Freewheeling: The art of coachbuilding – magic, magic everywhere

Gautam Sen and Avik Chattopadhyay continue their journey with the coachbuilders into a fresh new year and move into the age that witnessed the “art” of coachbuilders.

by Gautam Sen, Avik Chattopadhyay Published on : Jan 13, 2021

Though most of the coachbuilders used a stylist or an illustrator to render beautiful drawings of proposed designs during the beginnings of the automotive coachbuilding, over the years the importance of a pretty and practical shape became increasingly relevant as some of the finer designs won at ‘concours d’elegance’ events after a jury selected the most beautiful of the new coach-built cars presented. These concours d’elegance (competition of elegance) meets in the resort towns of France and then later, Italy and elsewhere, received very wide coverage in both the local and national media.

With the press coverage certain coachbuilders became more famous (consequently more expensive, thus more profitable) than the others and several realised the need to have on their rolls – or as consultants – exclusive stylists. Arguably, the one who may be considered the finest of the pre-War automobile stylists was a Frenchman by the name of Georges Paulin.

Born in 1902 in a working-class district of Paris, Georges Paulin was a dental technician, a part-time car designer and eventually, a hero of the French Resistance during World War II.

  • One of the most famous of Georges Paulin designs - the Peugeot Darl'mat | Freewheeling | STIRworld
    One of the most famous of Georges Paulin designs - the Peugeot Darl'mat Image: Gautam Sen
  • The Peugeot Darl'mat with other cars | Freewheeling | STIRworld
    The Peugeot Darl'mat with other cars Image: Gautam Sen

Around 1933, Paulin invented and patented the world's first power-operated retractable hardtop (decades before the Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner and the Mercedes-Benz SLK), which was used in several Peugeots. Having caught the eye of Emil Darl'mat, a Peugeot dealer, Paulin went on to design the famous Peugeot Darl'mat. Between 1934 and 1938, Paulin worked for Pourtout as well as the Darl'mat Peugeots, which competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

From 1938 to 1940 Paulin worked for Rolls-Royce, on the development of the Corniche project, which eventually led to the Bentley Continental from the 1950s. Before that he had designed a beautiful Bentley for Greek enthusiast André Embiricos, one that is acknowledged today as a true design classic.

A calling card for coachbuilder Pourtout of a Delage designed by Georges Paulin | Freewheeling | STIRworld
A calling card for coachbuilder Pourtout of a Delage designed by Georges Paulin Image: Courtesy of Gautam Sen Archives

In July 1940, Paulin began working for the French Resistance. Betrayed to the Gestapo, he was arrested and executed in March 1942.

Accompanying Paulin to his death was fellow Frenchman and Resistance fighter Jacques Kellner, who was the owner of one of France’s leading coachbuilding house, Kellner et Cie. The two French heroes had used their drawing skills to supply details of German installations to the Resistance.

The deaths of Paulin and Kellner marked the beginning of the end of French coachbuilding and dominance in automobile design. With peace returning and industrial activities recommencing, the French government decided to impose significantly higher taxes for the bigger and more expensive cars. By the end of the 1950s, several of the leading luxury French carmakers, such as Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Hotchkiss and Talbot-Lago, shut doors, and with them the French coachbuilding industry too collapsed.

  • One of the early designs by Franco Scaglione for Bertone, the rare Arnolt Aston Martin from 1953 | Freewheeling | STIRworld
    One of the early designs by Franco Scaglione for Bertone, the rare Arnolt Aston Martin from 1953 Image: Gautam Sen
  • One of the more famous designs by Franco Scaglione for Bertone - the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale | Freewheeling Series | STIRworld
    One of the more famous designs by Franco Scaglione for Bertone - the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Speciale Image: Gautam Sen

The advent of unibody construction post Second World War made coachbuilding uneconomic due to huge investments in tooling and dies. Apart from many coachbuilders and carmakers shutting down, few like Pininfarina and Zagato changed their businesses into styling, some like Karmann and Vignale into contract manufacturing or others like Van Hool and Heuliez into special application vehicles.

The only one of significance amongst the French coachbuilders to survive was Chapron, which transited to series production coachbuilding, making coupés and convertibles on Citroën’s recently launched DS. At first Chapron purchased the Citroën and customised them as one-off conversions. By 1961 though, the Citroën dealership network began distributing a standard “usine” (factory) two-door convertible, made by Chapron, as the coachbuilder continued its one-off conversions (coupés mostly) as well.

Chapron remained an important coachbuilder until the 1970s, when it created two new variants on the new Citroen SM – the Mylord convertible, of which seven were made, and the Opéra four door saloon (just eight were made). Henri Chapron died in 1978, and the company itself survived for some time before finally ceasing operations in 1985.

By the 1960s the baton of coachbuilding had passed on to Italy. The cost of handcrafted coachbuilding remained markedly lower than in France and elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, the mainstream Italian manufacturers – Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Lancia – resorted to getting their niche models made by the many specialist coachbuilders. Maserati, Ferrari, and later Lamborghini resorted to getting their cars designed and coach-built by the more reputed ones. Into the 1960s, it became a motor show-by-motor show competition between Ferrari and its preferred design house Pininfarina, and upstart rival Lamborghini and its astounding association with coachbuilder Bertone.

  • This one-off Maserati coupe was one of the many projects by Giugiaro soon after he established Italdesign | Freewheeling | STIRworld
    This one-off Maserati coupe was one of the many projects by Giugiaro soon after he established Italdesign Image: Gautam Sen
  • The Lamborghini Miura designed by a young Marcello Gandini for Bertone | Freewheeling | STIRworld
    The Lamborghini Miura designed by a young Marcello Gandini for Bertone Image: Gautam Sen

Soon after WW II, Pininfarina established itself as Italy’s leading coachbuilding-cum-design house. With the Cisitalia 202 coupe, Pininfarina’s first model after the War marking a turning point in automotive design, soon there were the likes of Peugeot, Lancia and Austin requesting Pininfarina to design cars for them to be produced at their respective factories.

Pininfarina also enjoyed a privileged relationship with Ferrari. Cars like the 275GTB from 1964 and the 365 GTB/4 Daytona from 1968 that really cemented the relationship. Interestingly, Ferrari’s bodies have mostly been coach-built at another coachbuilder, Scaglietti.

Pininfarina themselves though produced the bodies of a succession of Fiat roadsters, including the bestselling Fiat 124 Spider, with over 200,000 made over two decades. Other volume sellers from the Pininfarina coachbuilding facilities have included the Lancia Monte Carlo, the Alfa Romeo Spyder and the Peugeot 406 Coupe. Until the late 1960s, Pininfarina was Italy’s leading coachbuilder.

One of the lesser known of Pininfarina design for Alfa Romeo, this one-off based on the 2600 Sprint | Freewheeling | STIRworld
One of the lesser known of Pininfarina design for Alfa Romeo, this one-off based on the 2600 Sprint Image: Gautam Sen

Pininfarina was also a great breeding ground for designers such as Tom Tjaarda, Paolo Martin, Aldo Brovarone and Leonardo Fioravanti. Though they were mostly unknown when working at Pininfarina, they went on to become famous subsequently.

At rival Bertone, it was different. Nuccio Bertone had no issues in letting the world know as to who had designed his cars. After the war, he took on freelance designer Franco Scaglione, who penned a series of superbly proportioned cars for Arnolt, Abarth and Alfa Romeo, specifically the amazing series of one-off aerodynamic concept cars, the Berlina Aerodynamica Tecnica (B.A.T.) models, which with their astoundingly winged tailfins and startling lines, established Bertone at the top rung of the coachbuilder’s art.

Bertone then shifted attention to more pragmatic vehicles, with designer Franco Scaglione designing the Alfa Sportiva prototype, with its convex windscreen, truncated tail and slightly pointed nose, which became the template for all sports car design for the next two decades. In the same year, 1954, Alfa commissioned Bertone to design and build the hugely successful Giulietta Sprint coupe.

  • This Lancia Stratos HF was one of the many dramatic designs by the maestro Marcello Gandini for Bertone | Freewheeling | STIRworld
    This Lancia Stratos HF was one of the many dramatic designs by the maestro Marcello Gandini for Bertone Image: Gautam Sen
  • This Lamborghini Countach was another of the many dramatic designs by the maestro Marcello Gandini for Bertone | Freewheeling | STIRworld
    This Lamborghini Countach was another of the many dramatic designs by the maestro Marcello Gandini for Bertone Image: Gautam Sen

Bertone’s reputation soon attracted other talented designers, and a young Giorgetto Giugiaro joined the coachbuilder in 1959. What followed was a series of beautiful cars, amongst them the Alfa Romeo Giulia coupe, the BMW 3200 coupe, superb concepts like the Corvair-based Testudo and the Alfa Canguro, and else.

In 1965, Giugiaro left for Ghia, and Bertone hired another brilliant youngster, 27-year-old Marcello Gandini. That marked the start of the golden period for Bertone, when one stunner after another rolled off Gandini’s pencil: the Lamborghini Miura, the Marzal, the Espada, the Alfa Romeo Montreal and the Carabo, then the Lancia Strato’s HF (Zero), and finally, the Lamborghini Countach. By the 1970s, Bertone was Italy’s leading coachbuilder and design house.

In the meantime, Giorgetto Giugiaro had established a design centre, Italdesign, which was soon battling it out with Bertone and Pininfarina for one stunner after another, as motor shows after motor shows these three design houses (as well as a few others from Italy) went on to monopolise the automobile design conversation, confirming the ascendance and dominance of Italian design.

Giorgetto Giugiaro left Bertone and joined Ghia where he designed this handsome one-off Maserati Simun | Freewheeling | STIRworld
Giorgetto Giugiaro left Bertone and joined Ghia where he designed this handsome one-off Maserati Simun Image: Gautam Sen

The US also did have her share of coachbuilders like LeBaron, Fleetwood, Briggs, Fisher and Budd. Many got consumed by carmakers lending their names to specific vehicles like the Cadillac Fleetwood and Chrysler LeBaron. The others closed down by the 1970s. A large part of their inspiration came from across the Atlantic, including even the iconic Chevrolet Corvette given to us by Harley Earl and Ed Cole in 1953 as an answer to the road racing cars in England and Europe!

This was one of the most dynamic and eventful eras of coachbuilding. Magic, magic everywhere, not a moment to blink!

Read all the other articles in the Freewheeling series here.

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