The recent announcement that Radford, formerly Harold Radford & Co Limited and coachbuilder of the wonderful Bentley Countryman, Mini de Ville and several Aston “shooting brakes” and estate conversions, was rising from the ashes once again got us thinking; about coachbuilding.
Or rather, thinking a little more than usual; because coachbuilt cars are never far from our minds here at CLT.
What’s not to like about the concept of a great, well-engineered chassis underneath a custom, handbuilt body designed by experts in the field and not limited by the requirements of mass production.
In fact, coachbuilding is in the midst of a renaissance, not only with new offerings from the likes of Garage Italia, Cool n Vintage and Singer, but from special departments within OEMs and even revived coachbuilders with illustrious pasts.
So, as an ode to coachbuilding, here’s a list of the most beautiful coachbuilt cars ever made. In our humble opinion.
Rolls-Royce Phantom I Experimental Sports Tourer #10EX – 1926
We begin with a rather special car, one actually designed in house by Rolls-Royce, or rather Ivan F. Evernden who worked for the firm.
Rolls Royce, in 1925, had released the “New Phantom” to great acclaim only for those within the firm to criticise its lacklustre performance, despite the new powertrain and chassis. It was uncompetitive, especially when clients chose larger, custom bodies that were so common amongst the upper middle-class owners of ’20s Rolls-Royces.
Evernden was tasked with creating a minimalist bodystyle that lacked the accepted comforts, one that would appeal to clients favouring outright performance and the wind in their hair. And it was produced by Barker & Co., the British coachbuilding firm who had been building coaches since 1710, entering the car industry in 1900 before falling into receivership in 1938.
The car was an experiment that never saw production, but it’s a beautiful example of ’20s car design and a lesson in focussed minimalism.
Aston Martin DB 2/4 Spyder – 1953
And speaking of minimalism, next we have several creations from the world-renowned Italian coachbuilder Bertone, the first of which is their wonderful take on the Aston Martin DB 2/4; the Bertone Aston Martin DB 2/4 Spyder
Carrozzeria Bertone was founded in 1912 by Giovanni Bertone, one of seven sons from a farming family in Piemonte, Italy, after he broke away from his work as a carriage wheelmaker to focus on cars. And it was his son, Nuccio, who took Bertone into the “modern” era when he took over the helm in 1950. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Three of these stunning Spyders were produced by Bertone at the request of S.H. “Wacky” Arnolt, a U.S. distributor, post WWII, of all things automotive and English, and we’re delighted that he did. In fact, these creations proved so successful that Aston Martin refused to sell Arnolt any more chassis’; he’d created a competitor. And a stunning one at that.
With a body that barely clears the chassis underneath, and an almost unparalleled purity of design and focus on performance – the bonnet has a crease through the centre just to clear the long stroke of the 3.0l engine underneath without tainting the overall principles – it really is one of the most beautiful coachbuilt cars ever created; yet rarely mentioned.
Aston Martin DB 2/4 Berlinetta – 1954
Just a year later, and with the same, brilliant Aston Martin DB 2/4 chassis underneath, Bertone produced the DB 2/4 Berlinetta. Not only is its completely different design a testament to Bertone, it’s a measure of the chassis itself, the Aston Martin DB2/4 providing underpinnings for a plethora of wonderful coachbuilt examples during the mid-’50s. And this example is right up there with the best.
Its ability to blend an Americana-esque cockpit into elegant tailfins, whilst retaining the front fenders of many jet-age inspired designs and the elegant touches of classic Italian design, all whilst retaining the understated style of the British marque is nothing short of genius. And it deserves to be spoken about more often.
Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Passo Corto Lusso Speciale “Sharknose” – 1961
Thank God it looks better than its name, that’s all I’m saying. Though as the name suggests, it’s not just a pretty face with an ugly name, but a car that’s got the performance to match the looks. Because underneath that sultry metal is the Ferrari 250 chassis so coveted around the world. There’s an argument that it’s still the world’s greatest chassis.
That argument holds weight because it doesn’t just have the outrageously successful racing heritage to back it up, or the fact that so many of the world’s most expensive cars have Ferrari 250 underpinnings; it’s also been the foundation for countless stunning design interpretations. Amongst which is most definitely this Bertone interpretation
The one in this image was owned by Nuccio himself, and it’s one of only 2 that exist, Bertone turning the already beautiful Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta Passo Corto into a dedication to the “sharknose” Ferraris that dominated the ’61 F1 season. A fitting tribute.
Bohman & Schwarz
Duesenberg SJ Roadster #J509-2596 – 1935
The Duesenberg Model J was, and is, a beautiful car, and is as symbolic of late ’20s America as any Wall Street story.
Duesenberg, the brainchild of two German-American brothers who founded the company in 1913, had very quickly built a reputation for quality luxury vehicles and successful racecars when the company was taken over by E. L. Cord in 1925. His first demand of Fred Duesenberg was to design and build the best car in the world. Easy.
What they created was the Model J, a car that became instantly popular with the elite of society as the likes of Greta Garbo, Al Capone, the Duke of Windsor and many of Europe’s royal elite scrambled to buy one. And with only 481 ever built, predominantly thanks to the intervention of the Great Depression, they’re highly prized motorcars, not least thanks to the creativity of the coachbuilt bodies that adorn the impressive underbody.
This isn’t the first time that the Duesenberg Model J appears on this list, but the Bohman & Schwarz SJ Roadster must be included here for its elegance, refined detailing and powerful stance. A car fit for the people fortunate enough to own it.
Talbot-Lago T120 Roadster #92007 – 1935-1939
Brandone are yet another coachbuilder long forgotten and rarely discussed, which is a shame. Though they lasted barely 40 years, from 1923 through to 1963, when the founder Etienne Brandone passed away, they survived the Great Depression and WWII. And with a great level of success.
Based in Nice, on the Côte d’Azur, Etienne and his company quickly gained a reputation for their high quality work producing roadster bodies based on chassis from the likes of Peugeot, Citroën, Alfa Romeo, Duesenberg and all manner of varied marques. But they backed up this quality with a succession of prizes at the Côte d’Azur’s Concours d’Elegance. And we can see why.
Though the above was previously mistaken for a Figoni & Falaschi creation when it was discovered in the late 1960s, it was later credited to the Nice coachbuilder and fits wonderfully alongside the other stunning Talbot-Lago coachbuilt bodies of the era. And though the T150 is by far the most famous vehicle line from the French marque, the T120’s sturdy underbody enabled Brandone to produce a stunning dedication to all things France, and automotive. And we’re chuffed to see it restored to its true glory.
Rolls-Royce Phantom I Landau – 1926
Brewster, known formally as The Brewster Carriage Co, had existed since 1810 building elite carriages for North-East America’s wealthy. By 1905 they were providing bodies for several European marques and by 1911, they had abandoned carriages altogether in favour of motorcars. But the contract signed in 1914 to provide Rolls Royce’s American bodies was a turning point for the coachbuilders.
In fact, they even built their own vehicles, and engine, and provided bodies for Ford, Buick and Mercedes, amongst many others, until the Great Depression took them beyond the point of no return and the business was sold at auction in 1937, never to return to the automotive industry. America had lost it’s most famous and well-respected coachbuilder
Many famous and prestigious Americans prized Brewster vehicles for their attention to detail and quality of build, but the Rolls-Royce Phantom I Landau is also a real looker, the famous heart-shaped grille and large headlamps adding a certain charm to the elegant Rolls-Royce. It certainly stands out in a crowd.
Rolls-Royce Phantom II Henley Roadster – 1931
Another classic Rolls-Royce interpretation by Brewster & Co., this one less whimsical grandeur and more dynamic elegance; the Phantom II Henley Roadster.
The Phantom II replaced the “New Phantom” model in 1929, lasting seven years in production; 1680 were sold. With a brand new chassis and a modified version of the Phantom I’s powertrain, it lay the foundations for an incredible assortment of bodystyles from all manner of coachbuilders, including an Open Tourer variant by Hooper & Co., a Drophead Sedanca Coupe version by Gurney Nutting and even a one-off “Shooting Brake” variant. But it’s the Henley Roadster that takes the plaudits.
The Henley Roadster was a body of Brewster’s own making, and one widely regarded as one of the greatest ever to grace a Rolls Royce. And it’s easy to see why, the sleek design and elegant panels giving the car an almost unique balance of grace and dynamic poise. Only 9 were ever made, and boy are they sought after; Brewster deserve considerably moire credit than they receive.
Delage D8 120 Cabriolet – 1939
I know that making lists of the “Top 10” this and “The Most Beautiful” that can be highly subjective, but who on earth is going to disagree with this addition?!
Chapron, founded in 1919 by Henri Chapron, was a Paris-based atelier focussed on all things automotive; and French. At the height of French luxury car production in the ’20s and ’30s, Chapron were providing stunning custom bodies for Talbot-Lago, Delahaye and, later, even Peugeot and Citroën. But his work with Delage is perhaps the marque’s finest.
The Delage D8 came in various powertrain forms, the upper echelon “120” entering production in 1937. The D8 was a dream for coachbuilders, and there are hundreds of cars to be discovered, but the D8-120 was the most popular, because it appealed to the most esteemed clients. And Chapron’s version here embodies that perfectly.
It’s surely one of the most elegant cars ever created, with curves and features that seamlessly transition into one another and delicate chrome trims located in specific places for specific reasons. Even the folding roof has a visible, yet elegant hinge mechanism that, if anything, encapsulates the sheer energy and focus provided by Chapron to each and every one of the cars they built.
Bugatti T57S #57593 – 1936
Corsica, the small London firm that, between the two world wars, offered unique, high-end bodies for wealthy clients, had an affinity for using the very best automotive foundations of the day. And they had a particular affinity for Bugatti.
Most people know at least a little about the legendary Bugatti Type 57 that, much like the later Ferrari 250, built a reputation for racing performance that brought subsequent, and considerable, success off the track. And it was this chassis that Corsica used to build their beautiful T57S.
Corsica actually built eight T57S’s, four in coupe form and four in roadster form, and its #57593 that we’ve chosen here; it was, coincidentally, chosen as the 1998 Pebble Beach Car of the Show so… we’re on the right track. But why have we chosen it?
Well, unlike other designs of the day, its face maintains an open, unobtrusive view of the functioning suspension mechanisms and understructure, whilst the rear-end is sleek, dramatic and aggressively profiling, giving the whole car an ominous, almost Bond-villain type feel to it. But it’s also bloody gorgeous. So there.
Ferrari 330 P3 – 1966
The Ferrari 330 P3 needs no description, the image above speaks for itself. I mean… just look at it.
Drogo, the Italian coachbuilder behind this fierce creation, began life in 1960 in Modena, the heartland of Italy’s motor industry. The creation of ex-F1 driver Piero Drogo, the carrozzeria focussed predominantly on racecars, creating some of the greatest (and most beautiful) race-focussed vehicles ever seen.
Whilst most of their work was commissioned for Ferrari, based just down the road in Maranello, they also worked for locally-based Maserati and Iso, produced concepts for Porsche and Jaguar and also designed and built unique coachbuilt variants for well-off clients.
Whilst the 330 P3 is famous for it’s intense rivalry with the Ford GT40, it’s also widely regarded as one of the most beautiful and dramatic racecars ever created. Many of the cars in this list are luxury tourers with a focus on form and drama, but racecars can’t just carry beautiful curves for the sake of it; there must be function, or they’ll fail.
The 330 P3’s track successes speak for themselves. And it’s beauty… well, you can see for yourself.
Ferrari 250 P4 Thomassima II – 1967
If the 330 P3 of 1966 is a fierce battle between form and function, the Ferrari 250 P4 Thomassima II is take two, the highly anticipated rematch with both sides more calculated, more aware of the other side’s strengths and weaknesses. And it makes for, arguably, and even more majestic creation.
The lines are smoother, less exaggerated, whilst the rear end is even more tightly sculpted to the chassis underneath, resulting in a car that looks simultaneously capable of killing you, instantly, and taking you out on a romantic first date. And dya know what. I’d let it do either. Or both.
Maserati 250S – 1957
Italy has, for a long time, been the centre of modern-day coachbuilding and design houses, with the likes of Pininfarina, Bertone and Zagato grabbing the headlines; and the attention. But there are many others besides, some long since liquidated, other’s living a subdued existence; and once such marque is Fantuzzi.
Carrozzeria Fantuzzi’s beginning is a little unclear because they lended their help to many vehicles, most notably helping Maserati and Ferrari before separating themselves as a stand-alone coachbuilder. What’s in no doubt, however, is the beauty of their work.
And the dramatic elegance of their Maserati 250S creation is clear for all to see, a sophisticated evolution of the 200S before it. Fantuzzi have produced some stunning cars over the years, but even amongst such elegant competitors, the 250S still stands out; and that says lot.
Figoni & Falaschi
Delahaye 165 Cabriolet – 1938
I don’t blame you for not knowing Figoni & Falaschi; really. My job here is that, by the end of these few short paragraphs, you’ll want to dedicate hours to scouring their illustrious catalogue. Because it’s bloody impressive.
Figoni & Falaschi were two men who, through their carrossiere, created some of the most stunning coachbuilt cars of the World War era. Begun by Giuseppe Figoni in the aftermath of World War I and joined, in 1935, by the financially-minded Ovidio Falaschi, Figoni’s designs for Bugattis, Renaults, Delages, Panhards and Alfa Romeos brought considerable attention. But it’s his work with Delahaye that we’re focussing on here.
Delahaye, one of the oldest car manufacturers in the world, began in Tours, France, in 1894 and quickly built a reputation for building outstanding chassis’ that provided the perfect foundations for some of the world’s greatest coachbuilders.
The Delahaye 165 pictured above is exceedingly rare, achingly beautiful and, arguably, more art than art car; it’s an embodiment of art deco and the pinnacle of ’30s automotive design. And there’s more to come.
Delahaye 135M Competition Coupe – 1936
The Delahaye 135 was a racing machine, with victories in Monte Carlo, Le Mans and the Australian Grand Prix amongst its accolades, plus second and third place finishes in countless competitions including the Mille Miglia. But it was also designed to be luxurious and the list of coachbuilt variants reads as a who’s who of modern concourse competitors.
In fact, a Delahaye 135 M Cabriolet by Figoni & Falaschi won the 2000 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and many Delahaye 135s sell for milliuons of dollars at global auctions.
But Figoni & Falaschi also deserve the plaudits for their dedicated approach to coachbuilding. The sculptured fenders, teardrop profiles and delicate, if opulent, finishing touches only increase the value, and beauty, of their creations as the years tick by. Like a fine wine, they seem to get even better with age.
Talbot Lago T150C ‘Teardrop’ – 1937-1939
Last, but by no means least, we have the Talbot Lago T150C ‘Teardrop’ that has become symbolic of ’30s coachbuilding.
The ’30s saw a deluge of French automakers produce some of the most desriable cars in the world, particularly Delahaye, Delage and Talbot Lago, whilst coachbuilders such as Figoni & Falaschi provided the bodywork; the pièce de résistance if you will.
Talbot Lago, originally Darracq and then Talbot, had existed since 1896 under the Darracq name, producing several impressive racecars. But after Alexandre Darracq sold his final shares of the company in 1912, the company failed to build on its success until after WWI, when they were renamed Automobiles Talbot in 1922. But things really became interesting in 1932 when, following the Great Depression, Italo-British businessman Antonio Lago was appointed managing director.
As we’ve already mentioned, the ’30s provided rich, fertile ground for French car design, and the high quality chassis of the Talbot Lago 150 provided the perfect foundations for all manner of coachbuilt stunners; including the T150C ‘Teardrop’ by Figoni & Falaschi.
Figoni & Falaschi-bodied T150C SS Teardrop Coupes are now selling for upwards of $4 million at auctions around the world, whilst a Pourtout-bodied version sold for $4,847,000 at the 2008 Bonhams & Butterfields Sale of Exceptional Motorcars and Automobilia. They’re rare, beautiful and, more importantly, a pure expression of design that isn’t really seen in modern cars. And that’s only to the detriment of us all.
Well, that’s 16 stunning motorcars listed so far, and we’re only just beginning. So to make sure you don’t miss out on part 2, or any other offering from CLT, be sure to subscribe below. X