Theme : Bodies – Introduction

Simon wonders whether we really have the breadth of choice we should have.

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Once, it was common for a motor manufacturer to produce and sell just the running chassis. In some cases they might fit a particular body, either in-house or bought in but, otherwise, the customer could go to a coachbuilder and get it bodied to their particular specification. This might be to a stock pattern, a limited production run if you like which meant that you could find different makes of car looking remarkably similar from the scuttle back, or it might be to the client’s commissioned design.

They might choose closed or open bodywork and, within that, there was a plethora of identifiable styles such as Landaulet, Doctor’s Coupe, Berline, Boattail, Phaeton, Sedanca De Ville, Limousine, Cabriolet, All-Weather, Coupe, Brougham, Roadster or Close-Coupled. Further to this, as with any bespoke item, the body could often be adjusted to the owner’s personal needs or preferences.

delahaye135-drawing-large autosport-com
And this is what all the above have in common – The Delahaye 135 Chassis – image : autosport.com

Today, in the world of the integrated platform, the body is the car, so an Audi A4, despite what you might know from reading the motoring press, is still viewed by most as a car in its own right, not a more costly variant of a Golf. Furthermore, despite the fact that there are so many models available from so many manufacturers, it might be argued that there is less nuanced choice and, to those of us who buy our clothes off the shelves from Messrs Primark of High Street or their equivalent, the desire to differentiate on such an incremental level might seem odd since, today, most of us are resigned to the one-size-fits-all approach.

Except, of course, it doesn’t fit all and, taking the High Street analogy further, where the clothes on offer only reflect the watered-down fashions of the time, the styles on offer may not always suit you, sir. Nevertheless, in this decade at least, it seems that the majority of customers wouldn’t complain if the options were just small SUV, medium SUV or big SUV. So, are we missing out?

The motor industry is a behemoth and it changes direction slowly. It is quite quick to embrace new manufacturing methods, but often slow to exploit them to the full. Are we on the cusp of the customisable car, where we can order a unique item made with our own graphic elements engraved into the bodywork, or are we looking forward to even more commonality, where structures are shared more and more between different manufacturers?

This month we look at the types of body available, both today and historically, and we may also speculate on what is to come.

15 thoughts on “Theme : Bodies – Introduction”

  1. Simon: thank you for that very deftly sketched outline of the month’s theme.
    For your information: Tio Pepe have an “en rama” version of their classic fino out now, bottled in spring this year. And if you like scotch, most distilleries both running and dormant have special variants. If you follow my metaphor, special variants are where the profit is to be made – so the car industry must find a way to solve the same-size-suits-every-one problem.

    1. Personalisation on the micro scale at least is already very much with us. When was the last time you saw two identical MINIs? Advances in just-in-time manufacturing and inventory management mean that there are millions of permutations available for the accessories and trim on your shiny new retro small car.

    2. My Dear Richard. Since you have graciously praised my modest introduction, I feel churlish to rebuff your recommendations. Each to his own, of course, but I have always found the en rama tries to hard to be all things to all men. To call it a High Street sherry with Saville Row pretensions is a bit unfair maybe, but ……

      However, if you insist on me ordering a case for the DTW cellars, I will certainly do so.

      John does make a good point in that modern manufacturing processes mean that each MINI could, actually, be quite a lot more different from its brethren than the dear old conservative industry allows. A range of differing mix and match body panels could be offered, possibly with your own design uploaded to the factory for engraving into the panels. Then we could all be Gorden Wagener.

    1. Richard: I know. Hence “personalisation on the micro scale”, rather than on the macro scale.

  2. Well there is more choice today for more people, at all price points. Comparing that to the bespoke coachbuilding of the pre-WWII era, serving less than 0.1% of the population, is somewhat irrelevant (here you go, I said it again). That said, manufacturers today are far from exploiting as many options as they could, with the much vaunted shooting brake/break a case in point.

    1. Perhaps Simon meant theoretical choice. Compared to having a coach-built saloon, the freedom to put a different paint on the roof pales somewhat. Not all special bodies were bespoke: Bertone, Zagato et al offered variants of Alfas, Fiats and Lancias.

    2. Admittedly I have used the exotic end of the pre-War coachbuilding industry to illustrate my point (because they are such exotic images), but it was nothing like as negligible as you suggest. Modest enough companies such as Wolseley offered bare chassis for coachbuilders (often of course fitted in off the peg styles) and even Austin’s 7 could be sold bare, to be bodied by the likes of William Lyons. Of course the arrival of integral construction saw the beginning of the decline of the industry.

  3. Once… was a very long time ago. Customers were only able to buy a chassis and then commission their own body for it before mass manufacturing as we know it properly took old. In automotive terms, this is now ancient history.

    We have more choice today than ever before. Just take, for example, the Golf – once upon a time it was available as a 3, 4, or 5 door, or a cabriolet. Now you can also have an estate variant, and other cars based on the same platform such as the Tiguan and Touran, and various Skodas, Seats and Audis (but not the A4 – that is not a Golf at all).

    The Mini used to be the Mini. Now it is a 3 or 5 door, convertible, coupe or roadster (now discontinued), bigger 5 door hatch/estate, or SUV. The Rolls Royce Phantom is available in two wheelbases, and could be had as a coupe or convertible.

    It could be that Tesla is reinstating the idea of separate chassis and body. Tesla describe their platform underneath the Model S and Model X as a skateboard, with the body attached on top. As 3D printing develops, could open source allow a variety of different bodystyles to be dropped on top for a price? And Ferrari and others now offer extremely expensive, one off commissions… although these really artfully disguised versions of existing models, not entirely new bodies.

  4. This month’s theme has reminded me of something at the very depths of my memory bank. Around 20 years ago, there was a profile in CAR of an Italian entrepreneur who had developed a new, very flexible method of manufacturing that allowed for the possibility of turning a base chassis into any number of variants – coupe, pickup, estate, hatchback – just by swapping the area behind the B-pillar and above the DLO. I don’t have my stash of magazines with me at the moment, so I cannot check the details, but surely someone here must remember this project? As far as I remember, it was a fellow who had made his money in the watchmaking industry (although I might be mistaken about that); I vaguely remember one of the obscure coachbuilders being somehow connected to it; and I seem to recall that the piece was something of an epitaph for the project, as he had shopped it around but found little OEM interest. Does anyone know what I’m referring to? If anyone has a bunch of CARs lying around, I’m quite confident the article is from 1996 or 1997…

    1. Stradale: From memory and I’ll have to refer to my archive to be sure, but I think it was Bulgari, the jewellery magnate. I’ll confirm when I’ve found the relevant issue.

    2. Yes, great shout – Bulgari it was. Google has photos of the earlier 145-alike project, but not the later flexi-body I’m thinking of.

    3. Having unearthed the relevant copy of TWBCM, I can confirm. Lordy, it wasn’t a looker was it – in any form? I had forgotten that Lotus were involved with the chassis engineering and that the body style (such as it was) was by IDEA.

      It had the faint whiff of vanity project about it in my view, but the principle was interesting enough – said to be similar to that of the Fiat Multipla.

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