reliability problems; the initial enthusiasm cooled, the dealer base shrank and the company was sold. E L Cord moved on to Nevada where he made millions in real estate.

With Duesenberg you're spoilt for choice, so many are good and what wonderful cars they were.

Rollston Duesenberg SJ Arlington Torpedo Sedan 'Twenty Grand' 1933

'Rollston's most famous car was the 1933 Duesenberg Model SJ Arlington Torpedo Sedan "Twenty Grand.

'Designed by Gordon Buehrig, the Twenty Grand was built as a show car for the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, and the finished car's price tag was $20,000, an astronomical amount at the time.'

Another Duesenberg will not go amiss here - a Murphy Duesenberg Model J Convertible Coupe: 

Murphy was considered to be the best of the Duesenberg coach builders and you can see why: when this 1929 model was announced it halted trading on the NY stock exchange, another over-$20,000 car that was only for the few (in today's money over $1 million.)

Back in Europe others were challenging Rolls Royce for recognition as the ultimate luxury car. The two that got nearest were Hispano Suiza and Isotta Fraschini.

Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8A from 1927

Hispano Suiza K6 Cabriolet by Brandone; a lovely car, just oozes class

As I said earlier you could go on and on with these magnificent vehicles of a bygone age, but is it bygone? Not really; although the ravages of war meant an end to most of what you see here, it revived later and is making more headway today; in the USA it could rightly be said the early hot-rodders were the coach builders of their time, and of the future as many have morphed into companies that custom build for customers and very successfully too.

Back in Europe firms like Mercedes are branching out with their versions of ‘dream’ cars. This stunning concept car is due to appear soon (or not, as the world ditches big automobiles in favour of mobility scooters); a nod to the past, it is a big step up for Mercedes who have not exactly rocked the boat design-wise for years.

I include another Alfa, I lied earlier! Before the company disappeared into a state-owned rust bucket it was still pushing the frontiers of design. This car had an amazing drag coefficient of 0.19, not beaten I believe in any road-going car since.

Bertone Alfa Romeo B.A.T. 7 1954  “Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica”

And this with a young Jeremy Clarkson driving the BAT:

Packard were at the top of the luxury car market in the thirties with V12 engines, hydraulic brakes, independent front suspension and small-production customised coach-built bodies for discerning and wealthy customers. They became the car of choice for the Hollywood stars and influential politicians. This video gives Packard's history, and if you want to skip that part from 15.00 on there are some stunning auto mobiles to view:

And the very last Packard concept car and the end of the Packard line in 1956: the Predictor. This car had push-button adjustable suspension (Packard had introduced adjustable suspension that could be changed from within the cabin before); an early ‘39 form of overdrive, the Econo-shift; and were among the first to use plastics in body detail.

Any article on coach builders cannot ignore the custom car concept that started in the USA in the Thirties. A very good history of the whole custom car movement and why is here:

It is a movement that is as active today as then and deserves a piece on its own but I will just include some examples.

The difference between coach building in a general sense and customising is that the coach builder designs and creates a body on an existing chassis, whereas a customiser alters an existing body. There are nuances to it but that is basically the difference though the skills are the same. The custom car has also branched out into hot rods and a whole new world in the use of paint finishes.

As explained in the link many of the custom car ‘tricks’ came from the early factory concept cars.

I have taken just one photo from the link because it was such an important car in the custom car movement.                                                                                                                                            


This is a typical! customised hot rod version of probably the most popular of all cars that came from the custom car movement: a 1927 model T Ford Coupe.


Few of these custom cars are what we would call practical, but that is not really the point of them.

At the other end of the custom car spectrum are the cut-and-shut versions of everyday saloons, though by the time the body shops have finished with them it is hard to tell what the original car was apart from the badge.

Several sub-divisions came from the custom car genre: the hot rods, even drag racing cars, lowriders that emanated from Los Angeles in the mid-Forties, highrisers that came from the South, monster trucks and several others including those with ‘trick’ adjustable suspension.

What is interesting in all this time in which coach building/ custom cars have looked for new avenues of expression is how the custom car today in many aspects reflects those wonderful designs by the likes of Delahaye all those years ago; back to the future indeed. The Cadillac below is an example, not the best, but decent enough to show that nothing is new in the world of design whether it is cars or clothes or whatever.

A Cadillac, I would imagine a Fifties model beneath the distinctive paint job

Custom car paint jobs can be incredible. It is an art form on its own; the use of flaking metal and other techniques in their multi-layered finishes is a large part of the custom car and renovation final presentation.

As with the old hand-painted and beautifully-finished coach jobs of the past it is just a modern extension of that art and is an integral part to all coach building in whatever form.

Another I am going to guess at - a late-Forties Mercury?

And to finish, the Batmobile from the original Sixties TV series.

The car was based on Ford’s luxury sub-division Lincoln concept car, the Futura, that was purchased by legendary custom car builder George Barris who created the Batmobile around it. The Futura itself was built by the Ghia firm in Turin Italy in 1954 at the enormous cost of over $2 million dollars in today's money and appeared in the film 'It Started with a Kiss' starring Debbie Reynolds.

Barris purchased the car for a nominal $1 and it languished in his workshop for some years. It was completed for the TV series in just three weeks and retained by Barris who leased it to the makers of TV series.

The car had problems during the filming and numerous changes were made including replacing the engine as the original overheated.

In 2012 Barris put the car up for sale and the following year at auction it fetched $4.2 million dollars.

Some more interesting facts here:

A real-life Batmobile was the Phantom Corsair, a concept car designed by Rust Heinz of H J Heinz family and Maurice Schwartz of the Bohman and Schwartz coach building company of Pasadena, California.

Apart from the futuristic aerodynamic shape it had electronic interior and exterior push-button door openers and various electronic indicator lights on the dashboard, the first of its kind in that area.

It was based on a Cord chassis with front wheel drive and the electrically-operated four-speed pre-selector gearbox plus fully independent suspension and adjustable shock absorbers; the engine was a Lycoming V8.

The passenger layout was unusual with four across the front and two in the rear; the rear layout was compromised by drinks cabinets! Heinz was killed in a car accident and the car never made production as planned, so the prototype is the only one that ran.

And to finish, a Bugatti TYPE 57SC Aerolithe, painstakingly and at tremendous cost restored to its former glory as seen here in this Youtube video. No problem getting your money back on one of these as alongside its stable-mate the Royale they are the most expensive cars in the world should one ever come up for sale.

The Elecktron panels used for the bodywork made it extremely difficult to build as it cannot be welded owing to combustion at low temperatures so the riveting seen on the body work is not there for effect as often thought - though it does have an effect - but it was the only way to join the panels.

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