The Second Golden Age

The art and science of bespoke coachbuilding is back

The golden age of coachbuilding was undoubtedly the 1930s but with an ever increasing demand for bespoke design and exclusive hypercars, a new age of coachbuilding is on the way.

When we think of coachbuilding, we think of the decades before World War II, when luxury and sporting car manufacturers supplied a rolling chassis, to be topped by bodywork of the customer’s choice from any one of hundreds of coachbuilders around the world. Styles and prices varied wildly, and customers were able to take wild flights of fancy should they dare.

Photo Credit: Automobili Pininfarina

Fast forward a century, and the luxury market is once again all about “bespoke,” even in the automotive world. Hypercars are being built not just in low volume but sometimes with special-order one-off bodies. Plus, the arrival of all-electric “platforms” means there will be more of a chance than ever for unique bodywork to be created. Customers will be able to get involved in the creative process, maybe throw in a few personal style references of their own or make real a design that they’ve had in their head for years. It really is like a return to the early days of the automobile.

As the name implies, coachbuilders originated in the pre-automobile age, building horse-drawn carriages for wealthy clients. In England, The Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers dates back to 1630, and some of the companies formed then lasted right through until the 1960s. But British coachbuilders were generally more likely to be building cut-down sporting bodies or limousine and shooting brake conversions of luxury cars than pure artisan creations. The same went for the American coachbuilders, often known as custom body makers.

For ultimate status and artistry, the most discerning customers would turn to the coachbuilders of mainland Europe, especially Italy. Many of those original Italian carrozzeria have been and gone during the life of the automobile so far – the loss of Bertone and Frua, for example, is still shocking, – but several of the greats survive, most notably Zagato and Pininfarina. Carrozzeria Touring disappeared in 1966 but was successfully resurrected in 2006 as Carrozzeria Touring Superlegerra, and Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italdesign is still around though now 90% owned by Audi.

Photo Credit: Aston Martin

It’s easy to forget, too, that France was also a hotbed of coachbuilding talent: there was Pourtout, Saoutchik, Chapron, Franay and the now legendary Figoni et Falaschi. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Spain and The Netherlands all also had many important coachbuilders, so worldwide there were literally hundreds during those exciting days of the 1920s and ’30s.

This was a time when the most important car manufacturers would supply the full mechanical package – a hefty ladder frame with engine, gearbox, axles, suspension, brakes, wheels and often the bulkhead and dashboard – leaving the customer to choose a body style and appropriate coachbuilder, usually with some guidance from the manufacturer towards the most suitable.

Those customers might be paying over $5000 for that rolling chassis alone – at least twice the price of a typical family house at that time. The bodywork and interior could easily cost much more than the rolling chassis, particularly once the Art Deco era began to influence automotive style.

Manufacturers and coachbuilders would use international motor shows to show off their most impressive one-off customer cars, which would also provide quite the ego boost to the customer involved. Brightwork was nickel plated, silver plated, gold plated and (by the late 1920s) chromium plated. Radiator mascots became more and more of a statement, from miniatures of original sculptures – such as the work of François Bazin – to the beautiful glass carvings of Lalique, the latter usually uplit to provide a glowing statement of wealth and style atop the car’s prow.

As for the interiors, styles were limited only by the imagination and perhaps a few concessions towards practicality. During the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne eras, the peak of coachbuilding, customers would choose exotic reptile skins matched with unusual woods from fashionably remote countries. As for the bodywork, well, we’re talking true works of art, ever more swooping, ever more streamlined, as coachbuilders experimented naively with the still-fledgling science of aerodynamics and extended their remarkable metalworking skills.

Photo Credit: RM Sotheby's

Of course, some designs were over-the-top to the point of tastelessness, but the ones we celebrate now are the most elegant, as typified by the cars of French carrosserie Figoni et Falaschi. The two protagonists, Giuseppe Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi, were both Italian but the company was based in France and for a few years from its formation in 1935 to the early days of World War II created true masterpieces, including what is arguably the most beautiful car ever made: the late-1930s Talbot-Lago T150 Goutte d’Eau (teardrop).

Although the Figoni et Falaschi company is long gone, its influence can still be seen in the remarkable creations of modern day custom body builders such as Rick Dore, who has crossed the custom/collector divide with invitations to exhibit his cars at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance and The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering.

Meanwhile, of the other great names that still exist, the most celebrated and successful are arguably Zagato and Pininfarina. Their life cycles perfectly describe the trials and tribulations of coachbuilders worldwide.

In 1919, Milanese engineer Ugo Zagato turned his knowledge of aircraft construction to lightweight bodywork for racing cars, particularly Alfa Romeos. Eleven years later, Battista “Pinin” Farina left his brother’s Stablimenti Farina coachbuilding company to form Carrozzeria Pinin Farina (later Pininfarina), going on to become the coachbuilder of choice for the fledgling Ferrari company.

Both companies started out as builders of special bodies for chassis supplied by manufacturers. Then, as those manufacturers started to move towards more modern types of construction after the war – the chassis, carrying all the mechanical parts, became an integral part of the bodywork – the coachbuilders moved into the full production of special versions of production cars. Usually there were convertibles and coupés with which the production lines of the time weren’t equipped to cope.

By the 1970s, largely thanks to new production methods that had originated in Japan, the major manufacturers no longer needed to turn to outside coachbuilders. Pininfarina survived mostly on its continuing association with Ferrari, while Zagato became more boutique, once again creating highly-exclusive versions of already exotic models, before closing the manufacturing side of the business altogether and becoming a design house, working across all forms of transportation and luxury goods. Though they’ve received funding along the way, both companies still survive, still headed by members of the founding families.

Photo Credit: Touring

Other coachbuilders weren’t so lucky. Some, like Ghia, were swallowed up by larger manufacturers mostly for the prestige of their names. Others quietly ran out of customers and money, never to trade again. Manufacturers developed their own styling departments, no longer happy to hand over the crucial design of their new models to outside companies. Eventually even Ferrari went the same way, with the last Pininfarina-designed model the 2012 F12 berlinetta.

That could have been the end of coachbuilding, but as Zagato and Pininfarina, along with several newcomers, have proved, that is absolutely not the case. Zagato has excelled, particularly through its long-standing relationship with Aston Martin, while new, modern-day coachbuilders are also springing up. Witness ARES Design, headed by the controversial former Lotus boss Dany Bahar and based in Modena, Italy, or Piëch Automotive, founded by the grandson of Porsche founder Ferdinand Porsche.

Today’s coachbuilders once again work with individual customers to create a design, sometimes off-setting the costs to the customer by agreeing to offer a small number of the new model to other equally well-heeled clients. Then there are others with bigger ambitions still. Witness Automobili Pininfarina, a new offshoot of the Indian Mahindra Group that has bought into the 90-year-old Pininfarina coachbuilder and design house to create Italy’s most powerful-ever hypercar, the all-electric Battista – named after the company’s founder.

Will this trend continue? Consider that crash and emissions regulations are already so restrictive that almost all modern day coachbuilders re-clothe existing platforms, just as they did in the early days of coachbuilding. Also, platforms for future electric vehicles are likely to be shared across manufacturers and are already less restrictive to bodywork styling – there are fewer cooling needs, more adaptable to radical new shapes, no need even for exhaust pipes, etc.

Photo Credit: Touring

And while traditional coachbuilding skills have been kept alive by companies such as the UK’s Envisage, we also see the use of many new composite materials and increasingly influential and adaptive manufacturers of incredibly lightweight, strong central monocoques that can be built in extremely low volumes. Multimatic, for example, discreetly manufactures carbon fibre monocoques for several major manufacturers but is becoming a brand in itself, while Gordon Murray has just proved that composite structures can be made so light that his new T.50 supercar is said to weight just 2160lb (980kg).

And so, just like in the 1920s and ’30s, all the elements – demand, affluence, technology and skills – are in place for bespoke coachbuilding to return. Say hello to the second golden age.