Strive for Perfection

Shaped by the wind

Shaped by the wind


Inspired by the beautiful Rolls-Royce designs on display at the Concorso d’Eleganza, Michael Moran charts the evolution of the art of coachbuilding

“Now I am of those who are affected by motor-cars: their lines thrill me, the harmony of their colour touches me, a gallant device wins my earnest admiration so that, walking along Piccadilly, I will distress my mind by being a partisan of this one, a despiser of that one.”

From The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, 1924

Villa d’Este on the shore of Lake Como, Italy proved a suitably dramatic setting for the theatrical unveiling of the final developmental stage Spectre at the 2023 Concorso d’Eleganza. Following hours of wind-tunnel experimentation and millions of kilometres of road-testing, the “waftability” and coachbuild design of Rolls-Royce’s new, battery-powered coupé are unlike those of any other motor car.

“In going electric, we wanted to go with a truly emotional car,” said Torsten Müller-Ötvös, Chief Executive Officer of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. Indeed, as a statement of Rolls-Royce’s intent to move towards the electrification of its entire model range, this unique motor car is as important as the 1906 Silver Ghost.

In an increasingly complex technological world, the desire for individuality of expression is as great as it is hard to achieve. So how did the design landscape evolve to that on offer to the modern motorist?

Your carriage awaits

Looking back to the origins of quality coachbuilt cars, the early flowering of design indicated a wish to make a clear statement of social status. Only the wealthy could afford a “horseless carriage” – those noisy and smelly motor cars so disliked by Queen Victoria. As these early machines developed in the years prior to the First World War, car bodies echoed the design of horse-drawn carriages. Yet, despite the difficult economic environment, the demand for cars continued unabated.

Gradually, the figure of a grease-smeared, gravel-battered chauffeur transformed into the charming gentleman driver. The first true Rolls-Royce motor car was the twin-cylinder 10hp, which was produced from 1904 to 1906. This was shortly followed by a three-cylinder 15hp and a four-cylinder 20hp, which came in both a heavy chassis form for carrying limousine coachwork and light chassis form to accommodate a more sporting tourer.

The design’s “verticality” reflected that of the horse and the seated “rider”, and spoke of the era’s narrow streets and association of height with social eminence. A vehicle’s cabin was required to comfortably accommodate a top hat. Well into the 1920s, vertical styles persisted, only taking on more horizontal forms as designs and social norms gradually shifted.

The all-electric Spectre was displayed at the 2023 Concorso d'Eleganza

“The design’s ‘verticality’ reflected that of the horse and the seated ‘rider’, and spoke of the era’s association of height with social eminence”

From 1907 to 1922, Rolls-Royce had a one-model policy, making what was known initially as the 40/50 and later as the Silver Ghost. An astonishing 6,173 units of this model were produced and exported the world over. The car offered a superior design with pressurised engine lubrication, dual ignition and advanced carburetion providing flexible and smooth power delivery and great reliability. Following the Austrian Alpine Trials of 1912, significant improvements were made in 1913 and 1914 to increase the cooling capacity, replace the three-speed gearbox with a four-speed one and increase the size of the car’s brakes.

Skip forward to 1926, and the presence of the bespoke Rolls-Royce Phantom I chassis number 76TC, otherwise known as the Phantom of Love, was enough to suggest the arrival of royalty. However, this extraordinary Brougham de Ville by coachbuilder Charles Clark was commissioned by Clarence Gasque, the French-American finance director of Woolworths.

In its day the most expensive motor car ever built, the Phantom’s Rococo-decorated interior was reputedly based on opulent antique French sedan chairs of the Marie Antoinette period. The car boasted satinwood veneer panelling, an ormolu clock with flanking porcelain vases, a bow-fronted drinks cabinet, ornate silver-gilt door handles and a painting of cherubs cavorting among clouds and roses on the ceiling. Its Aubusson tapestry banquette alone cost more than an average British house.

Then there was the unique 1929 gold-plated Rolls-Royce Springfield Phantom I Riviera Brougham de Ville, with coachwork by Brewster & Co. Considered by many to be the “Rolls-Royce of Rolls-Royces”, the cost of chassis number S390LR – one of the finest motor cars of its era – remains a mystery.

Shaped by the wind

An old black and white photo of a man in a wind-shaped car.
Charles Rolls at the wheel of his 15hp Panhard, c. 1903
An old photo of a man sitting in a carriage shaped like a wind.
Rolls in a wagonette version of the four-cylinder Panhard, c. 1898
A wind-shaped vintage car is on display in front of a castle.
Rolls-Royce 40/50 "Silver Dawn" on the lawns of Hampton Court
The Phantom of Love's unique bodywork attracts an admiring glance at Villa d'Este

Aerodynamic aesthetics

Creating a sense of movement became an increasingly important aspect of car design as what was initially an ornamented box containing passengers developed into something more sophisticated. An awareness of aerodynamics and streamlining was informed by the aircraft industry, calling for a sweeping envelope uncomplicated by external embellishment. Designed by artists, bespoke motor cars became aesthetic triumphs.

The designs on show at the Paris Salon of 1921 illustrate that the “skiff” or “boat-bodied” style of bodywork had become fashionable, even de rigueur, for small sports cars and larger continental touring limousines. The theme of boats, panelled with precious woods, began to spread among luxury manufacturers such as Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta Fraschini, Darracq and Rolls-Royce, and is one that remains dominant in bespoke design to this day.

Often a separate yet conceptually integrated part of the whole, bodywork dressed the vehicle in a flowing metal shell reminiscent of a couturier clothing a model. The instrumentation of the interior “control capsule” could be extravagant in its design, with rare, even priceless, materials decorating the enclosed, luxurious space in which the driver and passengers travelled.

As most chassis makers did not fabricate their own bodies until much later in the century, a wealthy, prospective car buyer was presented with two key decisions: “Which prestige chassis and which renowned bespoke coachbuilder will best complement my sense of status and style?” British car makers and coachbuilders were pre-eminent in the Europe of the early 20th century, when the main technical challenges were the limitations of chassis design. The excessive weight of the wooden frame and metal panels that clothed earlier motor cars led to problematical body mounting. Flexing led to rattles, squeaks, cracks and splitting.

In 1923, lightweight bodies were developed by a Haitian-born aeroplane pilot and businessman called Charles Weymann and proved popular. The lightness of his bodies improved performance and their revolutionary mounting allowed for almost soundless flexing. As a result, Weymann licences were granted to many eminent British coachbuilders.

Another challenge was the hand-painting of coachbuilt bodywork with coats of varnish, which called for long drying times. This was soon supplanted by the use of variously coloured, rapid-drying cellulose paint in 1925.

The gold-plated Rolls-Royce Springfield Phantom I Riviera Brougham de Ville S390LR

A golden age of coachbuilding

As the century progressed, changes in motor car design reflected an increase in social mobility in Britain and abroad. In 1922, the launch of the smaller, more affordable, Rolls-Royce 20hp for the more impecunious owner-driver, affectionately known as the “Baby Rolls”, was considered surprising within aristocratic circles. However, the car was an immediate success among the professional classes.

Svelte-bodied racing cars, cultivated on the bankings of Brooklands by Bentley, Railton, Bugatti and MG, developed at a pace as the playthings of stylish, adventurous young gentlemen of means. Before the breakout of war at the end of the decade, the 1930s witnessed a revolution in production methods, technology and elegance in styling. Many consider the period to be the pinnacle of British coachbuilding.

The heavy yet genteel bodies produced by Carlton, Rippon, Park Ward, Thrupp & Maberly, Gurney Nutting, HJ Mulliner and Windover, often with boat tails, remained characteristically British. Increasingly stylish, the designs’ dignified elegance reflected an understated affluence with a certain dash. Unfortunately, weight often hampered outright performance.

The racy body lines and almost louche atmosphere of some Rolls-Royce Phantom II and Phantom III models began to erode conventional coachbuilding styles as social mores were loosened by the less constrained rhythms of the jazz age. Smaller designers, such as Corsica Coachworks of Cricklewood in north London, produced exotic examples of what author Tom Clarke describes as “glamour at full strength” for the Bugatti 57S chassis, Bentley, Invicta, Frazer Nash and Rolls-Royce 20/25.

A growing concern with testing in wind tunnels and the calculation of drag coefficients began to dominate the artistic flow of the pencil on drawing boards throughout Europe, especially in Italy, Germany and France. However, this preoccupation with streamlined curves and contours was slower to penetrate the more conservative design departments of Britain.

“A growing concern with testing in wind tunnels began to dominate the artistic flow of the pencil on drawing boards throughout Europe”

The construction of the impressive Autobahn made the reduction of drag an essential design consideration. One of the first and arguably greatest aerodynamicists was Paul Jaray, born in the 1880s in Vienna and chief designer at the Zeppelin airship factory. He applied a Zeppelin-derived teardrop shape to motor-car bodies and many manufacturers engaged his ideas, including BMW, Bugatti, Maybach, Mercedes, Fiat and Tatra.

One fine example of aerodynamic excellence from this era is the 1939/1940 BMW 328 Kamm Coupé, named after the German aerodynamics pioneer Wunibald Kamm. The formidable aluminium body was streamlined by Carrozzeria Touring for the 1940 Mille Miglia, and the shortened “Kamm” tail surprisingly proved to be superior in aerodynamic efficiency. Another striking creation of the period was the 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Stromlinienwagen. Powered by a 5.4-litre straight-eight engine of 180 horsepower, this astounding highway cruiser topped out at 115mph.

A sporting style and sense of speed became increasingly integral features of car design, expressed sublimely by the 1937 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Berlinetta by Carrozzeria Touring. In France, the brilliant coachwork designer and French Resistance hero Georges Paulin invented the extraordinary Éclipse retractable roof for the Peugeot 301. Inspired by the 1935 Alfa Romeo 6C 2300 Pescara with Pinin Farina bodywork designed by Mario Revelli, this fluid body style also fuelled the creation of the famous Bentley commissioned by André Embiricos, known as the Paulin Bentley or La Streamline. The car’s Autobahn speed test in February 1939 comfortably exceeded 100mph, a feat repeated later that year at Brooklands.

Considered one of the greatest of all coachbuilt designs, this car became a prototype for the following generation of coachbuilt Bentleys – the Continental I and II, culminating in the Bentley Mk VI and the R-Type Continental.

On 15 September 1951, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York unveiled an exhibition entitled “8 Automobiles” celebrating the motor car as rolling sculpture. One of the most revolutionary and influential cars on display was the 1947 Cisitalia 202 Coupé, which Pinin Farina designed from sketches by Italian marque Cisitalia’s Giovanni Savonuzzi in 1946. A car that “transformed post-war automobile design”, MoMA noted that its “hood, body, fenders, and headlights are integral to the continuously flowing surface, rather than added on”, adding that, “before the Cisitalia, the prevailing approach followed by automobile designers when defining a volume and shaping the shell of an automobile was to treat each part of the body as a separate, distinct element”.

A silver vintage car is parked in front of a wind-shaped lake.
A white car shaped like wind parked on a road.
A wind-shaped black car parked by the lake.
A 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Stromlinienwagen
The 1939/1940 BMW 328 Mille Miglia Kamm Coupé
Rolls-Royce Phantom III 3AZ158 with Gurney Nutting body
The 1929 4½-litre Bentley "Blower" owned by Tim Birkin
The elegantly streamlined Bentley R-Type Continental
1937 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Berlinetta "Superleggera" by Touring

Bespoke revival

Following the Second World War, coachbuilding effectively fell into limbo. Yet in a modern return to specially commissioned bespoke Rolls-Royces, the Sweptail was ceremonially unveiled at Villa d’Este in 2017. The name originated from the client, who greatly admired the swept-tail design of Rolls-Royce cars of the 1920s and 1930s.

The young client, with his love of racing superyachts and private aircraft, established a close relationship with the company’s design department and the significant engineering challenges of the car’s scalable aluminium spaceframe architecture were overcome. A revolution had taken place as significant as the introduction of the monocoque Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow in 1965.

This led to the establishment of the marque’s Coachbuild department to create a trio of extraordinary motor cars known as Boat Tail. Again, the respective clients shared a love of the contemporary nautical design of J Class yachts. Each car shares a streamlined body, aerodynamically tested in wind tunnels yet conceived with individual vision and taste.

The Rolls-Royce Sweptail's fastback rear
The model's sleek detailing

“Capturing the client’s personality is fundamental,” says Alex Innes, Head of Coachbuild Design at Rolls-Royce. “Coachbuild is an artistic skillset that only exists at Rolls-Royce. Boat Tail is a distinct counterpoint to industrialised luxury.”

The Boat Tail II, which was launched at Concorso d’Eleganza in 2022, is finished in warm metallic tones that complemented the terracotta hues of Villa d’Este perfectly. The oyster and soft rose colour and finish was inspired by pearl shells from the client’s own personal collection, and the car itself is entirely hand-formed from single sheets of aluminium to create the distinctive outline inspired by the racing yachts of the early 20th century.

The design employs the 2:1 ratio of body height to wheel diameter established with the Silver Ghost in 1907, and the rear deck, clothed in Royal Walnut veneer, is inlaid with rose gold-plated pinstripes, unmistakably reminiscent of Boat Tail Rolls-Royce motor cars of the past.

“We can accomplish things and resolve challenges that normal industrialised methods would prohibit,” says Innes, summing up the marque’s revival of coachbuilt culture. “The result far exceeds a means of conveyance to become quite literally a moving work of art.”

Sweptail heralded the return of Rolls-Royce's glorious bespoke bodywork