As the name implies, ‘coachbuilding’ can trace its roots back hundreds of years to the era of horse-drawn carriages. These companies were particularly prevalent in England, with companies such as Rippon established at the time of Queen Elizabeth the first. Barker – a company famed for their work on the legendary Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost (now one of the most valuable cars in the world) – was founded in 1710 by an officer in Queen Anne’s guards.
The Automobile Arrives
When the first automobiles began to appear in the late 1800s, many coachbuilders had the foresight to see this as an excellent business opportunity. Early motor cars were, in those early days, literally horseless carriages. At the dawn of motoring creating a bespoke a vehicle wasn’t an easy task. Without series production, owners had to request a rolling chassis from a manufacturer, and then select a coachbuilder to create, and then fit, their bespoke design.
The Golden Age of Coachbuilding
During the 1920s the advent of series production transformed the car industry. Ford was churning out the Model T – a vehicle designed to be affordable and reliable, but not beautiful. The humble, boxy designs of these early motor cars for the masses left a lot to be desired by the rich, who needed a vehicle that matched the glamour and decadence of their own lifestyles.
Well-heeled customers turned to coachbuilders to add some much-needed style, taking their chassis to avant-garde companies such as Figoni & Falaschi, Henri Chapron, Park Ward and Mulliner.
The industry reached its zenith in the 1930s, when it became considered by some to be an artform – and the cars themselves were undoubtedly works of art. With many of them inspired by art deco and futurism – and often streamlined – these intricate designs were more like precious jewels than motor cars, and they are now worth millions.
Just look at stunning, bespoke creations like the Bugatti Atlantic, Poutout’s Bentley Embiricos, the Figoni & Falaschi Delehaye 135M or the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring (which very nearly won Le Mans), they are stunning from every angle: every surface, every seat and every knob and button has been carefully considered, and intricately realised.
This era was when automotive design and craftsmanship was at its height, and these cars would go on to inspire car designers, concepts and one-offs for decades to come.
After World War II, with manufacturers forming their own, in-house design departments and mass production becoming mainstream, many coachbuilders went bust. Companies like Zagato and Pininfarina became styling houses, who were subcontracted by the manufacturers to build the special bodies.
The introduction of monocoque and spaceframe construction made it even more difficult for coachbuilders to create unique coachwork, with designers being increasingly restricted by the predefined shapes and dimensions given to bodyshells.
In recent years there has been a rise in bespoke services offered by car companies, such as Roll-Royce Bespoke, Ferrari Tailor-Made and McLaren’s Special Operations, which provide wealthy car owners with, in theory, almost unlimited possibilities. Luxury car coachbuilding and bespoke is gradually returning to the uninhibited, decadent days of the 1930s, and ARES Design will be at the forefront of that renaissance.