British Coachbuilding is Craftsmanship at its Best
by Stuart Birch
European Editor Automotive Engineering
The names are almost as elegant as the designs they created: Mulliner Park Ward, Thrupp and Maberly, James Young, Hooper, Harold Radford, Flewitt, Burlington Tickford, Coleman Milne and many more. These are just some of the companies which established Britain's global reputation as a center of coachbuilding excellence.
In the early days of British car production, some manufacturers produced just a chassis and engine and left it to specialist coachbuilders to provide the "clothes". These companies could offer a bespoke service, creating a distinctive style, and they also catered for individual requirements.
The craftsmanship often involved not just the car's coachwork but its "furniture and fittings", to provide an integrated package of Iuxury and opulence. Some owners re-bodied their cars to give them a different shape to that originally conceived; others would transfer a favorite body from chassis to chassis. Owners sometimes got carried away by the opportunity to create vehicles in grand style. In 1927 Clark of Wolverhampton produced a Rolls-Royce Phantom I interior in Louis XVI style for a Mr. Gasque of London. It included a sofa worked in Aubusson petit point. The car's ornate ceiling was painted in France. In the 1950s, too, a few cars were specified in questionable taste - incorporating such things as gold-plate but generally, coachbuilt cars were the epitome of elegance.
The tradition of British coachbuilding is said to have become established in 1555 when Walter Rippon built a coach for the Earl of Rutland, following up that order with others from Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I. By the late 1600s, the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers had been founded and British coachbuilding became famed in the following years.
So, a couple of centuries later, when the first "horseless carriages" demonstrated what contemporary engineering could accomplish, it was natural that the coachbuilders should provide the bodies for many of these new-fangled motor cars.
Many motor manufactures were happy to focus on developing new chassis and engine designs and it was only as they became established that they also started to build the bodies, too.
It was this trend that really signalled the steady reduction in the number of coachbuilding companies until, by the 1930s, those that survived were generally only providing bodies for expensive cars such as Rolls-Royces and Daimlers.
The trend continued after World War II and in 1961, two of the most prominent London coachbuilders, H J Mulliner of Chiswick, and Park Ward of Willesden (Park Ward had become part of Rolls-Royce in 1939) amalgamated to become Mulliner Park ward. A division of Rolls-Royce, Mulliner Park Ward has been responsible for production of the company's Corniche, Continental and Phantom VI models.
"But," says Rolls-Royce, "Mulliner Park Ward has a wider role in serving the special needs of Rolls-Royce and Bentley owners, dovetailing traditional craftsmanship with new technologies to offer customers absolute exclusivity in their motor cars."
In addition to the Silver Spur III Limousine, which is built to very special individual customer requirements, Mulliner Park Ward offers a service to buyers of other models in the range. Interiors can be created to reflect the design of an owner's home or office. Personal designs such as family crests and monograms or corporate logos can be part of a car. Modifications to the exterior are possible provided they do not compromise mechanical integrity or safety.
Mulliner Park Ward explains that the design and production process offers consultation with each customer "every step of the way" from initial discussion of requirements through idea development to the completed interior. Customers may inspect the progress of their cars to enable design refinements to be made while the work is in progress.
Creating vehicles of this kind involves many craftsmen. As well as fine leathers, a long established hallmark of British luxury cars is the use of walnut veneers, notably for the dashboard but also for door cappings. At Mulliner Park Ward, French polishers pay great attention to veneers, working to emphasise shade and pattern. A sample of the veneer from each car built by Rolls-Royce is placed on file for any future matching that may be necessary.
The business environment created by Mulliner Park Ward amid fine walnut and leather, may include a laptop computer, fax machine and video player with two color screens set into the front seat headrests. There is provision for a couple of cellphones and even a detachable walnut veneer briefcase.
And naturally a refrigerator can be specified for a refreshing drink to be poured at the end of a hard day at the office.
Other companies specialise in "stretching", and equipping to a very high level, both low volume Iuxury cars and suitable high volume models.
Coleman Milne has a long association with Ford. (The six-door Rolls-Royce picture in this article was built by Coleman Milne) In the mid1980s, as Ford prepared to introduce its new Granada/Scorpio range, it made available to Coleman Milne drawings, technical specifications and even a bodyshell, to facilitate design of a limousine version.
Today, Coleman Milne produces the Dorchester limousine based on the latest version of the Scorpio. Electrically operated glass division, cocktail cabinet, telephone, television/video facility, stereo and security equipment are just some of the items on the long list of equipment available - and of course there is a choice of four doors or six. Doubtless, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Rutland would have approved.
Interested in a customized coach by the world's best?
Mr. David Brimson
Middlesex, UB2 5NA, UK
Coleman Milne Ltd
Lancashire, United Kingdom, BLS 2EE
Tel: +44 1942 815600
Fax +44 1942 815115
Mulliner Park Ward
Crewe, Cheshire, United Kingdom, CW1 3PL
Tel: +44 1270 255155
Fax +44 1270 500620