Bethlehem, NH stafford@panel-craft.com 603-616-3157
Panel Craft LLC

Shop Talk

Elegance Recreated

Judging from the number of e-mails I've received from people with an interest in building a body using a "donor" car as a platform, now would be a good time to write about what this whole process entails. In order to do this, some background history is necessary to gain a deeper understanding.

When the twentieth century dawned the modern automobile industry was in it's infancy. The bodies which rode atop a rolling chassis were nothing more than horse drawn carriages with a steel sheathing replacing the common wooden paneling. In addition, steel mudguards or fenders were placed over the wheels so the occupants weren't covered with debris. Simple but effective. In short order the industry began to evolve. Driven by the motoring public's demands for variety in styling and price, the coach building industry was forced to keep up or be left standing in the dust.

After World War One drew to a close, the pent up demand of the European elite caused coach builders to scurry to meet their needs. In England, the Rolls Royce and Bentley power houses provided the bulk of the rolling chassis which the elite coveted. In France, it was Bugatti, Delahaye and Delage. And in Germany, Mercedes Benz was well... Mercedes Benz. All of these European manufacturers, and to a lesser degree some American companies, relied upon the independent coach builder to supply bodies for their coveted chassis.

Due to the ever changing tastes of a demanding clientele, virtually all coach building concerns employed an in house stylist and designer. This gave the customer the ability to pick and choose colors and textures as well as shapes and dimensions. This process was mostly transparent, but nonetheless difficult because the artisans and craftsmen which drove and powered these establishments often times possessed huge egos. The money collaborating with the egos produced sumptuous styling that in many cases can only be described as works of art on wheels. However, as beautiful as these cars were on the outside, the method of construction had not changed since the automobile had charged onto the stage in the earlier part of the century. That is, until a growing interest in motorsports demanded that cars keep going ever faster. In order to quench the thirst for faster and better handling cars, the Corrozzeria of Europe devised a new method of construction coined "Superleggera" or super light. In this method, the heavy ash frame was replaced by a lightweight, secondary structure or "super structure" fabricated of either aluminum or steel sheet which bolted or welded to the chassis. This method also quickly evolved, whereby the fabricated sheet structure was replaced with a bent tubular structure welded directly onto the chassis itself. Virtually every great sports racer of the 40's, 50's, and early 60's was built using this method. To this day, the fundamental premise of super light construction can be found on every car that rolls down the road.

Fast forward to the present and survey the last hundred years of custom coach building and it's easy to see that not much has changed. From tools to methodology to design, everything has to be kept simple because of very low volume production. However, because of its elegant simplicity, huge skill sets acquired over many, many years of practice combined with the vast amounts of time the practitioners of the craft require to achieve stellar results conspire to feed the beast of misinformation. So, that being said, the act of creating a full scale working body from nothing more than a picture or sketch or even an idea is hugely challenging!

A paradox of manufacturing is that small scale operations with very low production volume requires workers with highly specialized skill sets, simple methodology and a very basic array of machinery and tooling, while manufacturers with high volume require highly specialized machinery, complex methodology and much less skilled work force.

In the former of the two models, time is the force that drives it. And so goes custom coach building.

The methodology used for body builds that come into my shop is no different from most other shops that I compete with. We begin by establishing what the customer's design criteria are. Does he want a stylized recreation of a classic? A recreation of a classic on a modern platform, or execution of a totally fresh idea? Any choice has to be made on chassis and suspension dynamics based on targeted performance. After the decisions have been made and the plan finalized, we begin by laying out basic dimensions of the coach work in unison with the chosen platform. Then we address packaging needs; cockpit size, convertible top, trunk, engine bay etc. Only after all this ground work has been laid do we actually begin the act of construction.

This phase begins with the building of a three dimensional pattern known as a "buck". After the buck is complete, work on the support structure begins. Frames are made, doors, trunk lid, hood and any other movable panels. Next, the major bulk heads are mocked up, fabricated and temporarily fastened in place. The last component in the construction of the super structure is the fabrication of all the body aperture frame work. In order to hold all these components' structures in place while being assembled, a fixturing system has to be built and designed in such a way as to allow it to be easily removed once everything is welded, bolted or riveted firmly in place.

Next up is the act of creating magic; the shaping of the exterior body skins. This operation is the most satisfying because the plan is coming to fruition and all the heavy lifting is beginning to pay off. Once all the panels are shaped, they are meticulously welded and planished before finally everything is hung in place on the super structure. Sounds easy, right?

The build process I just described can take anywhere from 1500-5000 man hours and, in some extreme cases, even more. If you haven't viewed the Delahaye slide show featured on this website, now might be the time to do it if you're considering having custom coach work built.

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