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The hidden cost of coachbuilding
In 1954, a Joseph J. Maschuch of Maplewood, New Jersey, commissioned respected coachbuilder Vignale to build a custom Rolls-Royce, based on a Silver Wraith. Befitting a Rolls, it would be bold yet understated. It would be futuristic, befitting the avant-garde of Italian design. It would be big and wide and long in every dimension, that uniquely brash American vision of luxury: four piercing headlights, an achingly long hood, nascent tailfins appropriate for the era, and a rear-canted window.
Vignale made sure it would retain the traditional Rolls-Royce grille, with its sacred talisman hood ornament, the Spirit of Ecstasy. It would feature every luxury amenity, acres of hand-veneered wood, a minibar under the center partition, electrically operated seats, and an in-car telephone. Becker Mexico radio. Television. Toilet with a gold-painted seat. The works.
Carrozzeria Alfredo Vignale, which always played to its own standards, only built one bespoke Rolls-Royce, ever. This was it. Just to reiterate: it looks like this on purpose.
A Vignale-bodied Ferrari from the same era will sell for two million, all day long. The gawkier-by-comparison Europas go for even more. In 1965, Vignale built a brown Ferrari shooting brake that, like the Rolls-Royce, is equal parts bizarre and futuristic. Owned by Jamiroquai lead singer Jay Kay, it was estimated to sell at Gooding & Company’s Pebble Beach auction for somewhere between $700,000–$900,000 (and didn’t end up selling at all.)
Similarly, Rolls-Royce Wraiths from the era are valued at between $100,000 and $150,000, according to the Hagerty Valuation tool.
The Maschuch Rolls-Royce went up for auction at Bonhams’ famed Quail Lodge auction in 2014. With no reserve but an estimate of $550,000, it was anyone’s game. As for the toilet? “It is understood this was only used as a champagne cooler—at least one hopes it was not used interchangeably,” the catalogue proclaimed. At hammer’s fall, the Rolls-Royce that wore one of the greatest coachbuilding names on its flanks sold for $198,000.
Such are the perils of a custom car—a truly custom car—long after its owner has passed on. Perhaps our man Maschuch did not consider the lasting legacy of an onboard toilet, champagne-cooling capability or not. Despite the provenance and the appeal of the Vignale name, despite the stars aligning, “It just didn’t feel right,” according to Brian Rabold, Vice President of Hagerty Valuation Services.
Rabold keeps a pulse on the world of bespoke cars. It was he who first informed me to the existence of Vignale’s only Rolls. “When you see it in person, it just doesn’t look right; it’s not as elegant as what a standard car would’ve been,” he says. “The car didn’t resonate with buyers, and the price reflected that.”
Another off-the-wall coachbuilt example Rabold mentioned: the Navarro Special, customized for one Norbert Navarro, an Italian nightclub owner. Coachbuilder Drogo took a 1966 Ferrari 330 2+2 and gave it two feet of faux-shooting-brake ecstasy, a metallic gold paint job, an anteater’s drooping visage, and badges (in gold) that say “Golden Car.” The entire greasy id of ’70s culture in one car, it is possibly the most polarizing coachbuilt Ferrari in existence. At Gooding’s 2014 Pebble Beach auction, the Navarro Special was estimated at somewhere between $400,000 and $600,000.
Compare that with a Ferrari 330 GT 2+2 by Pininfarina, valued by Hagerty at $335,000. “As far as Ferrari’s history goes,” Rabold says, “(the Navarro) is not as significant. It stands out, but maybe not for the right reasons. That’s not to say that people wouldn’t want to buy it. I love it, just because it’s totally oddball, but that’s just me.”
That’s the thing about coachbuilding. Rare is the owner who finds a direct match for his tastes in the guise of another buyer—is it the appeal of a unique Ferrari or a special aligning of tastes?
And yet, the grand coachbuilt cars of old still hold a special allure. Imagine something tailored so precisely, far beyond color swatches or a choice of mahogany or zebrawood. A bespoke car engineered from the wheels up. Let your imagination go where it may. You’ve got money to burn, and taste is subjective, right?
Ferrari will still do that for you, by the way. Those coachbuilders still exist. Witness Eric Clapton’s custom Ferrari SP-12, a complete reimagining of a 458 Italia that cost $4.7 million to build. James Glickenhaus’s P4/5—once an Enzo but now so much more than that— lit the world’s media on fire. Modern front-engined Ferraris enjoyed a bespoke resurgence with the 599-based Ferrari P540 Superfast Aperta, another golden car, and the much more subtle 612 Kappa, which features just enough differences from its Pininfarina styling to make it stand out.
New coachbuilders like Fisker and Kahn Design are fiddling with Aston Martins as we speak. There is probably just as much interest in coachbuilding the supercar of your dreams as there was in its 20th century heyday.
“Zagato is busy right now,” Rabold says. “Depending on how successful the design is, they’re very desirable. They’re coming from a well-respected coachbuilder, and they’re rare. Rare doesn’t always equal desirability, but when you have a lot of things working in your favor, they stand out.”
Sometimes a color scheme might just be enough. Any luxury company north of (and including) BMW will gladly color-match a new model for you, with a fit and finish far above Maaco. For companies like Porsche, whose owners have always placed valuable emphasis on colors, the ability to dive into something that’s “off the menu” has always held appeal. Think of all the color-matched interiors from 1980s 911s. That might enhance the value down the line, but not as much as you may think.
“Colors are incredibly important for 911 owners,” Rabold says. “How rare and unusual is this particular color? Colors that might not have been popular in period are priced high for that reason, as you don’t see them around. But it’s not like a nice color or a rare color might add 30 percent to the car; it’s not going to double the value.”
And that brings us back to Rolls-Royce. At this year’s Quail Gathering, the company debuted alongside the new Phantom a very special Dawn convertible in a very special shade of don’t-call-it-purple. Noted collector Michael Fux, who made his fortune selling mattresses, had already commissioned 10 Rolls-Royces. This time, he wanted a Dawn in a very specific shade: that of the petals of a fuchsia flower that he found on his last visit to Monterey. Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös considers Fux “a very special patron,” and obliged. According to Rolls-Royce, there are already over 44,000 shades in its color palette. Color can be a standout for any marque, especially one as reserved as Rolls-Royce.
In the end, looking far ahead into the auctions of tomorrow, the question is simple: how timeless of a design can a coachbuilt car hope to be? The answer isn’t crystal clear. Maybe future bidders will recognize the singular artistic vision of an individual passion. Or maybe people will scratch their heads, wondering why the hell anyone would build a Rolls with a toilet.