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History Hits: Coach-Built Bodies and Why You Should Miss Them

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Coachbuilding: The Lost Art

With the turning over of our calendars, a new year is upon us. With a new year, I find myself looking back at what I miss, and what new things I can officially refer to existing as “in the good ol’ days”. While things like the Land Rover Defender, or the Obama administration can be added to the list of things to reminisce about, one thing I always find myself missing—whenever I happen to think about it—is the practice of coachbuilding bodies for automobiles. This practice involves building a body separate from the chassis and running gear, usually to custom specifications. In the first decades of the automobile, almost every car was sold as a body-less, running chassis, to be bodied at the owner’s efforts. The term “coach built” comes into play from the horse carriage craftsmen who began to ply their trade supplying bodies to these new car owners.

This practice remained strong throughout the 1920’s and ‘30’s, with the automakers themselves busy with the job of actually making the cars work. However, as the car became less of a rich-man’s tool, and more of an everyman’s runabout, coachbuilding was used to ensure one’s status was known to all who saw their vehicle, as well as allowing new technologies to be tried.  With the advent of World War II and the mass-production it brought with it, coachbuilding essentially ceased to exist altogether, barring one-off projects at significant expense. The rise of the unibody construction method—where the body and frame are one-and-the-same, instead of a chassis with a body on top—sealed the fate of coachbuilding, with the process largely being impossible.

While some coachbuilding companies exist still—more on that later—the practice is definitely on the ‘good ol’ days’ list. In honor of all the New Year’s retrospection, below is a list of some of my favorite examples of the practice of coachbuilding throughout the decades. On a pre-emptive note for any complaints, trucks are excluded from this list despite their construction still featuring body-on-frame style, due to the difficulty in deciding what is a passenger vehicle, and what is a commercial or utility vehicle.

The Beginning through the 1910’s:

  1. Mors 1904 Landau Tour Car by Rothschild
    mors-by-rothschild
    This Mors Landau Tour Car was built in 1904 with coachbuilding done for/by the Rothschild family. The Mors motor company was a French outfit, which made a name for itself early in the history of the automobile. This beautiful red example features the ‘Landau’ body style, where the driver—almost certainly a hired man—is exposed to the elements very far forward and separate from a more luxurious, enclosed, passenger compartment. The demise of Mors as their own marque, came with their purchase by Citroen, upon which they began producing Citroen’s outright.

    2.       1913 Argyll 15/30

    argyll
    I included the svelte Argyll 1913 model 15/30 due to the fact that it showcases a benefit to the practice of coachbuilding: small producers were able to survive in such a market, allowing truly international talent to showcase itself. The Argyll was produced in Glasgow, in Scotland, and features an almost modern style to its proportions with a small hood and large passenger compartment. This model in 1913 also featured 4-wheel brakes, which while standard sounding by today’s standards, predates the practice by almost 10 years.

    3. Brooke Swan

    swan-and-cygnet-swan
    My favorite coach-built body from the decade of 1910 showcases the freedom creators were allowed when only a single customer needed to be pleased. The Brooke Swan and the smaller sibling, the Brooke Cygnet, were—obviously—styled after swans. Built for a Raj in India, the two cars also featured a few owner-specific features included in the body. Not only was an 8-tone horn installed to clear the pedestrian-packed roads, but the swan’s beak was used to shoot steam towards extra-persistent people.

    1920’s:

    1.       1927 Rolls-Royce Phantom I by Brewster

    brewster-phantom
    The turn of the 1920’s showed that the automobile was here to stay, and with it, coachbuilding—for now. The Rolls-Royce Phantom is perhaps the most famous coach-built car, as Rolls-Royce chose to leave the body to the customers discretion. The pictured example is a stunning coupe/roadster bodied by Brewster. This car, from 1927, showcases the long bonnets and swooping arches which the 1920’s are famous for.

    2.       1928 Packard 443 Custom Eight

    packard-custom-8
    This car is included less to showcase the style offered by coachbuilding, and more to show the sheer ridiculousness possible. At 12ft between the wheels, the chassis of the Custom Eight is more akin to the size of a modern day Suburban XL or Expedition XL. Yet through the choice of the owner, and the style of coachbuilding, a four-door, long-bonnet, convertible sedan was possible. While this picture does not do the size justice, this is a truly massive car.

     

    3.       1921 Spyker C4 All-Weather Coupe

    spyker-c4
    The Spyker C4 is a rare example where the body was built by the same company as the running gear—Spyker themselves. While technically not a coach-built car, the Spyker company had to be included due to their origins building the Danish Royal Carriage—they are literally coach builders. The C4 is the perfect car to showcase Spyker, as it not only is the first car to feature four-wheel drive, but also has the distinction of sharing a Maybach engine with a Zeppelin from World War I.

    1930’s:

    1. 1934 Peugeot 401/402 Eclipse
      eclipses
      Peugeot has long stood by its French brethren in the automotive world with their quirky designs. My favorite example were the coach-built ‘Eclipse’ versions of the 401 and 402 coupes. About 70 were produced in total, and they featured a downright futuristic retractable hard-top roof, stowed in its entirety in the trunk. This is an example of a coach-built car being used as a means of introducing new technology.

      2.       1937 Alfa 8C 2900B Coupe

      http://www.autogaleria.hu -
      This 1937 Alfa 8C showcases the other benefit to coachbuilding: any chassis can be used. Underneath this lovely body—with its louvered rear wheel well and extra-long bonnet—is a winning Alfa Romeo Grand Prix chassis, proven in competition. While the builders chose the grand-tour style body currently chosen, a sedan or convertible could just as easily been built on top of the Grand Prix-class chassis.

      3.       1930 Cadillac V16 Roadster by Fleetwood

      caddy-v16-1930-roadster-by-fleetood
      Cadillac in the 1930’s was full of American can-do attitude, and when they wanted a car to compete with the other large, 12-cylinder models on the market, they turned to that other, time-honored American practice: more is more. With this in mind, a 16 cylinder engine was introduced, and proved very popular with the rich and famous. This example was bodied by Fleetwood and turns the 16-cylinder monster into a two-seater roadster.

      Post-war to Now:

      1. Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport 1947 by Saoutchik
        real-talbot-combined
        As mentioned, the end of the Second World War also saw the end of coachbuilding as a normal social practice. One of the last examples is this 1947 Talbot-Lago T26 Grand Sport chassis bodied by Saoutchik , which served as a last hurrah. While Talbot did body other T26 cars—quite beautifully—the Grand Sport had to be bodied by the customer. Perhaps sensing their demise, the coachbuilders used the resulting chassis’ to showcase some of the most elegant designs ever, in my opinion. This Saoutchik bodied model is my personal favorite.

        2.       Heuliez designed 80’s Citroen Visa

        citroen-visa-cabriolet-01
        With the unibody construction method, came the end of coachbuilding as it was. Bodies could no longer be taken off and thrown away, and as such those coachbuilders who wished to survive started to partner with manufactures for special editions. This led to some compromises dictated by the corporations and their need for mass-market profits, resulting in some unfortunate designs. One such is the Heuliez company, which finished its years in the automotive world taking small Citroen hatchbacks and turning them into convertibles, such as this Visa model.

        3.       Zagato

        vanquish-zagato
        A coachbuilding company which went down the same road—much more successfully—is Zagato. An Italian design firm known for the beautiful designs they produce, Zagato has spent the last few decades partnering with luxury marques to make special edition models. The most well-known of these corporate relations is Aston Martin, who lets Zagato have considerable design freedom. When you see the results, such as the 2015 Vanquish Zagato pictured above, it is easy to see why.

        4.       Ringbrothers

        ringbrothers
        Some modern custom-car companies tread the line between part supplier, assembler, and outright coachbuilder. One such is the small American outfit, Ringbrothers. While known for their crazy designs, attention to detail, and willingness to work with almost anything American, they recently dipped their tows into coachbuilding with their Espionage Mustang. Looking back to body-on-frame construction of the 1960’s the Ringbrothers crafted a new body for the Mustang out of carbon fiber, and featuring a widebody. While forced to utilize old cars, this does not make it any less a feat of coachbuilding.

        5.       Tesla

        icon-and-tesla-real
        While the electric car is often attacked as the death of the car for the auto enthusiast, it opens up the old avenue of coachbuilding. Most electric cars feature a separate ‘chassis’ undertray, like the Tesla Model X chassis pictured above. This allows new bodies to be dropped on top, which if you are Tesla allows quick recharges on the go. For designers like Icon in Los Angeles, it represents a blank canvas, where concepts like the above Helios—from Icon—might one day take shape.

        Hopefully I am not alone in my lust for the good ol’ days of coach-built bodies. The above certainly do not represent all the examples throughout history, but merely a few of my favorites. If you liked them, feel free to share with your friends or comment down below. Also leave a comment if you have a favorite or if I missed one too good to pass up!

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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