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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 a relative newcomer (though oldest in the U.S.), formed in 1810. Others in Britain included Hooper, H. J. Mulliner & Co., Park Ward, Gurney Nutting, Freestone & Webb, Barker, Tickford, Thrupp & Maberly, Windover, James Young and Vanden Plas. In France, they were led by Binder, Figoni et Falaschi, Chapron, Kellner, Labourdette, Letourneur et Marchand, Gangloff, Pourtout, Guilloré, Franay or Hibbard & Darrin (formed by Americans). Germany's top firms were Erdmann & Rossi, Gläser, Karmann, Hebmüller, Neuss, and Papler. Italy had firms such as Pininfarina, Bertone, Frua, Castagna, Ghia, Allemano, Scaglietti, Marazzi, Boneschi, Fissore, Alessio (of Turin, responsible for the first eight FIATs built), Zagato, Vignale and Touring. The U.S. featured Brewster & Co., Brunn, Fleetwood, LeBaron, Murphy, Derham, Locke, Rollston and Willoughby. The best known coachbuilder from Holland was Pennock, but there were also Veth & Zn. and Van Rijswijk. In Belgium, it was d'Ieteren and van den Plas and located in Switzerland were Hermann Graber or Ramsauer & Cie which also was known as Worblaufen after the place they were built.
In the early motoring days, when series production did not yet exist, the process of acquiring a new vehicle needed two major decisions. Already accustomed to ordering carriages from a coachbuilder the buyer would select an automobile manufacturer to provide only the rolling chassis, comprising: chassis, drivetrain (engine, gearbox, differential, axles, wheels), suspension, steering system and the radiator - the radiator, usually its shell, soon became the only visual element identifying the rolling chassis brand. The customer would also approach a coachbuilder, requesting a personal body design to be fitted on the new chassis. Initially, the long-established and refined skills used to build the wooden and metal bodies of vehicles were so specialized, (such as the English wheel), that most manufacturers procured contracts with existing coachbuilders to produce bodies for their chassis. For example, Fisher Body built all of Cadillac's closed bodies in the 1910s.
Ultra luxury vehicles
Commonly the larger dealers or distributors of ultra-luxury cars would order for stock chassis and particular bodies thought most likely to sell and have them made in suitable quantities for sale off their showroom floor.
Though automobile manufacturers brought body building skills in-house, the practice of bespoke or custom coachbuilding remained in favour among the rich who continued the habit of centuries past. All ultra-luxury vehicles 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 & Falaschi, Pennock and many more.
The advent of unibody construction, where the car body is unified with, and structurally integral to the chassis, made custom coachbuilding (in the traditional sense of putting a bespoke body on a factory supplied separate chassis) practically impossible. Many coachbuilders closed down, were bought by manufacturers or changed their core business to other activities:
- transforming into dedicated design / styling houses, subcontracting to automotive brands (e.g. Zagato, Frua, Bertone, Pininfarina).
- and/or transforming into general coachwork series manufacturer, subcontracting to automotive brands (e.g. Karmann, Bertone, Vignale, Pininfarina).
- manufacturing of special coachworks for trucks, delivery vans, touringcars, ambulances, fire engines, public transport vehicles, etc. (e.g. Pennock, Van Hool, Plaxton, Heuliez).
- becoming technical partner for development of e.g. roof constructions (e.g. Karmann, Heuliez) or producer of various (aftermarket) automotive parts (e.g. Giannini).
Independent coachbuilders survived for a time after the mid-20th century for the chassis produced by low-production companies such as Rolls-Royce, Ferrari, Bentley. Producing body dies is extremely expensive (a single door can run to US$40,000)(period?), which is usually only considered practical when large numbers are involved - though that what was the path taken by Rolls-Royce and Bentley after 1945 for their own in-house production. In view of the high cost of dies for pressing metal panels from the mid 20th century many vehicles, most notably the Chevrolet Corvette, were clothed with large panels of glass-fibre reinforced resin requiring inexpensive moulds. Glass has since been replaced by more sophisticated materials but generally these replace, if necessary hand-formed, metal only where weight is of paramount importance.
In reference to a recreational vehicle or motorhome, coach-built means a vehicle which has been purpose-built, using only a chassis as a base vehicle, as opposed to a conversion which is built inside an existing vehicle body.
In Britain, there are several that survived the car-industrial change from the ladder-chassis to unibody production-line system. These are : http://www.woodall-nicholson.co.uk ; http://www.cowaylimited.co.uk ; http://www.jankel.co.uk ; Overfinch ; http://www.macneillie.co.uk ; http://www.jubileeauto.net/index.php ; & Wilcox at http://www.limousines.co.uk.
- Construction has always been a skilled trade requiring a relatively lightweight product with sufficient strength. The manufacture of satisfactory wheels held together by iron or steel tyres was always most critical.
The word coachbuilder is recorded as early as 1794. From about 1000CE the work was carried out by a wainwright, a wagon-builder, later names: cartwright - a carpenter who makes carts, also (from 1587) coachwright as well as (from 1599) coachmaker. Subtrades: wheelwright, coachjoiner etc. Oxford English Dictionary 2011
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