Automobile Art

From Delahayes to Duesenbergs, These Classic Cars Are Stunning Tributes to the Coachbuilder's Art

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Figoni, in partnership with his son, kept the business alive, working on Simca, Bentley and Citroen chassis, but the magic was gone, and in 1955 they ceased production.
Jacques Saoutchik was another equally flamboyant coachbuilder; his firm closed the year before. This Russian expatriate, who began as a cabinetmaker, founded his coachbuilding firm in 1906. By the 1920s, he was established in the top ranks of the profession, commanding as much as $40,000 for his convertible sedans and town cars. Over the years he made cars for the kings of Cambodia, Siam, Egypt and Norway, the emperor of Ethopia and the Shah of Iran.
Saoutchik survived the Depression but, like his Paris contemporaries Figoni et Falaschi, he suffered a decline during the postwar period. It was a decline in the number of commissions, not in inspiration, as Noel Thompson's 1948 Cadillac three-position, drophead coupe clearly shows.
Restored to the original purple and lilac color scheme ordered by New York furrier Louis Ritter, the car is as distinctive today as it was when new. In the words of another great designer-coachbuilder, Howard "Dutch" Darrin, Jacques Saoutchik was "definitely a man with his own ideas."
In nearly 30 years, Joseph Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi, together and separately, produced about 1,150 coachbuilt bodies. That's less than a day's output for a modern giant like General Motors, which turns out millions of cars a year. Proof, if needed, that the impact of Figoni et Falaschi, Saoutchik and other top coachbuilders on automotive design bears no relation to the number of bodies they made.
What had begun as an orderly retreat soon turned into a rout. Fifty-seven coachbuilders had displayed their wares at the 1929 London show. By 1959, that number had dropped to 13. The world's remaining coachbuilding firms could read the handwriting on the wall; it was handwriting that must have seemed more like rude graffiti.
"With steadily rising costs pushing the price of a special body ever higher," lamented Motor Magazine two years later, "with onerous taxation leaving the rich with ever less free income to spend, the traditional British coachbuilder has been crushed between the upper and nether millstone until at the 1961 show only James Young survives as an independent coachbuilder."
By 1967, James Young and Co. had disappeared as well.
Fortunately for those who love these wonderful automotive creations, many of the finest examples have survived into the 1990s; survived and prospered, judging by current restoration costs and auction prices. Some Figoni et Falaschi examples bring upwards of $650,000, while other marques, such as Duesenberg, fetch as much as $2 million.
Each spring, the Burn Prevention Foundation presents a concours d'elegance in Reading, Pennsylvania. The event, one of many of its type held each year, is typical of the worldwide interest in these beautiful machines. In honor of the 1951 MOMA exhibit, the 1994 show was called "Rolling Sculptures." It displayed many fine examples of coachbuilding from firms that are legendary to aficionados of the art form, including Rollston, Chapron, LeBaron, Darrin, Murphy, Deitrich, Brunn, Letourneur et Marchand, Van Vooren, Barker, Fleetwood, Gurney Nutting, Kirchhoff and Lavocat et Marsaud.
If there is any single characteristic common to these and other great coachbuilding firms, it's that their best work was the vision of one, or at most two, men. One of the best explanations for this comes from Frank Hershey, the man who designed the original 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
"You never heard of any of the great artists working in a committee," Hershey noted. "They were all single guys. All the great architects were single guys. And all of the great automobile designers were single persons. Sometimes people forget it. You know that old story that a camel was designed by a committee. You design a car with a committee, and you get what you get. You get a camel. I am not kidding you."
One example of a car that is definitely not a camel is the 1934 Packard 1108 Sport Phaeton by the Connecticut coachbuilding firm of LeBaron. This 12-cylinder Packard, one of the most beautiful ever produced by an American coachbuilder, is one of approximately 1,800 designs developed by LeBaron during its 20-plus years of operation. The Sport Phaeton design has been attributed to Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, onetime designer of Van den Plas of Brussels, Belgium, and Edward Macauley, then Packard's design chief. The example pictured on page 236, owned by Ray Bowersox, was de Sakhnoffsky's personal car and is one of only four in existence. LeBaron, founded in 1920, was best known for its work with automakers Packard, Chrysler, Lincoln and Stutz.
Although it ceased operation in 1941, LeBaron was purchased by Chrysler in 1948, thus keeping the LeBaron name alive. While a modern production-line car is not necessarily the reason that a legend survives, the original car is just that--a legend that lives.
Ken Vose is a novelist, screenwriter and television writer whose work often features automotive themes.
For those wanting to know more about these classic cars, Automobile Quarterly, Vintage Auto Almanac and Special Interest Autos are musts.
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