One area of carmaking that has all but disappeared is the coachbuilt, bespoke car. Special bodywork handcrafted onto existing cars, either in short production runs or unique one-of-a-kind specials for the crème or society where just any old fancy car from a top-drawer marque just wasn’t good enough.
With today’s safety systems, endless digital content, and complex structures, you can’t just chop up a car like you could back in the day. There was once a cottage industry where tiny firms, often in barns or under the arches of stone bridges in Britain, would turn rather pedestrian cars into something more special. Artisans at places like Park Ward and Hooper made luxury vehicles like Rolls-Royces into unique creations for when money was no object for the well-heeled buyer. One of the most famous examples might be the ‘bustle back’ Hooper sedans with the body shape later copied by the notorious (but possibly misjudged) 1980 Cadillac Seville.
A revival of the Hooper firm even made custom coupes out of Rolls Royce sedans when the factory had no interest in pursuing the bodystyle.
There were many other coachbuilders like this in nations across the world. On some occasions, the basis for these artisans’ work was rather unexpected.
Making A Faberge Egg Out Of Mr. Potato Head
The art of specialized coachwork continued into the seventies and eighties at tiny builders in Switzerland. Peter Monteverdi had a small firm that made a few from-scratch cars powered by Chrysler Hemis; the machines were quite impressive, primarily the exotic mid-engined Hai and the lovely High Speed grand touring car.
However, Monteverdi knew that he needed an expanded line of cars to truly be successful, and starting from nothing takes a lot of effort. The solution that Monteverdi devised was to modify existing automobiles with new body panels and bespoke interiors. This seemed like a sound idea at first, but the cars this coachbuilder chose as the basis of their creations might have made you scratch your head.
For example, a mid-sized luxury sedan seems like a good volume seller for an high-end concern, right? The Monteverdi Sierra was this little company’s entry into this market; it’s a rather-attractive-for-the-time V8 powered saloon. What did Monteverdi use as a basis for the Sierra? A Mercedes? A BMW 5 series with a small block Chevy? No, he chose something far more proletarian, and kind of awful actually.
Take a close look those window frames on the Sierra. Of all the cars on the planet Monteverdi could have chosen from to start with, they selected a Plymouth Volare, the car Lee Iacocca said ‘simply wasn’t well made’ and the most recalled model in automotive history at the time (until the 1980 GM X-Car came along). Imagine the hours that went into handcrafting this crisp-edged upscale-looking sedan with the leaf spring axle mechanicals and ill-sealing doors of a rehashed Dodge Dart. Surprisingly, Monteverdi sold something like 20 of them. At least it didn’t have a Slant 6 (taillight savants- identify those rear light clusters in the comments!)
Lest you think it was a fluke, Monteverdi went all-in and made one or two convertible Sierra conversions from Volare coupes (though some sources say Dodge Diplomat..same thing):
Monteverdi even jumped into the upscale SUV market way before anyone else did with the Safari, a competitor to the then-rather-new Range Rover. Again, a rather nice looking machine, and one that was actually quite capable off road, if a bit crude. There’s a reason for that; below the skin of the Safari is the legendary but agricultural International Harvester Scout imported from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Truly a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (again, which of you Taillight Torchinskis can spot those admittedly modified taillights?).
By far one of the strangest of Monteverdi’s creations might have been when the company tried to hit that large luxury sedan market with a model called the Tiara. Unfortunately, here they did the opposite of the Sierra and Safari and defaced an inherently pretty and refined car. The starting point of the Tiara was a W126 Mercedes S Class, arguably one of the nicest looking Mercedes of all time. After the boxy and even tail fin equipped three-pointed-star sedans of the sixties and seventies, the W126 was a revelation at its 1980 debut. This big Benz looked as if it had been designed by an Italian guy, because it was; a masterpiece of Bruno Sacco’s reign as design chief during the golden era of Mercedes cost-is-no-object quality and safety.
It would be hard to improve on this design, and Monteverdi did not in any uncertain terms come close to doing that. To make the Tiara, the coachbuilder added angular new nose and tail sections to the Benz which were totally at odds with the elegant original car. With round sealed-beam looking headlights flanking a rather featureless grille, if you painted it pink it would look a bit like Homer Simpson’s car. The thing totally defies all logic, especially the fact that they actually made two of them.
I don’t know who the market for vehicles like these Monteverdis would be, but I can see a possible way that this might make sense in a small way today.
“Good Car, But Not Expensive Enough”
In neighborhoods where the top two percent of earners live, it appears that every other car is a Tesla. Despite the influx of new luxury electric cars, buyers of upper tax brackets seem to still flock to the Model S as a go-to EV sedan.
It has to be difficult for some of these poor people to even find their car in a parking lot when there’s no valet around. Tesla fit and finish has never been considered their strongest suit, and many find the interiors not up to the standards of a six-figure car. Also, Telsa doesn’t offer something like Porsche Exclusive where you can add whale skin leather (or whatever) shift knobs or paint-to-sample colors to more than double the base price of a car and make it unique.
Regardless of Elon Musk tweets and self-driving failures, the now-decade-old Model S is still a fundamentally good car that wouldn’t hurt from a bit of primping to make competitive with quarter-million-dollar rides. Maybe we could trick out a coachbuilt Tesla to give the rich a way to stand out from the unwashed masses? What if Peter Monteverdi’s siblings revived the old company in Switzerland to do just that?
Here’s what we’ll do to make a Monteverdi Caraibes (French for Caribbean). The lack of a two door coupe or convertible in a luxury brand as a halo vehicle is a bit inexcusable, so Monteverdi will slice the roof off of Model S, weld up the rear doors and make longer front ones, adding roll down rear quarter windows of course. The former hatchback parts would be used to make a trunk lid. A double-layered soft top and blingy rims will make you the envy of anyone on Rodeo drive.
Even though it’s totally unnecessary on an EV, the Monteverdi Caraibes would have a rather Aston-looking fake radiator opening that echoes earlier Monteverdi car noses. Odd as it sounds, remember that the early versions of the Model S had a fake grille in the form of a black finished panel, and honestly in many ways it looked better than the current ones (I especially dislike some of the lower level Teslas where they were designed to look as if there’s space for a grille and they forgot to add it).
The headlights on the Monteverdi custom, incidentally, would be something like Ford Explorer or BMW X3 units with the tops cut off by the overlapping handcrafted bonnet, sort of like how Lamborghini did with Nissan Z32 300ZX headlamps. In fact, Lamborghini also had little trim pieces to cover up the NISSAN markings on the lights. This is what you need to do with low production cars where you’ll never, ever be able to afford to tool up for certain parts.
Her’s another fun example of that make-whatever-is-available-work by small automotive industries. In the seventies, a bespoke coach builder called Wood & Pickett wanted a custom grille for its wood-and-leather clad Mini conversions, but of course lacked the means to make one from scratch. Apparently, somebody found the grille off of a mid-sized Vauxhall Victor and cut it down fit. I mean, it’s actually rather convincing!
Back to our Tesla-based coachbuilt convertible. In the rear, there’s modified full-width lights, and the finished product would be covered in many coats of hand rubbed acrylic enamel with multiple layers of clear.
The inside of the Model S is the area where the most work can go to make a Monteverdi Caraibes. Your ‘vegan leather’ can go right into the landfill and be replaced by extremely un-vegan hides on almost all surfaces, set off by plenty of painstakingly finished woodgrains. In back, there’s a center console featuring a refrigerator and a chilled water dispenser. Individual business-class-section fold-out trays are provided for each passenger, and video monitors in the backs of the headrest can connect to your devices. Note that front and rear seating areas will each get a Patek Phillipe timepiece. In all, there’s nothing that a Rolls or Bentley buyer would be missing (other than the need to visit gas stations).
Odd as this idea seems, I think the Caraibes might have a lot of merit for the uber rich that want a high dollar EV and don’t to wait for the offerings of the top-drawer brands. Mechanically, the Model S might still be a better and more resolved car than some of those yet-to-be-released super luxury models anyway; it just needs the exclusive features and hand-built bodywork to step it up.
Maybe Monteverdi could strike again?