In the pre- and post-war era, a coach-built car was a way for the well heeled to make a luxury car-shaped statement and there was no shortage of talented companies to help them do precisely that. Great names such as Murphy in the USA, Touring in Italy and Figoni et Falaschi in France – among many others – gifted the automotive world with stunning designs. And while many bordered on being ostentatious and flamboyant, some were simply outrageous. Here are a few favourites.
BY: Graeme Hurst
THE PHANTOM OF THE TARMAC
It may look like the most other-worldly (and sinister!) object to ever boast four-wheels but the Phantom Corsair was inspired by an upmarket take on one of the most mundane objects on earth: a can of beans. Perplexed? Well the Corsair was the product of the thinking (and deep pockets) of one Rust Heinz, heir to the Heinz baked beans empire in 1930s America.
Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Heinz junior elected to drop out of Yale in the mid 1930s and open a design studio from which he could pen his ‘dream car’. And while most fledgling designers of the time penned their ideas themselves, access to the family chequebook allowed Rust to ‘go big’. And that saw him knock on the door of Bohman and Schwartz, a talented California-based coachbuilding outfit with a penchant for outlandish creations.
They certainly didn’t disappoint when it came to bringing Heinz’s ideas to life: with its all-enveloping body and raked, locomotive-like windscreen, few cars can claim to have a presence like the front-wheel drive, Cord-engined 1937 Phantom Corsair. Which is exactly what the young Heinz was after to propel his concept into full-scale production; indeed Esquire magazine ran a full-page colour drawing of it in its July issue that year.
The publicity didn’t quite pan out and the Corsair remained a one-off. But it featured in a movie and was displayed as the Car of the Future for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Sadly, Rust never got to admire his creation in the Big Apple as he perished in a car accident shortly before the show kicked off.
Today’s celebrities rely on social media coverage to up their game but there was a time when they relied on regular print media coverage. And nothing beat raising one’s profile in the eyes of Fleet Street than a truly decadent set of wheels, particularly when you were a blonde bombshell of note. That’s the case with British actress Diana Dors who acquired this Saoutchik-bodied 1949 Delahaye Type 175 S. The dramatic styling and bold colour of the Parisian creation made it the perfect prop for Dors (regarded by many as the English version of Marilyn Monroe) for generating column inches.
The decadent creation, which was rumoured to feature a steering wheel carved from crystal and gold-plated dashboard fittings, set the movie star back a whopping £6000 at the time.
It was originally commissioned by a British millionaire businessman, who used the car to scoop up various prestigious Concours d’Elegance awards before selling it on to Dors. It later went through various hands before an American owner – no doubt frustrated by the car’s French mechanicals – had the Delahaye’s six-cylinder powertrain replaced with a front-drive Oldsmobile V8 unit. It has since been restored to the original specification and graced the lawns at Pebble Beach.
Zebra skin upholstery, gold plated switchgear and genuine ivory switch gear…just some of the show-stopping attributes for the last of the five ostentatious Docker Daimlers that graced the company’s stand at the Earls Court Motor Show on an annual basis.
The extravagantly finished 1955 Daimler DK 400 was the creation of Lady Docker – wife of BSA (which owned the luxury carmaker) Chairman Sir Bernard Docker. As a former night club dancer married into money, Lady Docker had a taste for decadence and positioned herself as head of Daimler styling to bring her ideas to life.
Hooper was her preferred coachbuilder for what became her annual crowd-puller at the famous London show but the choice of Zebra was a new step up for 1955 after she famously quipped that mink was ‘too warm to sit on’.
Nicknamed the ‘Golden Zebra’ the Daimler certainly caught show-goers’ attention but was ultimately the Dockers’ undoing: despising the ‘new money’ vulgarity of his wife’s lifestyle, BSA’s board – ever conscious that the Daimler brand enjoyed a Royal Warrant – removed their chairman and stripped the cars of their accessories.
Thankfully Golden Zebra’s notoriety saw it painstakingly rebuilt in recent years, complete with Zebra hide but without the ivory switches!
GOING FOR GOLD
Photo Credit: RM Sothebys
Lady Docker’s creations may have been distasteful to the upper classes but their media exposure wasn’t lost on marketing gurus at smaller carmakers such as Austin-Healey. Despite not having corporate pockets deep enough to entertain a top-notch coachbuilder, the sports car maker opted to go the ‘gold plated’ route to generate some attention at the 1958 Earls Court Show and commissioned a regular 100/6 to be so finished.
Boasting mink upholstery (evidently they hadn’t heard of Lady D’s protestations) and gold-plated brightwork – along with lashings of ivory for the dashboard controls – ‘Goldie’ (as it was nicknamed) was bankrolled by The Express tabloid newspaper, which put the car (valued then at £4000 or four times the price of a regular 100/6) up as a competition prize at the show.
SQUARE PEG IN A ROUND HOLE
One of the benefits of both chassis-based design and the coachbuilding era was the luxury of being able to re-body a car (for those with deep-enough pockets) to keep up with fashions. That’s the case with this 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom 1 which was sold new to the Raja of Nanpara in India.
Fast forward nine years and it was in the hands of a Belgian owner who evidently fancied ushering in the age of streamlining with a rather radical looking enclosed coupe body.
Local coachbuilder Henri Jonckheere (which went on to become a big player in manufacturing buses) landed the job. Quite who designed the body isn’t known but the use of round doors was as radical as the decision to both amplify and adapt the angle and shape of the traditional Rolls-Royce grille (normally strictly off limits to coachbuilders)…aspects that give the car a rather villainous demeanour.
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
Photo Credit: Bonhams
There’s an old adage that ‘money can’t buy taste’ and no doubt it’s one that has seen the chaps at Rolls-Royce grit their teeth as they bank cheques signed by wealthy clients after something bespoke.
That was likely the case back in the mid ’50s when Nubar Gulbenkian – a Harrow-educated Armenian-born Londoner who was heir to a Middle East oil fortune – placed an order for a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith in 1956.
Photo Credit: Bonhams
Famously eccentric – he lived in The Savoy and often dressed like a tramp – Gulbenkian then commissioned Hooper to clothe the Wraith chassis with a body boasting a clear plexiglass roof so that he could overcome his fear of claustrophobia while being chauffeured to his place on the French Riviera.
He also specified a speedometer for the rear passenger compartment, only this wasn’t to restrain the chauffeur’s right foot; rather it was to quell another of Gulbenkian’s famed anxieties: that sufficient pace be maintained en route!
Colonial India has a decadent past on the automotive front with plenty of Maharajs and wealthy aristocrats enjoying bespoke Rolls-Royces for everything from daily conveyance to potting at Tigers on hunting trips. But none of them came close to the Swan Car.
Commissioned by Calcutta-based eccentric Englishman Robert ‘Scotty’ Matthewson in the early 20th century as something to ‘shock’ the local elite, The Swan Car was a 1910 Rolls-Royce 25/30Hp in drag (in every sense!) with swan-shaped coachwork intended to mimic a swan gliding through water.
Except the detailing didn’t end there: The Swan Car also sported eyes which would glow in the dark and a steam jet in its beak to allow the driver to clear the passage ahead (of peasants presumably!) on demand.
And that’s not all….there was also an exhaust-driven, eight-tone horn (which could be operated by keyboard from the rear compartment) and an on-board device to dump splotches of whitewash from the car’s rear on to the tarmac for added theatre!