Freewheeling: The advent of ‘coachbuilding’

Exploring automotive design in this STIR column, Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay cover the era of the creation of the modern motorcar, and the introduction of the ‘Coachbuilder’.

by Gautam Sen, Avik ChattopadhyayPublished on : Dec 14, 2020

The art of coachbuilding is old: dating back to the times when men used coaches and carriages drawn by man's favourite beasts of burden; carts, chariots and cabriolets have been made across continents with varying degrees of skill and ingenuity. Whether it was Arjuna's carriage in the Mahabharata, or whether it was Alexander the Great's four-horse-power chariot that traversed Asia Minor, carriages and coaches have been made since time immemorial, with each region developing its own style and tradition, the potentates ordering the most magnificent of them all.

The word ‘coach’ comes from a Hungarian town called Kocs, where the first horse drawn carriage with a steel spring suspension was developed in the late 1400s, leading to the term ‘Kocsi szeker’, meaning ‘cart of Kocs’. 

With the advent of the motorcar, the horseless carriage came into being. The business of building coaches moved from the horse-drawn variety to the horse-powered variety and with that the advent of new technologies in terms of materials and methods.

The early motorcars, focusing on the sheer novelty and function, looked like skateboards with mechanical elements, seats and wheels pinned on to them. Once it was established that this new device was reliable enough to be owned vis-à-vis a horse carriage, the focus shifted from the function to the form. If this were to gain popularity, it had to look better than the intricate horse carriages in shape, aesthetics, craftsmanship and road appeal.

Original rendering of the legendary Flying Star by Carrozzeria Touring | Freewheeling Series | Gautam Sen, Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
Original rendering of the legendary Flying Star by Carrozzeria Touring Image: Courtesy of Archives Daniel Cabart

Carmakers like Oldsmobile and Ford went the mass production route and for that it made sense to make standard bodies which kept costs down. Ford also realised that the need varied from customer to customer and so offered a variety of body styles with a range of uses for his Model T. The Oldsmobile Curved Dash of 1895 was possibly the first demonstration of a standard motorcar that could carry a certain distinct style, in this case Art Nouveau. 

Carmakers catering to the upper end of the market figured out that the more discerning customers preferred their cars “tailored” to their requirements and tastes, thus ensuring the role of the coachbuilder. So, prestige carmakers such as Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta Fraschini, Duesenberg and many others preferred supplying just the mechanicals and the chassis, leaving it to the customer to go to a coachbuilder of his or her choice to clothe the car. The radiator grille was the only place where the carmaker’s logo used to appear!

Coach-built bodies used pressed and hand-shaped metal panels, mostly aluminium alloy, fastened to light and strong timber frames. The pillars were typically of cast-alloy and in some cases where no wooden frame was used, the entire metal body was mounted on the steel chassis. 

Over time, as coachbuilders looked for more business, they recognised the need for better aesthetics, and thus the need for designers who could design better looking cars, all of which went into eventually influencing the evolution of automotive design.

All the major car making nations had great coachbuilders: famous names like Barker, J Gurney Nutting, Hooper, HJ Mulliner, Park Ward, James Young and others from the United Kingdom; Brewster, Brunn, Murphy, Derham and Willoughby from the United States; Chapron, Figoni et Falaschi, Labourdette, Letourneur et Marchand, Pourtout and Saoutchik in France; Bertone, Castagna, Farina, Touring and Zagato, and then Baur, Erdmann & Rossi and Karmann from Germany.

For the matter, there were coachbuilders in India too. From records, the oldest might have been Steuart & Co, from Calcutta, the capital of British India till 1911. Established in 1775, Steuart & Co were horse carriage makers “by special appointment” to The Prince of Wales and the Earl of Minto. With the advent of the automobile age, Steuart & Co too transited to fabricating bodies for cars.

A certain Pestonjee B Press formed a company called the Fort Coach Factory in Mumbai in 1879 to produce carriages for horse drawn vehicles. Into the 20th century, Fort Coach Factory was importing French Brasier cars in chassis-engine form, coachbuilding the bodies on them and selling them. Though Chennai-based Simpson & Co was set up to build railway carriages, they made horse carriages too, and then later bodies for cars.  

Yet most Indian wealthies, the maharajas and the British administrators and entrepreneurs living in India, preferred to have their cars coach built in the country from where the cars were being ordered. Most of the British, the American and the German coachbuilders made very elegant and beautiful cars, employing designers who left their mark and influenced the evolution of automotive design, designers like AE MacNeil, and later John Blatchley of J Gurney Nutting (Blatchley went on to become the design chief of Rolls-Royce after WW II), Howard ‘Dutch’ Darrin of Hibbard & Darrin, or Johannes Beeskow of Erdmann & Rossi. But the coachbuilders who really pushed the boundaries of design were the ones from France and Italy.

A few coachbuilders worth special mention include Labourdette, Figoni et Falaschi and Pourtout of France, and Castagna, Bertone and Touring from Italy. 

The pioneer amongst them all was Labourdette, founded by Jean Baptiste Labourdette (1826-1895), in Paris in 1858 as a coachbuilder making carriages. His son Henri (1855-1910) continued his work and the first body for an automobile was built in 1896.

1922 Hispano-Suiza with Skiff style Labourdette coachwork | Freewheeling Series | Gautam Sen, Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
1922 Hispano-Suiza with Skiff style Labourdette coachwork Image: Courtesy of Gautam Sen

Henri Labourdette’s son Jean-Henri inherited the firm in 1910, and by 1912 developed the concept of a lightweight "Skiff", for René de Knyff, on a Panhard 20HP frame. Shaped as a boat, without doors, the structure followed traditional naval carpentry methods. Soon Labourdette's Skiff bodies were to be seen on Rolls-Royces, Hispano-Suizas, Renaults, Peugeots and else.

The coachbuilding firm that Joseph Figoni created (and which Ovidio Falaschi joined later) was one of the greatest of automotive design houses during the 1930s. They designed and built a whole host of bodies on similar chassis, refining and improving each iteration till they had the most beautiful. And it was not just stylish, elegant bodies for marques like Ballot, Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye and Duesenberg, but also purposeful racers like the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 that, with Luigi Chinetti, Raymond Sommer and Tazio Nuvolari went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1932 and again in 1933.

  • 1939 Delahaye 135 MS by Figoni et Falaschi which is in India | Freewheeling Series | Gautam Sen, Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
    1939 Delahaye 135 MS by Figoni et Falaschi which is in India Image: Makarand Baokar
  • 1937 Delahaye 135M with Figoni et Falaschi body with Indian provenance | Freewheeling Series | Gautam Sen, Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
    1937 Delahaye 135M with Figoni et Falaschi body with Indian provenance Image: Courtesy of Gautam Sen

Carrosserie Pourtout was one of the lesser known, but highly respected French coachbuilders from before WW II. Founded by Marcel Pourtout in 1925, it earned an excellent reputation for its distinctive and prestigious bodies for cars from numerous European carmakers. Pre-war Pourtout bodies were mainly one-off, bespoke creations, always very aerodynamic and sporting in character, with most of them designed by Georges Paulin, arguably the finest automobile designer before the advent of WW II.

A Delage D8 with exquisite Pourtout body | Freewheeling Series | Gautam Sen, Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
A Delage D8 with exquisite Pourtout body Image: Courtesy of Gautam Sen Archives

On the other side of the Alps, the pioneer was the coachbuilding firm of Castagna, with the very first automotive effort dating back to 1905, when they bodied a Fiat 24-32HP for Marguerite de Savoie (the Queen of Italy). The most famous of the Castagna creations was the 1913 Alfa Romeo 40-60HP, which was one of the first automobiles to take into account aerodynamic considerations; in fact, its body was a streamlined hull in the shape of an aircraft.

One of the most important of all coachbuilders of all times, Carrozzeria Bertone was founded in 1912 by Giovanni Bertone. After having worked on Diatto chassis, he secured a deal with Vincenzo Lancia in 1919, making bodies for Lancia through the 1920s. In 1932, his son Nuccio (which is short for Giuseppe), was preparing to pass an economics exam, though he had been working for his father for six years. Then aged 18, he decided to sell his father’s plans for the Balilla to Fiat. His success was such that Bertone was soon catapulted to one of the biggest in Italy.

1934 Fiat 527 Ardita bodied by Bertone | Freewheeling Series | Gautam Sen, Avik Chattopadhyay | STIRworld
1934 Fiat 527 Ardita bodied by Bertone Image: Courtesy of Stile Bertone

More exclusive and prestigious than Bertone was Carrozzeria Touring, founded by Felice Bianchi Anderloni, in Milan, in 1926. Benefitting from the close relations he had with the founders of Isotta Fraschini, who were his brothers-in-law, Anderloni bought by Carrozzeria Falco of Milan, and then started constructing his own bodyworks there under the name of Carrozzeria Touring. With the design of his first bodywork, the Tipo 8B for Isotta Fraschini in 1927, the coachbuilder set about making a name for itself in the Italian automotive world.

The advent of unibody construction post Second World War made coachbuilding uneconomic due to huge investments in tooling and dies. Many coachbuilders shut down, got acquired by automakers or changed their businesses into styling, contract manufacturing or special application vehicles. That will be another story, another month… 

Read all the other articles in the Freewheeling series here.

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