Coachbuilding is the art and science of producing bespoke bodywork installed on a pre-assembled chassis with the art as timeless as the motor car itself. Mass production has practically extinguished the practice; however, coachbuilding lives on with Rolls-Royce at the forefront of its rejuvenation. 

With greater than a century of experience and modern-day Bespoke capabilities, the marque has redefined the coachbuilding movement. Rolls-Royce has long been used to being able to commission all parts of their motor cars’ features and specifications. Now, more than ever, Rolls-Royce clients are looking for opportunities to go beyond Bespoke and define the physical form of the motor car.  

Coachbuilding Origins

There were only around 8,000 registered motor cars in Great Britain when Charles Rolls and Henry Royce met in 1904. It was a modest number compared to the half a million horse-drawn carriages at the time.

Sir Henry Royce

Within 20 years, the coaches and carriages that had ruled the roads for more than a century have practically vanished. The motor car was no longer a novelty nor exclusively for the wealthy, it had matured into the universal means of private travel. 

In the early days of the automobile, manufacturers commonly produced only mechanical elements. The ‘rolling chassis’ were sent to specialist coachbuilders who would then attach the bodywork according to the specification of the customer.

The Honourable Charles Stewart Rolls

There were some coachbuilders who simply shifted from creating horse-drawn carriages, while others capitalized on the opportunities presented by the motor car.  

The pre-Edwardian car bodies were constructed similarly to the horse-drawn carriages. It soon became apparent that the methods and materials that were well suited for the pace of the horses could not keep up with the speeds of the motor car which were now traveling up to 40 miles per hour.  The art of coachbuilding demanded a more scientific approach to adapt. 

History of Coachbuilding with Rolls-Royce 

In the early 1920s, mass-market carmakers commenced establishing in-house coachbuilding so engineers could address distinct issues from an automotive application like torsional stress and vibration.  

For the next few decades, Rolls-Royce and other luxury marques nevertheless remained outsourcing the coachwork to specialist houses. 

Rolls-Royce Coachbuilding
Source: Bonhams

Rolls-Royce clients could still have their rolling chassis transferred to the coachbuilder of their choosing. The coachbuilder would then design and build a car body from the specifications given by the client, much like ordering a dress from a Paris couturier or a suit from a Savile Row tailor. 

Up until the 1930s, most coachbuilders kept the tradition of assembling a wooden frame, normally in ash, wherein aluminum or steel body panels were either welded or pinned. The process helped the coachbuilders produce essentially any shape.

The design of the coach bodywork was commonly based on the customers’ requested fittings and interior space.

As their experience grew and new materials for coachbuilding were discovered, coachbuilders had to adapt their practices, with the later frames shifted to metal tubing or angle-iron. 

The traditional way of coachbuilding lived on until the introduction of the semi-monocoque construction, with sub-frames for the mechanical components.

Source: Bonhams

The new process made it impossible to do anything more than the simplest adaptations to the body design. For Rolls-Royce, the shift did not occur until October 1965, when the Silver Shadow replaced the Silver Cloud series. 

For Rolls-Royce, though, coachbuilding continued. The Phantom VI, which was constructed on a separate chassis, was still in production, although in reduced numbers until 1993. The coachwork was fulfilled by Rolls-Royce subsidiary, H. J. Mulliner, Park Ward Ltd.

The Priniciples of Body Design 

Theoretically, a coachbuilt Rolls-Royce could be any shape that the

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By: Sports Car Digest
Title: Exploring Rolls-Royce Coachbuilding: The Legacy & Future
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Published Date: Sun, 30 May 2021 03:05:57 +0000