Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Why old is gold

More than 80 years ago, tailoring the silhouette of your own automobile was like making a tuxedo, Mohamed Abdel-Razek reports

Ford Model T assembly line

Just before World War II hit Europe, owning a car had a different protocol than today. The Ford Model T is a good example of one of the first cars to be mass produced. Henry Ford used to say, “you could have any colour you want as long as it is black,” words which reflected the challenge to mass produce a car in relation to the technology in the early 20th century. But this innovative Ford style of building cars in the US wasn’t the case in Europe. Away from Detroit, the Europeans’ roots in building coaches for lords and aristocrats and the middle class was too strong to demolish in a blink of an eye with the emergence of motorcars. So coach builders had to move from building cabins for coaches powered by horses straight to the car industry.

Car manufacturers of the early 20th century produced platforms with engines, steering mechanism, wheels, brakes, suspension, radiator, dashboard, seats, bumpers and lights, while the customer had to choose among several coach builders to build the car’s body. Everything was adopted from coach building. The customer would first order his vehicle from the manufacturer which supplied a catalogue with body designs that would later be built by the desired coach builder. At first, coach builders had to start from where they ended in the technology of building carriages, taking advantage of the experience of working with wood. So building the base frame of the body and even the chassis using wood as the main raw material was common among builders. Morgan in England for example, founded in 1909, worked on building bodies using entirely wood reinforced with metal bars. Today it maintains its tradition of building platforms in wood and bodies in metal, taking the drive train and engine from BMW.

Ford Model T at the Great Pyramids late 1920s

Let’s take an example of how luxury cars were delivered to customers. It was a bit different. Manufacturers of luxury cars used to pre-order chassis and ready body designs of their choices and display them in their showrooms. Afterwards, luxury brands decided to bring in house coach building skills to serve the bespoke building in favour of wealth. Examples of such super cars of their time are the Bugatti 57S Atlantic and the Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, the latter marking the end of independent coach builders. Manufacturers started using the Unibody construction which made the car body structurally integral with the chassis, making custom coach building impossible. Accordingly, many coach builders closed down and those who worked in ultra-luxurious cars had little time before they had to merge with a company or change business. For example, Zagato, Frua, Bertone and Pininfarina turned into design and styling houses which chose specific models from manufacturers and added a touch of exclusivity from the exterior design to the interior and sometimes some engine tweaks. Car design got more curves with aerodynamic styling especially in expensive cars which lifted the standard of design starting in the 1930s.The Alfa Romeo 8C is a good example, with its stunning curves and aerodynamic style which made it look like a spaceship at its time.

Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic

Fast forward, it was obvious that starting from the 21st century the main target for mass production car companies was to build a large numbers of cars in a short time with less expenses. Everything is built mostly by machines and robots and only expensive cars involve human hands. This is the complete opposite of what was common in the past, when all cars were hand built, even the cheap ones like the Ford Model T.

Moving on, when money became the big boss, ruling everything, companies started looking for alternatives to expensive parts like wood veneer, real leather and chrome, replacing them with fake materials to keep production costs low. This goes for many parts in the car.

Rolling chassis

So, what changed from the 1920s and 1930s till now? Low emission demands for a cleaner atmosphere and the number of forest trees that have been cut down demanded companies to use plastics and lightweight materials to save worldwide natural resources. Also the new technologies and increase in labour costs made coach building and expensive natural materials available only on demand for immense sums of money.

Yes, the golden era of car manufacturing is long gone but if you have enough money you can bring it back. You can go to Rolls Royce like a mysterious billionaire did, and start your own modified coach building project that may last up to four years to complete, and end up with an exclusive automobile like the Sweptail which ended up being the world’s most expensive car with a price tag of $13 million. And this option might be your Plan B if you don’t have enough money to buy one of the three existing Bugatti type 57SC Atlantic which may cost you around $40 million. But that’s if you only crave the essence of a coach-built classic car from the golden era. If you just want modern day luxury you can go for the modern day limited editions from Bugatti or Rolls Royce, but they won’t be able to answer you if you ask why old is gold.

Alfa Romeo 8C 2900

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