porsche design by michael di tullo

California Coachbuilding

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction in physics as well as design. In this age of nearly autonomous appliances that we still call cars, there’s an emerging group of American coachbuilders breathing new joy into the art of the automobile. The same person that uses a Tesla with autopilot to fight their way through their daily grind of a commute may want a very different kind of automobile to enjoy on the weekend. Affluent drivers with a sense of taste and nostalgia are now starting to turn to a select group of U.S.-based shops that are elevating the design of vehicles to a fine art form.

What is coachbuilding? Before the automobile, in the horse-and-buggy era, all vehicles were coachbuilt. Horse coaches were custom-built to order, handmade to the specification of their owners, no matter whether that specification was utilitarian or obnoxious.

By contrast, the automobile grew up in the machine age; the concepts of interchangeable parts and the manufacturing assembly line were integral to the mass adoption of what became the modern road vehicle. With standardization making the automobile safer, more reliable and easier to purchase, coachbuilding took on new meaning. A coachbuilt car today can most easily be defined as an automobile that started life as a production rolling chassis (frame, engine and drivetrain) that has had some performance modifications and a custom-designed interior and exterior made for it as a “one-of-one” — or very low volume — built-to-order model.

The epitome of the first wave of coachbuilding from the 1920s up to the 1960s were the Italian carrozzieri. The carrozzieri took rolling stock from Bentley, Aston Martin, Fiat, Lancia, BMW, Chrysler and Cadillac and created artful, simplified and streamlined bodies. Often, these cars were also lighter, lower and sleeker than their production cousins and sported modified engines and suspensions. One of my favorites examples of these was the Aston Martin DB4Z by Zagato, commissioned by Aston Martin itself to beat Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans races. The best carrozzieri work took the visual elements of the original car and made them better, as if they were from a drawing of the car made at high speed, despite it sitting still. Driving a carrozziere car was like driving a concept car that was built especially for you. As you would expect, the carrozzieri clients were often Hollywood stars and famous musicians of their day. For instance, Rita Hayworth could be seen driving through the Hollywood Hills in her Ghia-bodied Cadillac. That car is now in the permanent collection of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Eventually, the sculpted, elegant curves of the carrozzieri designs ended up influencing production cars as regular drivers demanded more style from their automobiles than, say, a Model T could offer. GM was credited as having the first in-house design department, led by Harley Earl, whose family founded the L.A.-based Earl Automobile Works in 1908. To compete with GM, other brands commissioned English, Italian and American coachbuilders to design new cars for them or stole their employees outright for their full-time staff. Of the original major carrozzieri, Ghia was purchased by Ford, ItalDesign was bought by Volkswagen, and Pininfarina became almost an extension of Ferrari. Over time, the production of automobiles became so stylized — and their mechanicals so complicated — that coachbuilding as a practice almost completely died out, with the exception of the odd rare, fully custom Bentley or Ferrari.

While the iconic European coachbuilders were all slowly bought, or had their shops shuttered, something interesting started happening on the West Coast of the U.S.A. In the 1950s, groups of grease monkeys started hot-rodding their cars.

What started as engine tweaks and mods to get more horsepower at a local straight patch of roadway began to take on ever-more complicated levels of restyling. Eliminating door handles and extraneous stock pieces of trim and chrome became known as “Frenching” a car. Smoothing out the lines in a fender and blending a headlight into a body side became known as “sweetening the curves”. Lowering the hood line and raking the windshield became known as “chopping”. While these rebellious garage-based hot-rodders would never call themselves coachbuilders, they created a fertile ground for a new generation to up the ante.

Below are four American coachbuilders currently leading the revival of the art of the automobile:

Emory

This multi-generational shop bridges the history from hot-rodders to modern coachbuilders. Neil Emory was a hot-rodder in the late 1940s and early 1950s who got a job at a Porsche dealership. There, he gained a reputation for being able to put wrecked Porsches back together even better than their stock counterparts. His son Gary took things further, managing the parts department at the dealership and creating his own inventory of obsolete parts of older Porsches. Gary’s affinity for some of the older and rarer tail-lamp and mirror assemblies led him to put together Porsche 356’s that had his favorite parts on them as well as a few sweetened lines and Frenched details. Known as “outlaw Porsches” for their lack of adherence to any specific stock year, Emory redefined what it meant to have a tuned Porsche. As a member of the third generation of the same family of owners and operators, Rod Emory grew up in the shop with his father and grandfather. Under his leadership, Emory has produced over 100 “outlaw” Porsches since 1996.

Icon

In the 1990s, Jonathan Ward was known around L.A. as the go-to guy to restore vintage Toyota FJ Land Cruiser SUVs. This led to the forming of The Land Cruiser Company, an outlet for him to buy and restore classic Toyota Land Cruisers. What began as a mission to get these old 4x4s back to factory condition became a quest to improve them to better-than-stock shape. Jonathan and his team re-imagined almost every component of the vehicles the way the original designers and engineers might have done it if they had Jonathan’s level of resources and obsessiveness. From this philosophy, the Icon company was born. Today, the firm produces its vehicles by mating a new motor, drivetrain and suspension to a custom mandrel-bent chassis. Almost every stock plastic or stamped-metal bit of trim is redesigned and machined out of billet aluminum or stainless steel.

This latter process was actually my introduction to Icon; Jonathan was looking to redesign the FJ’s instrument gauge cluster to be a cross between a vintage aviation control panel and a high-end timepiece. We were introduced to one another as fellow car and watch nerds and have been collaborating on and off ever since as I helped him articulate the design vision on some of his many projects. Today, Icon resto-mods vintage Toyota FJs, Ford Broncos and Chevy Thriftmasters. Jonathan also has two other model lines known as the Derelicts and the Reformers. The Derelict series takes a vintage car with its aged patina, gives it a new chassis, motor and drivetrain, re-fits the interior with exotic materials and clear-coats over the rust on the outside, preserving the visual story of the vehicle. The Reformer series takes the opposite approach — over the modern running gear, many of the exterior and interior components are tastefully enhanced; the body is subtly sweetened and chopped, and the lighting appears modernized, resulting in what often looks like a designer’s sketch of the original car.

Singer

What happens after British car designer Rob Dickinson quits his job at exotic car manufacturer Lotus to hit it big as the lead singer of an alternative rock band in the 1990s? He moves to L.A. to start a coachbuilding shop, of course. Dickinson fronted the shoegaze band Catherine Wheel from 1990 to 2000. As a designer who was in art school in the 1990s, I must confess to owning all of Catherine Wheel’s albums at the time. After the band broke up, Rob moved to L.A. and started wrenching on Porsche 964s and 911s. At the time, 964s were not particularly collected, but Rob saw the potential in the model. Built from 1989 to 1994, the 964 was, in some ways, the first modern 911, but with many more updated components than previous models. Rob further upgraded its performance and very artfully smoothed out its shape; he redesigned the front and rear bumpers, added modern headlamps and did a fantastic overhaul of the interior. Even the engine bay got lined with quilted leather! The level of detail he added to the cars is utterly insane, and I can get lost just studying how things come together on them. Not one to rest on his laurels, Dickinson recently announced a “Dynamics and Lightweighting Study” Porsche model built in collaboration with the Williams Martini Racing team and renowned movie car designer Daniel Simon.

Zelectric

Based a little ways down the coast from L.A. in Oceanside, California, Zelectric takes an interesting spin on coachbuilding. I love their philosophy of preparing classic cars for another 50 years of enjoyment. Founded by David Bernardo, Zelectric has designed their own electric motor and battery pack system Their exteriors are almost always completely stock, with some tasteful, period-correct add-ons and extra fitments. Under the hood, though, it’s another story. As their name implies, their cars are completely electric. Though they’re mostly known for their VW Bugs, Busses, Things, Karmann-Ghias and early Porsches, every once in a while, a completely electric Ferrari emerges from their shop. I think electrification will be the next wave of coachbuilding. The team at Zelectric believes in it so much, they’ve helped other shops get up to speed with electric motor and battery technology.

There are, of course, many other outfits doing great coachbuilding work, including Magnus WalkerRingbrothersChristopher Runge and The Roadster Shop, to name a few. While the mass-market production car may yet become an appliance, I love that this select group of ambitious stewards is preserving the spirit of what it means to be a driver for those of us who “get it.” It’s the hope of this obsessive car guy that they also inspire the next generation of carrozzieri. Personally, I can’t wait to see what the next group of coachbuilding outlaw vehicles looks like!