- Luxury automakers are reviving the “coachbuilding” model, which dates to the 19th century.
- It’s a way to make more money off exclusive vehicles and defray R&D costs.
- And it’s a valuable branding exercise as the allure of the gas engine fades.
Like nearly every other automaker, Bentley is preparing for a future that demands investing heavily in electric propulsion and advanced driver-assistance features. But as the luxury brand moves forward, it’s reviving a long-dormant piece of its past.
The century-old British marque has endowed its Mulliner division — usually charged with things like hand-stitching an invented family crest into the seats of an arriviste’s Mulsanne limousine — with the capacity to create fully custom coachbuilt automobiles. The result was a dozen $1.9 million Bacalar roadsters and a dozen $2.1 million recreations of Bentley’s famed 1920s “Blower” race cars. They sold out almost immediately.
Coachbuilding dates to the earliest days of the automobile, when manufacturers would deliver the chassis — frame, engine, transmission, and wheels — and a specialty house would build the body to sit atop it. Some offered off-the-shelf styles with different color and materials options.
Others were more akin to couture, built for a more individual taste. Those include Mulliner, which was founded in the 16th century and once made carriages for European royalty.
Back to (old) school
This is the practice Bentley is reviving with those two dozen special models — and it’s a practice that’s gaining in popularity.
Rolls-Royce recently introduced a Coachbuild subsidiary, creating a trio of highly customized $28 million Boat Tail coupés. Aston Martin’s Bondian-monikered Q division recently unveiled a one-off called the Victor.
Ferrari’s special-projects group produces pricey one-offs like the retro-inspired Omologata, which looks like a more menacing version of the brand’s 1960s 275 GTB. Lamborghini’s Ad Personam division has made a practice out of outrageous one- or few-offs since 2007, including last year’s roofless, windshieldless, $8 million SC20. Bugatti wowed auto-show crowds in 2019 with its Voiture Noire, a sinister $18 million homage to a 1930s Type 57SC Atlantic Coupe.
Personalization has always been a lucrative hallmark of these companies. “Regular” Rolls-Royce customers add an average of $100,000 to their Phantom sedans. Bugatti’s well-heeled clients spend an average of $350,000 customizing their seven-figure cars.
“The margins on that are huge,” Michael Dean, an automotive equity research analyst from Bloomberg Intelligence, told Insider. “You’re talking about 75 or 80%. So they’re going to push personalization as much as they can.”
Thus comes the revival of the coachbuilding approach, which produces even rarer and more personalized automobiles, for even greater profit.
These special models also function as a reward for favored buyers. While receiving the opportunity to spend seven or eight figures on a single vehicle might not seem like a privilege, in this exclusive echelon, this kind of access is everything.
“With only a handful of Coachbuild cars envisaged every few years, opportunities for clients to take part in the program are rare,” Alex Innes, the head of Rolls-Royce Coachbuild, said. “Entry to the program is by invitation only, with preference given to our most significant clients.”
Such an invitation is a public symbol that one has full entrée to a brand, including its designers, engineers, and executives — the ultimate behind-the-velvet-rope perk. Even better for the already rich, these cars appreciate in value. A Lamborghini Veneno, one of three, sold in 2013 for $3 million. In 2018, it was auctioned for over $8 million.
Client-subsidized test beds
Automakers have other good reasons to push these programs. The construction of unique or conceptlike vehicles is a means of getting consumers to subsidize research and development costs.
“Every few-off model has introduced new elements that were later incorporated in Lamborghini’s current lineup of vehicles,” Federico Foschini, the brand’s chief marketing and sales officer, said. These include technologies like a digital cockpit, a four-wheel-steering system, and a hybrid gas-electric propulsion system.
These outlandish cars can also serve as a means to try out novel practices and constituent elements.
“Developing these cars allows us to retain and develop our craftsmanship, and to experiment with new materials,” Bentley’s Williams said. Witness the metallic paint derived from rice husk ash, the tweed seat and dash trim, and the 5,000-year-old bog-preserved wood veneers in the Bacalar, features likely to trickle into “ordinary” six-figure Bentleys.
Coachbuilding is also a means of differentiating these marques from the competition. Electrification has obviated, or it soon will, the preeminence of the internal-combustion engine. (The $100,000 Tesla Model S beats the $3 million Bugatti Chiron in a race from 0 to 60 mph.)
Cars like these illuminate what remains special and elusive about these ultraluxury manufacturers.
“Obviously, branding is very important for these marques,” Dean said. “Superlative headlines — most expensive, most luxurious — create news flow, so it’s all part of the cycle.”