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Automobile Art

From Delahayes to Duesenbergs, These Classic Cars Are Stunning Tributes to the Coachbuilder's Art
Ken Vose
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

(continued from page 3)

In 1935, Figoni went into partnership with fellow Italian Ovidio Falaschi, who had the capital Figoni needed to expand. Falaschi was also well versed in the automotive business and had his own strong ideas about styling. "We really were veritable couturiers of automotive coachwork," Falaschi recalled, "dressing and undressing a chassis one, two, three times and even more before arriving at the definitive line that we wanted to give to a specific chassis-coachwork ensemble."

One of the first designs to carry the Figoni et Falaschi name, a Delahaye Type 135, featured all enveloping fenders, or "enveloppantes" as Falaschi called them. These fenders, typical of many Figoni et Falaschi creations, were formed from as many as 48 hand-hammered pieces of steel that were butt-welded together, section by section, until they gave the appearance of having been sculpted. This design concept is said to have been inspired by famed automotive artist Geo Ham's modernist paintings in the French publication L'illustration.

During the occupation of France by the Germans in the Second World War, the Figoni et Falaschi works was requisitioned for the manufacture of aircraft parts. At war's end the company resumed coachbuilding, again using the Delahaye T135 chassis most frequently. In 1948 and '49 the firm produced its last great designs for Delahaye and the Talbot Lago Type 26.

A French Racing Blue Delahaye, a 1948 135MS, discovered languishing in a furniture storage warehouse, was purchased by its present owner, Dana Reed of Greentown, Pennsylvania, in 1956. Believed to have been Delahaye's display car at the '48 Paris show, it has been lovingly restored to its original condition. A 100-point car (the ultimate accolade in the rarefied world of classic car collecting), it has been seen at most of the major concours d'elegance in the United States, including the Pebble Beach and Burn Prevention Foundation invitational events. The mileage on this perfect example of the marque is 30,000.

With fewer customers able to afford their work and fewer automobile manufacturers willing to sell bare chassis, Ovidio Falaschi chose to retire in 1950. He recalled his decision in a letter published in Automobile Quarterly. "So all the customers who used to keep the coachbuilding industry alive slowly but surely turned away from custom-built bodies. They turned away in droves in the immediate postwar period, when mass-produced car bodies began to improve in line, comfort, luxury, and class. And thus French coachbuilding died and was buried, and with it all of the world's greatest coachbuilders, including Figoni et Falaschi."

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.


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