Coachlines - June 2020

14.06.20 Liveryman David Burgess-Wise

From the archives: coachbuilding – an art in itself

Past Master Martin Payne looks back at an article written by Liveryman David-Burgess Wise, reporting on a significant event in the history of the Coachmakers’ Company, when it celebrated the centenary of the British motor industry at Hagley Hall in May 1996 – including some of the thoughts that were prevalent at the time.

Here is an extract from David’s article regarding the proceedings, when Master Coachmaker Peter Sparks, supported by James Smillie, Robert Croall, Admiral Sir Derek Reffell KCB; and the centenery committee comprising Ray Wiltshire, Richard Dallimore, Victor Gauntlett, Dr Stephen Hammerton, Tony Sparks and Alex Meisl, enjoyed a historic celebration.

Thanks also go to Liveryman John Kendall for sourcing the pictures.

Why Britain still builds the world’s best car bodies

Anniversary Edition Morgan Plus 8

Anniversary Edition Morgan Plus 8

In the century since Britain’s first car manufacturing company was incorporated, methods of building car bodies have undergone profound changes. Today just one company in the entire motor industry – Morgan – still series-produces cars with timber-framed coach built bodywork. As the world’s oldest car maker still in private hands and one of an elite few, along with industry giants Ford, Fiat and Peugeot, still controlled by the founding family, Morgan is a very special case. To prove that traditionally coach built bodies still have relevance in the modern world, Morgans have to undergo crash testing just like mass-production saloons and perform so well under these exacting conditions that they have held EEC whole vehicle type approval since 1978.

Aston Martin Vantage Volante

Aston Martin Vantage Volante

And at Newport Pagnell, in a factory that once housed the famous Salmons coachworks, makers of Tickford bodies, Aston Martin Lagonda still uses traditional craft methods to hand-build the bodywork of its muscular V8 Coupé, Virage Volante and 550hp twin-supercharged Vantage models at the leisurely rate of two cars a week.

But if the coach built body has all but disappeared from the production scene, Britain leads the world in the manufacture of bespoke bodywork, an activity which forms a crucial component of the multi-million pound industry which has grown up to support the burgeoning old-car hobby. Customers from all over the world bring antique and classic cars to this country to benefit from the unique skills of Britain’s coachwork specialists, who are just as able to recreate a long-lost body on a thoroughbred chassis from a couple of faded photographs as they are to fashion the complex curves of a 1930s’ racing car using the same skills of hand and eye that were developed by the medieval armourers who first developed the art of shaping metal panels.

There are literally dozens of coachwork specialists active in this country, and the wide variety of work they do can be typified by the activities of some of the best-known companies in this field.

Take, for instance, David A.C.Royle, whose company is based in County Durham, close to Darlington, where the transportation revolution took root in the 19th century. Royle numbers the old coachbuilding firm of E. Maule of Alnwick and Stockton-on-Tees, active from 1825 to the 1930s, among his ancestry. Over the years, he and his team of 12 craftsmen have rebuilt, restored, designed and built nearly 600 motor vehicles, from a replica of the first motor car to exceed 60mph in Victorian days to post-war classic sports and racing cars.

They can, of course, create an entire new body from scratch, but a full restoration will start with the fitting of new framework in seasoned ash into an existing body to replace rotten or damaged timber. Body panels removed to facilitate this work are stripped and blast cleaned, eliminating any corrosion before repairs begin. Five different types of welding equipment are available to meet the widely differing requirements of restoration work. If need be, new body panels are fabricated from steel or aluminium to the original design and configuration using traditional skills and machinery. Louvre cutting is just one of the specialities involved in making new panel work. Another skill is lead filling to ensure the correct alignment of body panels.

Firms such as Royle’s also practices ‘lost arts’ like the restoration of fabric bodies, where a calico lining is fitted before the waterproof covering, an operation carried out with extreme care to avoid unwanted creases.
The firm also turns its hand to restoring or remaking interior wooden fittings, from simple door cappings to complex dashboards, using a wide range of veneers and hardwoods.

And a recent tour de force was the building of a replica Armstrong Whitworth – a well-known make in the North East in Edwardian times – on a modern chassis, fitted with complex detachable limousine coachwork. It serves as VIP visitor transport at the nearby Beamish open-air industrial museum.

Another well-known body-building company is run by Rob Jolley down in Lymington, Hampshire, where the ash frames and body bucks constructed in the design and development workshop range from voluptuously-curved Figoni & Falaschi-inspired creations to pre- and postwar racing cars and saloons. Though Jolley and his team restore and rebuild original ash frames and aluminium bodies, many of their projects call for the creation of brand-new car bodies from no more evidence than photographs or sketches. Some examples of this type of work can be seen in the world-famous National Museum at Beaulieu, a few miles from Jolley’s workshops, including particularly the ex-Peter Ustinov 36/220 Mercedes, which was reconstructed purely from photographs, and Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird.

Another intriguing project resulted from the discovery of a profile drawing of a spectacular Gangloff body for a Type 57 Bugatti, a design project which had never been built. It was found by a friend of the Gangloff family who just happened to own a Type 57 chassis, and he asked Rod Jolley to create the aerodynamic body from that sketch to create his “ultimate” Bugatti.

Projects like this take shape in Jolley’s panel beating and prototype workshops, where aluminium, magnesium alloy, brass, copper, steel or stainless steel sheet is formed into the exquisite compound curves of body panels or the functional beauty of fuel tanks, radiators, window frames and bodywork accessories. If a body is being copied from an existing car, an ingenious measuring bridge enables all the contours of the original body to be plotted. Often a ‘hammer form’ or buck is created in three dimensions, over which body panels can be shaped precisely. Seasoned ash is cut, shaped and joined to restore original ash frames or fabricate new ones, while body panels are welded or riveted depending on the original fabrication technique.

Many of the cars which Rod and his craftsmen have built or renovated, such as the Stern Museum’s flamboyant Type 57C Bugatti – built in 1939 as a wedding present for the Shah of Persia and twice a winner in the renowned Pebble Beach Concours – can be found in the world’s finest car collections.

Another company which bridges the gap between past and present is Crailville, based in Southall, Middlesex, which has recently formed a ‘grand alliance’ with one of the oldest and most distinguished names in coachbuilding, Hooper & Company to uphold a 200-year-old tradition, producing new body styles and conversions on Rolls-Royce and Bentley chassis and platforms as well as maintaining a strong presence in the world of classic and vintage vehicle restoration and special bodywork. Crailville plans to release a new limited-edition Rolls-Royce at the 1997 Geneva Motor Show.

Rolls-Royce London-Edinburgh Silver Ghost

Rolls-Royce London-Edinburgh Silver Ghost

The company has also carried out stretch and ceremonial conversions for the King of Sweden, the former head of state of East Germany and the European Commission. Recent commissions include the restoration and repanelling of the bodywork of the original 1911 Rolls-Royce London-Edinburgh Silver Ghost and the recreation of the swing seat tourer coachwork of a 1903 Mercedes 60 from two glass plate negatives held in the Mercedes archives in Stuttgart.

“The coachbuilder must not only be a good craftsman, but creative as well, able to interpret shapes and curves and create beautiful lines. I have lost count of the number of times I have stood in awe of great coachbuilding,” says David Brimson of Crailville, who attributes the superiority of British-made coachwork to the fact that this country was the only one where the wheeling machine gained widespread acceptance for shaping panels.

“If you examine the panel work of, say, a French or Italian body, you will note that they are made of many more and smaller sections. It is much more difficult to produce large panel sections by hammering alone.”

Aston Martin DB7

Aston Martin DB7

But the UK’s independent body building scene is not just about recreating the past: the bodies for some of the industry’s most exciting vehicles, such as the Aston Martin DB7, are produced in Coventry by Mayflower Vehicle Systems. During the past 75 years, this specialist company has worked for such companies as Jaguar, Daimler, Land Rover and MG.

MGF 1.8i

MGF 1.8i

In a dedicated manufacturing area within its factory, Mayflower builds complete DB7 body units, which have steel underbody, roof, rear wings and doors, the latter fitted with side impact safety beams. Technically-advanced composite materials are employed for boot lid, front wings, front and rear bumper assemblies and the outer sills. Other areas in the Mayflower factory produce body shells for the MGF sports car and panels for Land Rover and Jaguar. Mayflower is also working with Rolls-Royce to establish a new body-building facility at Crewe and Mayflower factories in the US are producing body shells for the dramatic Plymouth Prowler ‘retro hot rod’ which goes on sale early in 1997.

Mayflower was formed by merging two of the UK’s most respected companies working in the body design and construction field – Motor Panels and International Automotive Design – to create Europe’s largest automotive design consultancy, working on projects as varied as four-wheel drive vehicles, luxury cars and truck cabs. It proves, if proof were needed, that body building in Britain is alive and well and ready to take on the challenges of the 21st century.