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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
(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.