At one time in the evolution of the automobile, most cars were hand built. After Henry Ford invented the production line, hand built cars became a status symbol and were for the most part, the very best cars, the most expensive, the fastest, the most exclusive. As a result of mass production, the costs of an automobile went down and cars became “affordable” for the masses. But the lure of a hand-built or custom-built or small run (another term for a limited production run of an automobile) car has always remained, primarily because of exclusivity and sophistication of the vehicle.
In the earlier years of the automobile, obtaining a car built to your specifications was relatively easy, if you had the money (and the clout: it’s said that Ettore Bugatti, who insisted that clients who wanted a special model have dinner with him at his factory in Molsheim, once turned down a sitting European King because “the man’s table manners were horrible”). The process was very simple: a client contracted with a manufacturer–Bugatti for example (this is the Bugatti of the 1930s, not the Bugatti of 2013)–for a chassis and engine, also known as the “running gear”.
The client then contracted and worked with a designer and coachwork studio for the design and build of the body and automobile interior. The basic elements of the car, chassis/engine and the bodywork, were fabricated and then joined together to create a complete, truly custom-made automobile. Every element of these one-off or short run cars was designed, produced, and installed–the doorhandles, window washers, lights, running boards, interior upholstery. It was time consuming and enormously expensive but the end-result was, in the best of cases, a work of art.
With this type of system, it was possible for Bugatti to make Six Type 57s and have none of them look alike—they all shared similar running gear and iconic styling keys, but the body and interior would be different for each car.
It was a nice way to create something very exclusive and some manufacturers–notably Ferrari and Rolls-Royce–embraced and continued the practice, some more aggressively than others (Ferrari) to current times.
As late as the early 21st century, there were still some firms operating in Europe that produced cars in this manner, producing “short runs” of a particular model or design for big manufacturers. One of the most famous custom manufacturers was Pininfarina, the legendary Italian design firm best known for their designs for Ferrari. Although Pininfarina was known primarily for their coachwork design skills, the company operated several short-run manufacturing facilities that could build a couple of thousand cars a year for a client. One of their clients was Cadillac, for whom Pininfarina designed and built the Cadillac Allante body. The process was the same as it had been for generations: Pininfarina would produce the body at their factory and then the bodies were shipped to the US (in specially modified Boeing 747s) to Michigan, to a General Motors facility that combined the bodies with a GM manufactured chassis. Approximately 23,000 Allante’s were built during the car’s production run (1986-1993), an average of about 3000 cars/year. Over the years, Pininfarina also did short run manufacturing for Alfa Romeo, Rolls Royce, Lancia, and Fiat. When the company went through re-organization at the end of 2015, it had already started the process of closing it’s short run manufacturing factories.
Today, the automobile industry seems to be exploding with new brands and models. Tesla is the most recognizable and successful of the new automobile manufacturers, but other new brands and models are either rumored (Apple) or on the way (Uber). Building a car is not an overly complex undertaking, but neither is it an easy one. The new electric cars, which use electric motors and not the gasoline powered internal combustion engine, are much simpler to design and build than gas or diesel cars. As electric car components become readily available, the economics of building short run custom electric vehicles will increase.
However, the more manufacturing experience, knowledge, and contacts a new car company has, the faster it can commence operations and the less mistakes it will make on the way to the showroom floor. Tesla’s business model is Silicon Valley, not Detroit, and that’s one of the reasons for it’s success; it has no legacy technology and is free to upgrade the cars it makes whenever it thinks an upgrade will improve the car and the ownership experience. Tesla is so certain it’s doing things the right way that it’s open-sourced its’ cars. No other manufacturer has done that.
If you are going to build a new model of car–traditional, electric, or highly innovative– and you want to get it done in a hurry with a minimum of stress and startup errors, you might want to fly up to Ontario Canada and talk with Magna International (if Canada is out of the way, they have offices all over the world), a company that specializes in small run automobile manufacturing as well as producing many of the components that make up the modern automobile. Magna is not a new company–it’s been around for approximately 60 years–but it could be your new best friend if you need a production run of 100 or 1000 new models. Magna International’s Austrian subsidiary, Magna Steyr currently handles small run production for BMW (among others) and has been rumored to be the production choice for the rumored Apple Car. It has also been rumored (and not independently confirmed) that Magna Steyr handled a small production run of certain Lamborghini models after Volkswagen bought the brand (and that those models were considered highly desirable because of the build quality and fit-and-finish) while VW was upgrading the Lamborghini factory in Italy to VW/Audi production processes and standards.
Bloomberg.com profiled Magna and how they have managed to combine the best of old world manufacturing with new century technology in a short, incisive piece. Certainly worth a read if you have even a modest interest in automobiles; definitely worth a read if you’re planning on starting a new car company.
The Fine Print: Image courtesy of our friends at Getty Images, always the perfect source for any image you need for your blog or website. Thanks, guys, for sharing.