Where are the coach builders now?

The Rolls-Royce Sweeptail is the first in-house coach-built car by the company.

A brief look at the life, death and rebirth of coachbuilding

As with the watch industry, the art of coachbuilding has had its ‘quartz crisis’ moment. Bespoke, luxury and labour-intensive bodywork were phased out for similar reasons. However, there is hope yet for the coachbuilders evolve in the new era of automobiles.

Where it all began

Coachbuilding originates from the manufacturing of horse-drawn and railroad carriages. As cars gained in popularity, coachbuilders adapted their craft to producing bespoke carriages for cars. These would be based on rolling chassis from car manufacturers and would become a statement of individuality and status among the wealthy.

All 18 Rolls Royce Phantom IV were coach built by independent companies. They were reluctant to let go of outsourcing this process until the launch of the RR Silver Shadow in 1965.
Image copyright and courtesy of Gooding & Company, by Bill Ficht


Why was coachbuilding phased out?

The major drawback to coach-built bodywork is the lack of rigidity and safety, especially when compared to the stronger potential of unibody cars. It’s also a much more expensive and time-consuming process to produce which meant that it was limited to the wealthy few.  This type of production was going out of fashion quickly as manufacturers looked to make cheaper, mass-produced cars.

The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia is based on the VW Beetle. The rolling chassis were taken to Karmann’s facilities before having the bodywork installed and put into VW’s distribution system.
Photo cutesy of VW

So what happened to the coachbuilders?

Of the few that survived the “unibody crisis”, coachbuilders lived on in various ways. Some were absorbed into larger automotive manufacturers such as the case with Ford acquiring Ghia. Sadly, however, the Ghia name was quickly reduced to a glorified trim level badge and tacked on to mass market unibody cars, only to be replaced as soon as Ford deems the brand to be irrelevant.

One of Pininfarina’s most famous designs: The Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta
Photo by Jamil Jafri

Bertone, Pininfarina and Zagato were quick to realise that in order to stay relevant, they would need to leave the construction of the bodywork to the car manufacturers while they focus solely on design. In doing so, they produced some of the most iconic cars of the 20th century.

Bertone has worked with Alfa Romeo in many occasions and each of their cars has stood the test of time. This Alfa Romeo Guilietta is regarded as one of the most elegant Alfas.
Photo by: Jamil Jafri
Many of Lamborghini’s cars were designed by Bertone, including the companies first car; The Miura and the Countach. Lamborghini’s design language has made a noticeable departure from that of Bertone in the years nearing its bankruptcy.

However, relevancy wasn’t enough for some. Bertone had been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy several times before it became official in 2014.

The rally legend Lancia Stratos owes its success to the daring design choices penned by Bertone.
Photo by Jamil Jafri

The Zagato design house stayed true to the exclusive and low production nature of coachbuilding by partnering with manufacturers to produce rare, high priced collectable cars while also diversifying their portfolio into other luxury products such as cameras.

Leica M10 Edition Zagato. The design house applied their expertise in metalwork design in this collaboration with long-time camera manufacturer Leica. Photo courtesy of Leica Camera AG.


Aston Martin DBZ “The Pair”. Only 19 pairs to be made to commemorate Zagato’s Centenary. Photo courtesy of Aston Martin

Similarly, Pininfarina diversified into designing architecture and other modes of transport. The design house was eventually bought by Indian automaker, Mahindra in 2015. It has since evolved, with the help of Rimac, to finally put their badge on the bonnet of a car. The fully electric, 1,877 hp Pininfarina Battista (going for £2 Million apiece) is their first in-house vehicle and was revealed earlier this year.

Automobili Pininfarina’s debut car: The Battista. Could this be the future of coachbuilders and design houses?

(Insert gallery of Pininfarina Battista)

Electric cars, by nature, have far fewer components and engineering hurdles compared to their internal combustion engine counterparts making it easier than ever to start manufacturing cars. Because of this, we can expect to see more coachbuilders and design houses follow Pininfarina in swapping out the Carrozzeria prefix for Automobili in their name.


By Jamil Jafri

Editor at The Mechanists