We like to see ourselves in the cars we drive, as though they represent something about us — our tastes, our sensibilities. But 82 million new cars were sold in 2017. They are not unique. Showrooms from Stockholm to Singapore are stacked with identical machines. Most cars — even exotic ones — are carbon copies mass-produced by a globalized industry with over 100 years of practice. Seeing six of the same cars in the supermarket parking lot tends to ruin the illusion of unique taste and sensibility.
In the early days of the automobile, things were different. Cars were only available to the ultra-rich. You bought a bare chassis and then commissioned your favourite coachbuilder to design a one-off body. The aluminum panels were shaped by hand, not stamped. No two were alike.
Coachbuilt cars are often lazily compared to bespoke suits, but this is wrong. Cars are infinitely more complex, costly, and time-consuming to make — and besides, the stakes are higher: a badly made suit won’t kill you.
Now, after a century of perfecting the art of mass production, the old way of building cars is making an unlikely comeback. What’s better than a new Ferrari? Commissioning your own one-off Ferrari. You sit down with the design team as they sketch. You have a conversation with the engineers about how you’d like the chassis tuned and where you’ll be driving. Some coachbuilders will do limited runs of a car, made-to-order. Automakers are getting in on the action, too, re-creating cars from their past and — in some cases — creating in-house coachbuilding departments.
Hand-formed aluminum is sometimes replaced by hand-laid carbon fibre or 3-D-printed titanium pieces, but otherwise the custom-built machines of this new wave are much like their ancestors. They’re the result of an individual’s singular vision. You might think they’re grotesque or magnificent, but they are undeniably unique. After all, you won’t catch another one in the grocery store parking lot any time soon.
ASTON MARTIN GOLDFINGER DB5
Number produced: 25
Price: $2.7 million GBP
Notable: Aston is working with the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor who created 007’s movie cars to make 25 continuation DB5s with functional Q gadgets. Will they include the machine-gun headlights and ejector seats? TBD.
Jaguar E-Type Zero
Number produced: Unknown
Notable: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle drove one after their wedding, and now you can, too. Jaguar’s Classic Works Division will convert a limited number of old E-Types to all-electric, making them faster, lighter, and much quieter than the original.
Number produced: Limited to 10
Notable: Touring is among the oldest and greatest Italian coachbuilders. Based on the Maserati GranTurismo, its latest creation is meant to evoke the luxury travel of the Orient Express.
Number produced: 1
Notable: Unveiled earlier this year at the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este on the shores of Lake Como, the SP38 (based on the 488 GTB) is the latest in a long line of jaw-dropping one-offs from Modena.
Number produced: 40
Price: $5 million EUR
Notable: While not strictly a coachbuilt car, it is Bugatti’s most stunning creation to date. It’s lighter than a Chiron, with a track-focused chassis that can pull 1.6 g of lateral acceleration in corners. The bad news: it’s already sold out. Sorry.
ARES DESIGN COUPE FOR THE BENTLEY MULSANNE
Number produced: One, so far
Price: $395,000 EUR, plus a Bentley Mulsanne
Notable: We love the Mulsanne, but sadly Bentley doesn’t make a two-door version. That didn’t stop one owner from turning to new Italian coachbuilder Ares Design to make one. It’s perfect.
Number produced: One
Notable: The result of one man’s singular vision. The rear looks like a Riva speedboat, complete with Ebony and Palado wood decking in place of the rear seats. Custom attaché cases pop out of secret compartments behind the doors.
NISSAN GT-R50 BY ITALDESIGN
Number produced: Limited to 50
Price: $900,000 EUR
Notable: Italdesign, founded in 1968 by Giorgetto Giugiaro, is responsible for many of the most boundary-pushing concept cars. When Nissan wanted a GT-R “without limits,” Italdesign made it real.
PORSCHE PROJECT GOLD
Number produced: One
Price: To be sold at auction
Notable: The team at Porsche Classic wanted to do something grand. So, they took an old 993 body shell and assembled it using period-correct parts, including a fresh 450 hp twin-turbo 3.6-litre motor. A classic 911 that’s better than new.
Number produced: Limited to 25
Price: $500,000 EUR, plus a Ferrari F430 Scuderia
Notable: The pet project of a wealthy enthusiast, this is the modern Lancia Stratos of our dreams. It’s been in the works since 2010, and now, finally, this Turin-based coachbuilder is putting it into limited production.