Coachbuilding over the decade
By R.N.Seth

This is only a bird’s eye view of the each building industry in Britain over a period of a few decades, commencing from early twentieth century. As popularity of the motor can grew in the first decade, some manufacturers concentrated on the manufacture of the classics and the body and coach work was done by others. Numerous firms of coach builders already existed, even in the small towns of Britain, as they had been making bodies and coach work for horse carriages and now they turned their hands to the new opportunity. There were some manufacturers of cars who developed their (in house) expertise of coach building and as such only sold complete cars. The end user specified the type of body he wanted and this was designed and fabricated accordingly by the manufacture.

After the first World war 1914-1918 there was a pent up demand as also some of the middle income earners desired to buy a motor car. The result was a huge increase in sales and the need for cars for the middle class. The manufacturers catering for the middle class where volumes were large had to devise ways and means to bring down the prices and as such they designed their own low cost coach work and manufactured this in their own factories subcontracting some work if required. Some of the well known manufacturers who followed this method were Morris, Hillman, Austin and Standard to name a few. For the upper end of the market for cars like the Rolls Royce, Bentleys, Lanchester and others there were specialist coach builders the customer could select. There were a few car manufacturers catering for the upper end of the market who preferred to supply their own bodies but did not insist on this.

It is interesting to note that most of the bodies being built on the expensive classics continued to be “formal” of the “Top Hat” variety, in Britain, even in the late twenties. In contrast the European and American Cars were more streamlined and much lower. As volumes continued to grow, manufacturers tended to make their own bodies, using the new developments in manufacture. This fact along with the depression period and phenomenal growth of the small size/ in house manufactured bodies, led to the closing down of many of the small coach builders.

The trend for streamlining the bodies continued and gradually most car manufacturers adopted new designs in tune with what people wanted. This one factor had a big impact on the coach builders whose business reduced substantially. Fine coachwork of conservative designs not so modern continued to be built by these top end ‘coachbuilders for some of the rich buyers. Some of the large manufacturers of the medium period cars, who manufactured the bodies in house, still continued to place orders for special bodies on outside coach builders. Thus the coach builders were able to continue as the expensive and medium priced cars volume of sales in the thirties was many of times what it was say ten years earlier. The trend of stream lining gathered momentum and was at its peak by the mid / late thirties. Many interesting, innovative and imaginative designs were offered to the public, some of which are still loved by enthusiasts.

Towards the latter part of the thirties the coach building industry was on a decline, primarily due to the fact that more and more car manufacturers had (in house) facilities and the demand for the conservative design bodies which were the main stay of the coach builders had reduced. During the war years 1939-45 and in the late forties the coach building industry dwindled to a trickle. As the manufacturing methodology changed further, after the second World War and designs became streamlined and mass production was the order of the day, the coach building industry was unable to survive and numerous coach builders closed shop or were bought out.

In the late forties and into the fifties only a few coach builders were left. Car manufacturers had also switched to steel bodies with standard (coach work) thus reducing the need for special custom coachwork. Some car manufacturers had bought out well known coach building firms such as Vander Plas being bought out by Austin. The coach building industry realized that there was no further for them and the last straw was that the Rolls Royce models to be made after the Silver Cloud would require no outside coach building.

Special Bodies – Coach builders of the twenties and thirties built some rather unique bodies as ordered by their clientele. A maharajah from central India ordered a body with two rather low occasional seats facing side ways. The attendant could sit on these and massage the Maharajah’s legs when the car was used without being visible. Another Maharajah ordered a body in the shape of a Sivan and this car was used only on state occasions. Besides these unusual designs some customers ordered the whole body to be made of Aluminium and with a polished finish. Special interiors were also ordered at times with carved wood work and fine brocade upholstery on sofa like rear seats. Special shooting break bodies were made with gun racks and openings in the roof, for standing up and taking aim at the game. Some of these bodies had space in the back for loading the game. Numerous innovations were incorporated as required by the design.

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