Automotive Luxury

Coachbuilding 101 by Rolls-Royce

British maker sees Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz investing in high luxury and raises them by going back to full customization

Rolls-Royce Boat Tail

Have you ever heard that cars “look all the same” nowadays? Although the phrase is typically included in contexts which warrant responses like “ok, boomer”, it does come from a fact: automakers are relying on mass production more than ever and that necessarily implies heavier use of component sharing and modular production.

This topic has been brought up to attention these days because of Rolls-Royce: the latest step on its path towards perfection is, precisely, offering its buyers a chance to leave behind the burden of mass production and taking them closer to materializing the automobile of their wildest dreams. The British solution to that goes by “coachbuilding”.

The short version of Rolls-Royce’s news is its decision to take orders of custom bodies once again, which are going to equip the platforms it already produces. However, this automaker has such a tradition with that and has showed such enthusiasm to talk about it that it was absolutely necessary to give this story a proper long version.

1926 Rolls-Royce 40/50 HP Phantom I Brougham de Ville

What is that, after all?

According to the automaker, “coachbuilding is the art and science of creating bespoke bodywork on a pre-assembled chassis” and it dates back to when cars were luxury articles. Production volumes were low, profit margins were high and general regulation was lax, so it was usual for cars to be heavily modified according to the buyer’s whim.

More specifically, the procedure was for automakers to create the mechanical components assembled as a “rolling chassis” and send the latter to specialized coachbuilders which would only design the bodywork. Everything was similar to what had been done with horse-drawn carriages but people quickly noticed that changes had to happen.

Motor cars reach much higher speeds and that implies a much higher demand for torsional and vibrational resistance; car production became more scientific than ever. Coachbuilders did their best to keep up by switching from wood to metal parts, but the situation went to a point where they could only properly cater to high-luxury vehicles.

1928 Rolls-Royce 17EX Torpedo

Why wasn’t it enough?

As motor cars took a larger role in society, expectations from them grew in all directions: the final price eventually reached the same level of importance of performance, refinement and safety. Over time, mass production took over all non-luxury car segments and brought the unibody construction with it, which soon became the new standard.

Making body and frame a single structure increased mechanical resistance as a whole at the expense of drastically limiting the possibilities of style changes: on modern cars, most are either complete or restricted to those parts attached to the unibody. Rolls-Royce adopted it in 1965 on the Silver Shadow but kept using coachwork until 1993.

The company proudly says that, while it offers all those options to its patrons, it preserves some standards such as fixed dimensions for the bulkhead behind the radiator, three specific character lines, and the Spirit of Ecstasy figurine to “ensure the bodywork maintains the essential proportions that visually identify it as a ‘true’ Rolls‑Royce”.

1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II Continental Drophead Coupé

How has RR worked lately?

While the BMW ownership gave the British brand a new air, it did not quite go back to what it used to be. The 2003 Phantom was less exclusive than its older iterations and the 2009 Ghost borrowed the 7 Series’ platform; both solutions were necessary to keep Rolls-Royce competitive at first but ultimately affected its historical prestige.

The company mitigated that effect by creating the Bespoke division in 2003 as well: patrons may customize the upholstery’s stitching pattern, the wood used in the cabin, the addition of equipment to suit their hobbies, specific items for internal decoration, and a list of 44,000 options for the paint colors. But it was still far from enough.

In 2017, the latest Phantom made the first appearance of the “Architecture of Luxury”, Rolls-Royce’s all-aluminum proprietary platform. Even though it has only underpinned regular models so far, the Cullinan and the latest Ghost, its modular concept gives designers a lot of freedom. A new chapter of this story was about to be written.

1972 Rolls-Royce Phantom VI Limousine

Coachbuilding comes back

Rolls-Royce’s first step back to its origins was taken in 2013, with a request to “create a coachbuilt two-seater coupé featuring a large panoramic glass roof”. The one-off Sweptail took four years to be completed and had such a positive reception from people and the press that the maker was encouraged to move forward in that direction.

After some more years investing in the Bespoke division, especially once the new models arrived, the maker announced that, in the first quarter of 2021, literally every unit was produced with customized elements for the first time. What could be a better way to celebrate it than announcing its decision to go further than that once again?

The new project goes back to the idea of developing a rolling chassis to receive a coachbuilt body as long as it respects “fundamental design and engineering requirements” like the aforementioned ones. However, the automaker did not stop there: it also showed how to combine traditional design with modern-day technology in practice.

2017 Rolls-Royce Sweptail

From haunting to sailing?

Fully developed in this new moment, the Boat Tail is the clearest expression of what Rolls-Royce now pursues. The car is no longer a means of transportation but the center of attention; to that end, the automaker invites the customer to actively participate in the development of the car’s very image so as to make it an extension of themselves.

This particular model is inspired in yacht architecture, as the maker states in a detailed press release, and features a rear deck which opens in a butterfly-like movement to reveal a hosting suite with everything from a double refrigerator to engraved cutlery: the car offers you a five-star occasion of royal standards right out of its very trunk.

Describing this car’s exclusivities is a task which only its maker could properly execute, so let’s move forward. Coachbuilding is not a mere marketing tool to counter the Mercedes-Maybach venture: by rediscovering its tradition in such different times, Rolls-Royce has recreated a world of possibilities to conceive a high-end automobile.

2021 Rolls-Royce Boat Tail

The Boat Tail represents way more than a new release for Rolls-Royce; in fact, it also represents more than the simple return to coachbuilding: it represents a unique opportunity to combine the best use of 21st century technology and traditions which are a century old. Feel free to share your opinions about that using the comment button!

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Danillo Almeida

Danillo Almeida

3.3K Followers

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.