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A coachbuilder or body-maker manufactures bodies for passenger-carrying vehicles.[note 1] Coachwork is the body of an automobile, bus, horse-drawn carriage, or railroad passenger car (known formally as a railway carriage). The word "coach" was derived from the Hungarian town of Kocs.
Custom or bespoke coachbuilt bodies were made and fitted to another manufacturer's rolling chassis by the craftsmen who had previously built bodies for horse-drawn carriages and coaches. Separate coachbuilt bodies became obsolete when vehicle manufacturers found they could no longer meet their customers' demands by relying on a simple separate chassis (on which a custom or bespoke body could be built) mounted on leaf springs on beam axles. Unibody or monocoque combined chassis and body structures became standardised during the middle years of the 20th century to provide the rigidity required by improved suspension systems without incurring the heavy weight, and consequent fuel, penalty of a truly rigid separate chassis. The improved more supple suspension systems gave vehicles better roadholding and much improved the ride experienced by passengers.
As well as true bespoke bodies the same coachbuilders also made short runs of more-or-less identical bodies to the order of dealers or the manufacturer of a chassis. The same body design might then be adjusted to suit different brands of chassis. Examples include Salmons & Sons' Tickford bodies with a patent device to raise or lower a convertible's roof, first used on their 19th century carriages, or Wingham convertible bodies by Martin Walter.
Coachbuilt body is the British English name for the coachbuilder's product. Custom body is the standard term in North American English. Coachbuilders are: carrossiers in French, carrozzeria in Italian, Karosseriebauer in German and carroceros in Spanish. Coachbuilt body is also the British English name for mass produced vehicles built on assembly lines using the same but simplified techniques until more durable all-steel bodies replaced them in the early 1950s.
Unless they were for mass produced vehicles justifying the cost of tooling up dies and presses coachbuilt bodies were made of hand-shaped sheet metal, usually alluminium alloy. Pressed or hand-shaped the metal panels were fastened to a wooden frame of particularly light but strong timber. Many of the more important structural features of the bespoke or custom body such as A, B and C pillars were cast alloy components. Some bodies such as those entirely alloy bodies fitted to many Pierce-Arrow cars contained little or no timber though they were mounted on a conventional steel chassis.
The coachbuilder craftsmen who might once have built bespoke or custom bodies continue to build bodies for short runs of specialised commercial vehicles such as luxury motor coaches or recreational vehicles or motorhome bodied upon a rolling chassis provided by an independent manufacturer. A conversion is built inside an existing vehicle body.
A British trade association the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers, was incorporated in 1630. Some British coachmaking firms operating in the 20th century were established even earlier. Rippon was active in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, Barker founded in 1710 by an officer in Queen Anne's Guards. Brewster, the oldest in the U.S., was formed in 1810.
The maker would provide the coachworks with a chassis frame, drivetrain (consisting of an engine, gearbox, differential, axles, and wheels), brakes, suspension, steering system, lighting system, spare wheel(s), front and rear mudguards and (later) bumpers, scuttle (firewall) and dashboard. The very easily damaged honeycomb radiator, later enclosed and protected by a shell, typically became the main visual element identifying the chassis' brand. To maintain some level of control over the final product, chassis manufacturers' warranties would be voided by mating them with unapproved bodies.
When popular automobile manufacturers brought body building in-house, larger dealers or distributors of ultra-luxury cars would commonly pre-order stock chassis and the bodies they thought most likely to sell, and inventory them in suitable quantities for sale off their showroom floor. In time, the practice of commissioning bespoke coachwork dwindled to a prerogative of wealth.
All ultra-luxury vehicles of automobiling's Golden Era before World War II sold as chassis only. For instance, when Duesenberg introduced their Model J, it was offered as chassis only, for $8,500. Other examples include the Bugatti Type 57, Cadillac V-16, Ferrari 250, Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8, and all Rolls-Royces produced before World War II. Delahaye had no in-house coachworks, so all its chassis were bodied by independents, who created some of their most attractive designs on the Type 135. Most of the Delahayes were bodied by Chapron, Labourdette, Franay, Saoutchik, Figoni et Falaschi, Pennock, and many more carrossiers.
The practice remained in limited force after World War II, with both luxury chassis and high-performance sports cars and gran turismos, waning dramatically by the late 1960s. Even Rolls-Royce acquiesced, debuting its first unibody model, the Silver Shadow, in 1965, before taking all R-R and Bentley bodying in-house.
Independent coachbuilders survived for a time after the mid-20th century, making bodies for the chassis produced by low-production companies such as Rolls-Royce, Ferrari, and Bentley. Producing body dies is extremely expensive (a single door die can run to US$40,000), which is usually only considered practical when large numbers are involved—though that was the path taken by Rolls-Royce and Bentley after 1945 for their own in-house production. Because dies for pressing metal panels are so costly, from the mid 20th century, many vehicles, most notably the Chevrolet Corvette, were clothed with large panels of fiberglass reinforced resin, which only require inexpensive molds. Glass has since been replaced by more sophisticated materials, if necessary hand-formed. Generally these replace metal only where weight is of paramount importance.
The advent of unibody construction, where the car body is unified with, and structurally integral to the chassis, made custom coachbuilding uneconomic. Many coachbuilders closed down, were bought by manufacturers or changed their core business to other activities:
Touring 2-seater body 1952 on an Alfa Romeo 6C 2300B chassis
Hebmüller Cabriolet modifications upon a mass-produced Volkswagen platform chassis
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