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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.