Coachbuilders – The true heroes behind classic car heaven

Coachbuilder -Special

Nowadays, a coachbuilder mainly builds prototypes for the manufacturers, whereas traditional Coachbuilding is a vibrant part of automotive history. Coachbuilder companies were the true heroes of car business. Many of the companies have immortalised themselves by producing timeless legends.

The Baur Karosserie- und Fahrzeugbau GmbH

Many people know the coachbuilder Karmann. The Stuttgart-based company Baur, on the other hand, is far less well known. Yet the company, founded in 1910, supplied the bodies for vehicles like the Porsche 917 to the BMW Z1.

In its best days, the company had more than 600 employees, achieved four- or even five-figure production runs with some models, and sold as far away as Argentina and Angola. The cornerstone of the company’s worldwide success was a 1912 patent by the company’s founder Karl Baur for a “folding top for luxury motor cars”. Later, the company also developed a draught-free sliding roof, among other things.

However, it was not always open cars that were built at Baur. Among other things, the Swabians supplied the lattice tube frame for the legendary Porsche 917 racing car, took over the development and production of body shell components for Audi’s Ur-Quattro and the complete body shell of the Sport-Quattro, developed the CD model for Erich Bitter, handled the final assembly of the BMW M1 and transformed the baroque BMW 501/502 into a handsome coupé.

From the beginning, however, the appeal of the brand was not only the great cars, but also a series of bankruptcies, misfortunes and breakdowns. And so it came to pass that the last top convertible in particular, an E36 with four windows, brought its creators to ruin.

In June 1999, the IVM Engineering Group took over the lead at Baur.

Ateliers Henri Chapron – The French Coachbuilder who gave us the “Usine”

The Citroën DS conversions were certainly the high point of the Ateliers Henri Chapron.

However, the history of Chapron models began much earlier and represents a piece of contemporary history through all the social and political high points and crises of the 20th century. Henri Chapron, who came from a suburb of Paris, founded his coachbuilding company in 1919.

In the first years of its existence, the core business was the conversion of military vehicles for civilian use. It was not until 1923 that Chapron built bodies for Ford’s Model T, and subsequently for Delage.

The company’s growth came to an abrupt end during the Great Depression, and it was thanks to Chapron’s resourceful entrepreneurial spirit that the company was able to recover to some extent. Above all it were Chapron’s negotiated contracts with Delage and Delahaye that secured the company’s existence in the 1930s.

It was not until the revolutionary Citroën DS that Chapron’s work reached a turning point and a peak. From 1958 onwards, he produced cabriolets and coupés under his own name, and from 1961 onwards he developed factory cabriolets on behalf of Citroën, which were officially sold by dealers under the name “Usine”.

Parallel to this, stylish convertibles and coupés continued to appear, reflecting Chapron’s design lines with no less stylish names such as La Croisette, Concorde or Le Dandy.

The end of the DS production also marked the approaching end of the Ateliers Henry Chapron. They still produced special models for the Citroën SM and CX, but the low production numbers could not prevent insolvency in 1985. Henry Chapron did not live to see this end; he died in 1978.

Well known Coachbuilder from the UK – H. J. Mulliner & Co.

Today, Mulliner is known as the Bentley brand’s in-house tuner. But that’s only since 1998, a tiny fraction of its soon to be 260-year history.

In 1760 Arthur Mulliner founded the company “Mulliners of Northhampton” and from then on dedicated himself to the construction of carriages. With the decline of the horse-dependent clientele, the company gratefully accepted the new business of coachbuilding.

In the beginning, several companies, all with founders related to each other, operated under the name “Mulliner”. It was Henry Jervis Mulliner who took over the London showroom in 1900, renamed it “H. J. Mulliner & Co.” and immediately began to manufacture car bodies for the upper classes.

The main customers were Daimler and Rolls Royce and Mulliner had the most expensive and highest quality bodies ready for them.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Bentley and Rolls Royce intensified their business relations with H. J. Mulliner & Co. Also in order to exclude the competition.

At the end of the 1950s, Mulliner was the last independent coachbuilder in England – and was taken over by Rolls Royce for a knockdown price of £250,000. The carmaker needed capacity to produce the Silver Cloud and S-Type. Mulliner was then merged with Park Ward. A coachbuilder that Rolls Royce had already taken over in 1939.

When Rolls-Royce went to BMW and Bentley to the Volkswagen Group in 1998, the lawyers unravelled the brand and name mesh and distributed them. BMW got Park Ward, VW got Mulliner. Since then, the label “Mulliner” has stood for individualised Bentleys. One-offs for the upper class – actually just like 100 years ago.

Even if most coachbuilders have always remained rather in the background, their influence on history cannot be denied. Companies such as Baur, Mulliner and Chapron contributed significantly to the creation of timeless legends that are still idolised today.


Text: Lennart Klein Photos Bentley Motors, Pyritz Classics GmbH , Steenbuck AUTOMOBILES

Author: Lennart Klein

Lennart Klein ist Redakteur beim Classic Trader Magazin. Seine Begeisterung gilt zwei- und vierrädrigen Klassikern gleichermaßen. Traum-Klassiker: Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior & Mercedes-Benz 600.

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