GRR

Five great coachbuilt Rolls-Royces

06th June 2021
Bob Murray

The coachbuilt car lives on at the home of Rolls-Royce at Goodwood. One look at last month’s headlines for the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail proves that. Reportedly commissioned by pop superstars Beyoncè and Jay-Z, the Boat Tail came with an unconfirmed price tag of £20 million, making it the most expensive new car. Ever. But then that’s coachbuilding for you…

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Coachbuilding never was the cheap option. Rolls-Royce specialised in it from the start, more than 100 years ago. But there was nothing unique about it then: putting bespoke bodywork on a pre-assembled chassis was how all the best cars were made. You’d go to your local RR dealer, choose your rolling chassis and have it delivered to your favourite coachbuilder who would create a body to your own design out of a wooden or metal frame clad by aluminium or steel panels.

Mass production and the arrival of the monocoque body meant the art more or less died out, but Rolls-Royce kept it alive… right until 1965 when the separate-chassis Silver Cloud made way for the unitary construction Silver Shadow. Rolls-Royces, and others at the luxury end of the market, may have bigged up their bespoke offerings since then but only very rarely have we seen a new car that’s coachbuilt in the truest sense of the word.

Until now and the totally mad, but also beautiful and exquisitely engineered, Boat Tail. It’s a one-off that is meant to kickstart a new coachbuilt future for Rolls-Royce, one dedicated to bringing to life the wildest automotive dreams of the world’s ultra-high net worth individuals.

The resurgence has been made possible by Rolls-Royce’s move away from BMW-derived platforms to the new scalable aluminium spaceframe structure that forms the basis of its newest models. With something more akin to a traditional rolling chassis, Rolls-Royce says it has reacquired the freedom to construct almost any body shape its patrons can imagine – as long as it’s all topped off by a Sprit of Ecstasy mascot, that is.

A new dawn for a century-old tradition? Money no object, what would you have Rolls-Royce coachbuild for you? Here are some ideas from five coachbuilt Rolls-Royces of the past…

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1926 40/50HP Phantom I Brougham De Ville

Coachbuilder: Charles Clark & Son Ltd

There’s nothing off-the-shelf about this stately beauty. Nothing that you can see, anyway. And with an interior meant to recreate the Rococo ambience of the Palace of Versailles, there is a lot to see – from the polished satinwood veneer panelling, Aubusson tapestries and painted ceiling to a French Ormolu clock mounted on the partition between the front and rear cabins. Marie Antoinette would have felt at home here. It was commissioned by an American businessman as a gift for his heiress wife, Maude. No wonder it was known as the Phantom Of Love…

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1928 17EX

Coachbuilder: Henry Royce

Huge bodies on heavy frames and cabins full of clocks and tapestries meant that a car like the Phantom I Brougham De Ville emulated the Palace of Versailles in more ways than just appearance – it also weighed almost as much. Avoirdupois killed performance so much that Henry Royce came up with a series of experimental lightweight cars as the antidote. The Phantom-based machines were coachbuilt with simple, open streamlined bodies – very sporting but still obviously a Rolls-Royce. The series culminated in 1928 with 17EX which could hit 90mph.

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1934 Phantom II Continental drophead coupe

Coachbuilder: Gurney Nutting & Co
Before Beyoncé’s Boat Tail of 2021 came the… Boat Tail of the 1930s. Then as now, the magnificent J-class America’s Cup yachts provided the inspiration. The style was personified by this Phantom II Continental, designed by A F McNeil and built in London by Gurney Nutting & Co. With its sweeping concave curves and razor-edging of the varnished rear decking it’s regarded as a true beauty – as long as you like yachts, that is.

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1972 Phantom VI limousine

Coachbuilder: H J Mulliner, Park Ward Ltd

A coachbuilt Rolls-Royce allows not just bespoke bodywork but also an opportunity to incorporate the most opulent fittings and latest technologies and few cars have done that better than this Mulliner creation from the early ‘70s. Based on the Phantom VI – the last Rolls-Royce to be constructed with a separate chassis – it lacked for little: flower vases, state-of-the-art (for 1972) sound and television systems, and a refrigerator for keeping wine and picnic food cold were all included. In a further echo of the 2021 Boat Tail with its “hosting suite”, the hedonistic Phantom offered burr walnut picnic tables and ‘toadstool’ seats that clipped to the front overriders for alfresco dining. There’s no parasol like the one built into Beyoncé’s car though!

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2017 Sweptail

Coachbuilder: Rolls-Royce

The new Boat Tail’s closest antecedent, the spectacular Sweptail was the first fully coachbuilt Rolls-Royce of the modern era. The two-seater coupe was intended by its owner as a “vision of a one-off luxury motor car like no other” and took four years to finish and came with a bill rumoured at the time to be £10m. The dramatic teardrop-shaped glasshouse is its defining feature, the tapering form finishing in a large central brake light. The reverse-angle rear mimics the transom of a yacht and is what gives the car its name, recalling other swept-tail style coachbuilt Rolls-Royces from the ‘20s and ‘30s.

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