The era of custom automobile coachbuilding is one that grew from a logical foundation: that of the horse drawn carriage.
Before there were automobiles, there were carriages, wagons, and other horse drawn conveyances the world over. The earliest attempts at self-propelled vehicles, be they gas, steam, electric, clockwork or some other manner of propulsion, were born of their horse drawn predecessors.
The shift from horse to automobile was somewhat prolonged and saw a transition over multiple decades. Early cars were outfitted with bodies built by coach and carriage builders out of necessity: There were no auto body builders yet. In 1886, Gottlieb Daimler placed his gas engine and drive gear in a carriage he had ordered for the purpose of making an automobile. Luxury vehicles were often purchased as chassis only with the owner free to purchase a custom built body from his or her preferred coachbuilder.
Early automobile bodies were built of the same materials and in the same style as carriages, with wooden frames and panels composing the majority of the construction. In the United States, Studebaker was a leading carriage builder in the 19th century. The company entered into the auto industry, first by building custom bodies for cars and by 1911 transitioning to building cars alone.
Prior to the implementation of mass production, interchangeability of parts, and moving assembly lines, coachbuilders were free to practice their art at their own pace. As mass production became common practice, coachbuilders dwindled. Many sold their products directly to auto manufacturers, while others turned to bus, hearse and ambulance production. Some coachbuilding firms were even purchased outright by car manufacturers, as with GM’s purchase of Fisher and Rolls-Royce buying Brewster.
The Great Depression further damaged business for the coachbuilder as there were few customers willing or able to purchase such luxurious items. Not only was money in short supply, the ostentation of such vehicles had fallen out of vogue for those who could afford them. By the beginning of the 1930s, custom coachbuilding was becoming marginalized, and at the end of the decade, it consisted chiefly of modifying factory built bodies as manufacturers strove to use standardized components in order to achieve economy and efficiency. As coachbuilding firms shuttered their doors one by one, the workforce moved to other trades in order to survive and the industry drew to a close