Custom-built Cars

Pradeep Gooptu

Once upon a time elegant bodywork made cars a thing of beauty. You can catch a glimpse of this vanished art form at some of the greatest art museums which have a section dedicated to beautiful cars as collectible examples of modern art. Some of the greatest design firms were born out of companies that designed customised bodywork for individual car owners.

Question of Choice
Till the 1950s most cars were delivered as bare chassis and fitted with the bodywork chosen by the owner. Buyers looking for cars to accommodate their family ordered large bodies. Cars meant for personal use were mostly two-seaters. Leaders often chose formal limousines driven by their chauffeurs. Retired ones chose a two part body with the front portion meant to accommodate the owner and driver while the rear section was for their staff.

Offering such choices not only made customers happy but also allowed professionals to create the beautiful custom built bodies, rendering the older vehicles an absolute treasure to behold even today. Sadly, such choices are no longer offered to us. We have to buy  what is universally offered by the companies and we are forever stuck with it, whether good or ugly.

Another great advantage was that buyers could change bodywork by taking off a two-seater body and converting the chassis into five-seaters if the need arose. This ensured a vibrant market for good looking second-hand cars with new bodywork, commensurate in prevailing style and design.

Some Options
The photograph showing several cars parked in front of the La Martiniere buildings in the 1930s includes the car with a tourer body which was popular as the cheapest option. If it was very hot or raining, the canvas top could be put up for protection of the passenger from the elements; the car in the background has its canvas roof up. Tourers allowed owners to enjoy the pleasures of open-air motoring. Calcutta firms like Ellenberry produced tourer bodies by the thousands.

Another photograph shows an extravagantly decorated formal sedan used by a princely family. This formed the top end of the market. Meant for the cream of the society this type of bodywork allowed fittings of extra spotlights, lamps and horns for making a statement on the importance of the owner in social hierarchy. Generally mounted on larger chassis, these were ordered from companies like French Motors and Walfords famous for their rich and mighty clients.

Some buyers ordered silver flower vases for the interiors while conservatives ordered roll down purdah- screens for ladies priced at Rs 11 to Rs 65 according to size and quality!

Exotic Dreamboats
Fashion-conscious buyers ordered beautiful cars like the two-passenger coupe shown in the photograph. It was remodelled on an 18ft-long- Cadillac chassis from Walfords or a Rolls Royce from Dykes and this beauty on the road was a sight to behold. The rear curved section would have small seat covered by a lift up hatch called the dog seat, meant for pet or staff. A boot lid would contain the spare wheel and luggage space. The matching luggage could be supplied by the body builder. The buyer opted for the wheel to be mounted outside in continental style. This freed up space for golfing gear or the hunted animals from shikar but this type had the usual hatch type seat for the staff of gun bearer or golf bearer as the case may be.

Cars were once all about choice – for size and bodywork. That is no longer the case in India. The foreign brands usually offer multiple bodywork options overseas but not here. Hopefully, things would change, and for the better.

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