When some ultra-rich European customers wanted to shop for a car from uber brands like Bugatti, Delahaye, Rolls Royce, Hispano Suiza or Maybach, they almost always just bought a rolling chassis from them. With it, they were then going to a custom coach builder like Figoni&Falaschi, H.J. Mulliner, Park Ward, Saoutchik, Castagna or Spohn, who would use the technical platform as a white canvas for their (and their clients') own styling ideas.
The result of this quite complex process of acquiring a new vehicle was more than a few times transformed into a four-wheeled work of art, with many of the coach built cars remaining almost priceless one-offs.
Since this was a time when almost all cars were built following the same, almost strict criteria, coach building wasn't such a hard, and most of all rare thing to do. I'm talking about keeping the chassis very much distinct from the body during production, with the two being almost as interchangeable as today's Legos.
In those days, you could have the same Bugatti car under a number of bodies, including some from the factory - who were designed by none other than Ettore's son himself, Jean. Apart from a couple of larger companies, most car manufacturers didn't even have in-house design departments back then.
Usually, the only way you could distinguish different models from one another would be to observe the radiator grille, which was most of the time distinctively designed for each manufacturer, no matter what body the respective car used to have.
After the second World War, most old-school coach builders either went bankrupt, switched their design and manufacturing expertise to other areas or were absorbed by some of the car makers they were building bodies for. This mainly happened not because the market for one-offs and bespoke hypercars vanished, but because the car manufacturing process had evolved to mainstream mass manufacturing.
The era of separately manufacturing the chassis and the bodywork was now gone, with newer cars switching to unibody, or monocoque manufacturing. This meant that it was becoming increasingly difficult to modify a standardized “rolling chasis”, since the chassis itself was now including most of the bodywork as well.
Still, for a couple of decades more, some new and old coach builders survived by becoming styling or manufacturing subcontractors to established automotive brands. Styling houses like Bertone, Ghia, Vignale, Karmann, Pininfarina or Zagato managed to keep their high level workmanship in public's eyes by either helping with the production and/or styling of low-series cars based on mainstream automobiles or by making what their pre-war predecessors were famous for – bespoke, tailor-made one-offs.
In modern times, most of the coachbuilders of the past are either dead or integrated into huge car companies, with no hope of ever achieving their past fame again. Is this because the way they used to actually materialize their ideas has become increasingly difficult thanks to modern car manufacturing, or is it simply because nobody gives a rat's a** about bespoke cars anymore?
Coincidentally, a few modern car designers have tried to respond to my second question in recent years, by trying to re-establish the long lost art of coach building. I'm talking about the likes of Henrik Fisker, Michiel van den Brink and Ken Okuyama.
Each of these men first became an established car designer (Fisker at Aston Martin, van den Brink at Spyker and Okuyama at Pininfarina), after which tried to make leave their own mark in a modern reiteration of the coachbuilding business.
Henrik Fisker founded Fisker Coachbuild, which went fine until he decided he wanted to become an actual car manufacturer that uses its own platforms. Michiel van den Brink, the youngest of the three, had a nice run coachbuilding a Ferrari 599 GTB into a modern 250 GTO with the help of renowned Ferrari restorer Alwin Hietbrink, but he's now turned to freelance design.
Ken Okuyama, one of the few Japanese designers of Pininfarina fame, quit his daytime job and started his own little design consultancy and car building company. His first projects, the K.O. 7 and K.O. 8, are more about low-series car production rather than coachbuilding, so the future is also uncertain from this point of view.
Who's left then? Italian coachbuilders like Pininfarina and Zagato are somewhat keeping the spirit of the past alive with their multi-million one-offs, made for ultra rich guys like James Glickenhaus or Peter S. Kalikow, but considering the rarity and price of these projects, they have almost nothing in common to what coachbuilding used to mean.
From my point of view, we are currently living in a said state of affairs compared to the golden eras of the past. We have many designers with the talent, many fabricators with the technical skill and more than enough people with the required money, then where have all the old-school coachbuilders went?