By the end of the 19th century it was becoming clear the automobile would soon wean people off the horse as a means for transportation. Numerous start up ventures harnessing steam powered contraptions rolling on bicycle wheels soon evolved into a host of self-propelled carriages. It was a turn-of -the-century revolution, at first in the big cities where the affluent wished to own the prestigious luxury and convenience of independent travel.
Coach Builders (horse drawn) had been a staple industry for centuries and had advanced the craft substantially following the Civil War. Soon the dozens of makers would be confronted with the need to adapt in order to survive the trends driven by economic and industrial progress in Europe.
Often the coach (body) of the new fangled horseless vehicle of the early 20th century was ordered, built, and sold separately from the motorized chassis which contained the power plant and running gear, set upon a steel frame with wheels, steering and brakes. Power options were steam, gasoline or battery power in these infant years of the car.
The buyer would decide on the ideal chassis based on reliability and power. Then a desired coach body would be ordered and fitted to the chassis, according to the specifications and desires of the buyer, typically a wealthy business man prepared to spend thousands of dollars. These were handmade machines and coaches, before the development of the assembly line that allowed manufacturers to produce large numbers of units at a much lower cost, and begin selling to the general public.
Coach makers like Studebaker, Springfield Metal, Durham, C.R. Wilson and many others served this vital function of providing the earliest automobiles a comfortable and safe enclosure for passengers. The brougham became the signature body style among the rich. Its spacious design provided for a chauffeur to drive in a separate forward compartment, sometimes outside in the elements. But that would evolve with the times.
Early periodicals such as The Horseless Age advertised all of the comfort-seeking accoutrements and amenities one could procure while outfitting the right coach. These included a variety of lighting options, canvas partitions for protecting occupants from the mud and dirt kicked up by the wheels, storm covers, seating options, and so on.
Eventually, the coach makers merged with the automobile manufacturers and became part of the company. Fisher Body is but one example that contracted to build bodies for a number of makes including Cadillac and Buick and Ford. Later it joined up as a division of General Motors in 1916.
Next time you visit a car show and gaze upon the earliest automobiles of grandiose coach work, you can bet the body was handcrafted for someone who could pay a pretty penny for it.