Precious Metal

These days, coachbuilding usually acts as a euphemism for customised luxury vehicles of exceedingly high monetary and bafflingly dubious aesthetic value. Usually, but not always.

(c) motorauthority

Limited editions are all about chintzy brass plates and certificates printed onto vellum-look paper. While they may provide a draw to adolescent collectors of action figurines or collectible cards, to today’s class of the super rich, they’re a joke not even worth telling. Or at least one would think so.

In the car industry, a decade-long focus on offering increasingly high levels of customisation options in almost every class of automobile has resulted in a huge spread of personalisation. Just as the number of (non-SUV) body styles has decreased, the availability of customisation options has manifolded. This makes it increasingly more difficult for the luxury wheat to separate itself from the ‘premium’ chaff: customised stitching, piping and leather(ette) covering every imaginable surface obviously not being the sole domain of hand-built cars anymore.

Against that backdrop, the craft of coachbuilding would appear to present a prime opportunity to redraw the line separating luxury from, for lack of a better term, ‘premiumness’. Providing unusual body styles – be they that of a shooting brake, barchetta or some other deviation from the norm – should be an elegant way of reasserting true exclusivity, in a manner that would also provide a historical link with cherished past models. Or at least one would think so.

Surprisingly – and even more perplexingly, the coachbuilt models recently unveiled by two of the most illustrious British marques highlight that a good concept doesn’t necessarily make for a sound product. Most certainly not for a dignified one.

Aston Martin Speedster. (c) motorauthority

The Aston Martin V12 Speedster’s juvenile aesthetics could almost be forgiven on the basis that its maker is in the direst of straits and has a history of resorting to offering parts-bin-based special editions as a means of drumming up interest. But then there’s its price – a million US dollars – and the inevitable comparison with Ferrari’s Monza SP barchette, which not only possess all the visual composure the Aston Martin lacks, but also comes without its faint air of desperation.

Bentley’s Bacalar should, by any means, be less compromised a coachbuilt offering. First of all, because its maker isn’t on the brink of collapse (albeit hardly in the rudest of healths either). Secondly, it comes with a windscreen and should therefore be usable in everyday life, rather than just some future garage queen. It comes as quite some surprise then that not only did Bentley choose to mimic Aston Martin’s typography for its ‘most special’ model, but that Bacalar is even less coherent and more nonplussed a creation than its competitor from Gaydon. It is also – allegedly – twice as expensive.

Albeit clearly based on the current Continental GT, the Bacalar features plenty of the decidedly oriental ornamentation that made last year’s EXP 100 (Crewe’s entry to the unfortunate trinity of awful futuristic luxury concept cars) such a visually overwhelming and aesthetically underwhelming affair.

It also highlights that this Continental’s Porsche-sourced platform – while infinitely superior to the previous generation car’s VW Phaeton underpinnings in this regard – still doesn’t quite provide the quintessential Bentley proportions. Paradoxically, Bacalar does so more emphatically than the ‘non-bespoke’ regular car, which hides its rather short bonnet somewhat better.

Bentley Bacalar. (c) Autocar

The Bentley’s overwrought graphics need no further elaboration (though the peculiar ‘floating’ front wheel arch does, as a black strip either side of the wheel has been consciously added to lend this part a brittle, inconsistent appearance). Neither does the By-Invitation-Only Moscow night club interior ambience.

What does need mention in this context is that there is still a place for coachbuilding, after all. It’s just not found anywhere near the grand marques, but, in this particular instance, in the Netherlands, where Niels van Roij, a car designer specialising in high-end customising, unveiled the antidote to the Bentley and Aston Martin.

Antidote insofar as it can be assumed that van Roij didn’t have a fraction of the budget the British brands used for their creations at his disposal. ‘Antidote’ in the sense that the Dutchman’s coachbuilt effort isn’t destined for an existence limited to the confines of air-conditioned garages, Monte Carlo night clubs and Middle Eastern concours d’élégance. It’s a device not rendered useless for everyday duties courtesy of its intentionally impractical design, but a delicately honed variation on an existing car – the ubiquitous (among certain circles) Range Rover.

(c) autocarindia

A three-door Range Rover is obviously no reinvention of the wheel. For the first decade of this model’s life, it was the only kind of Range Rover available. Moreover, Jaguar Land Rover had advertised a modern take, based on the current L405-generation car, less than two years ago and even shown a prototype at the last Paris Motor Show.

Yet this Range Rover coupé was swiftly cancelled as part of JLR’s cost drive. This was hardly a great loss, given the designers hadn’t withstood the temptation to make this version more ‘athletic’ than the standard car, with inevitable consequences. Courtesy of a lowered roofline, huge wheels (as well as a peculiar homage to VW’s decade-old Plakettengrill), additional air vents and brightwork, this Range Rover gained a somewhat ungainly macho appearance utterly at odds with the essence of what still remains the most dignified of SUVs.

Either through superior taste, financial necessity or a combination of both, van Roij did a considerably better job than his counterparts at Gaydon. His three-door Range Rover (dubbed Adventum Coupé) maintains the base car’s upright, formal stance and loses not just two doors, but the mock air vent graphics on the front doors too. The end result is a more sober design than the car it is based upon – again in sharp contrast to its competition (of sorts) from Gaydon and Crewe, who certainly didn’t skimp on the tinsel.

(c) motorlegend

Traditionally, coachbuilding hasn’t been limited to spectacular exotica. Discrete changes, in accordance with the client’s wishes and needs have been just as common (relatively speaking) as show-stopping one-offs. Even relatively recently, Pininfarina’s Ferrari 612 K – a Scaglietti that underwent very moderate changes, in keeping with its owner’s preferences – showed that the a ‘bespoke’ car can sometimes truly be like a bespoke suit: Featuring plenty of adjusted details, resulting in perfect fit, rather than conspicuousness.

(c) autoweek.nl

If the loud, flashy Bacalar and V12 Speedster are to be compared to one of Liberace’s customised suits, Adventum Coupé is akin to a traditional double-breasted blazer by a discreet tailor somewhere in the vicinity of Savile Row. It won’t get its owner stared at in the streets. But those in the know will nod in restrained appreciation.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs www.auto-didakt.com // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

19 thoughts on “Precious Metal”

  1. And those whose taste is truly impeccable know that it is Savile Row, and that the tailor is discreet.

    1. Thanks for your kind correction Bill. I would however feel bound to point out that the fault for this lapse lies with the editor (that would be me) and not the author in question – (to whom I apologise). Needless to say, I also collapse at your feet (socially distanced of course) in abject apology for the upset this has caused.

    2. Bill, please forward your bank details so that I can reimburse you for the hours wasted having to peruse my badly edited drivel. Thanks.

  2. Good morning Christopher. I hadn’t noticed what you perceptively describe as the Bacalar’s ‘floating’ front wheel arch, with those two blacked-out lines connecting the arch with the vents fore and aft. Whatever its merits (and I cannot see any) it is totally disconnected from the rest of the car aft of the A-pillar, which verges on the bland, but at least looks coherent. The front end puts me in mind of either a Lego-brick car, or one of those Transformer toys.

    One might be tempted to say good luck to Bentley (and Aston Martin) if they can get away with selling these monstrosities to the wealthy and gullible, but I think it debases the marque to do do.

  3. On the Adventum, it’s a pity that, in erasing the cod gills down the flanks of the erstwhile Range Rover, they did not extend their efforts to the sills. They left behind the sill extension which would have connected to the gills on the donor car, which now looks out of place. In fact, familiarity with the RR means that one’s eye and brain immediately recognise that there is something missing, which is then all that one can see and remember about the design. It’s more noticeable than the fact that the rear doors have gone exactly because the execution of the change looks incomplete.

    The AM and Bentley roadsters (there’s a McLaren as well) are all grotesque bookends to a largely grotesque period of car design – a time when the gaudy, oversized and overwrought have become the norm. I read one of BMW’s lead designers state that it wasn’t important for the marque’s cars to be beautiful as long as they made a statement (or something to that effect), which is just as well for his employer which has not designed anything at all acceptable since the i3 and i8.

  4. Regarding those Range Rover gills, I remember reading some guff at launch about the reason they were positioned on the front doors rather than the wings. Apparently, it was in an attempt to equalise the apparent length of the front and rear doors:

    Which, if so, came dramatically unstuck on the LWB version, which looks very unbalanced, thanks to the gills:

    1. Nice – and what could anyone say is wrong with the bottom photo? Much cleaner and authentic than Richard Woolley’s original design (although I find it hard to believe that he was the originator of the ornamental door gills).

    2. Hi S.V. and thank you. I thought about attempting another refinement, removing the ‘ears’ from the front and rear light units for a look even closer to the original Range Rover. However, I assume they are functional and contain the side marker lights for US spec cars.

    3. As far as I know, Samuel Chuffart was the exterior’s lead designer, rather than Mr Woolley.

  5. This is a really beautiful car! Even I as a five-door lover can acknowledge that. It’s very reminiscent of the original Range. 200 extra points for removing the gills! And yes, it could be even a bit better with an adapted sill decoration and cleaner light units.

  6. Hi Simon, your enthusiasm prompted me to look for a good image of the LWB version of the original:

    How lovely is that? I might tinker with the image of the current model some more, to see if I can make it resemble the original more closely.

  7. Here we go. I thought deeper front headlamps would look better balanced on the tall front end:

    1. Nice and clean! I also like that you removed this strange up-sweeping line at the bottom of the car (from sill to rear bumper). The rear door is just too long, though (not your fault). On the original one, on the other hand, it’s rather a bit short (it’s the normal length on the photo, not the LWB).

    2. Hi Simon, yes, that upswept sill line is a bit of a design cliché these days. I tried to restore a more classic horizontal line, hence the altered bumper to wing shut lines and even the side rubbing strip. The headlamps are a bit reminiscent of the Mk2 Freelander and need a bit more finessing, but you see what I’m getting at.

      I might take a chunk out of the rear door later, to see how it works in SWB form. By far the most important change, however, is still the first one, getting rid of those gills!

    3. Interestingly, the upsweep is towards the front in the first Range! (The sill itself)
      I always found this quite strange, it made the front part appear very light, compared with the ‘heavy’ rear half. This impression was reinforced by the overhangs – short at the front, very long at the back. Any guesses (or even well-founded knowledge) why it has this curved line?

    4. I think it made sense in the original iteration of the Range Rover, before the front spoiler was added. The upsweep of the sill was dictated by the high ground clearance ahead of the front wheel, to maximise the approach angle for rough terrain. It’s well illustrated in this photo:

      The upsweep of the sill connects it visually to the front valance.

  8. It loses the mock air vent graphics on the front doors, but does not miss them…

    I had hoped the article would go beyond the Range Rover to more original coachbuilt efforts like Tesla estates or Porsche Boxster shooting brakes that have been cropping up in recent years. Not always 100% successfully IMO, but that could be put down to compromises driven by non-million budgets, and definitely to be encouraged.

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