The Craft of Coachbuilding

Insert from Lars Anderson Auto Mueseum demonstration by Wray Schelin

Working sheet metal (gold and silver first- later copper, bronze, and steel) was one of the first human crafts developed. All of the skill sets required to make sheet metal  conform to a craftsman’s desired shape, were discovered in the very early years of human civilization.

In the 20th century the basic skill sets of the early goldsmiths, silversmiths, coppersmiths, and armor makers all evolved into the required skill sets that the coachbuilding industry needed in order to compete in the burgeoning market for custom motorcar bodies.

In the early years of automobile production, complex compound curves were present but limited.  Motorcar bodies, at first, were mostly functional – enclosing the components and the passengers was the main goal. As each year passed the coachwork became more ornate. By the late 1920s aerodynamic and bulbous shapes started to appear. At the end of the 1930s coachbuilders around the world were creating the extravagant flowing shapes so desired by collectors today. As the coachbuilders reached their zenith of creativity and art, the ongoing worldwide depression resulted in fewer and fewer customers. 

World War 11 started in 1939 and ended in 1945: during this period coachbuilding firms that still were in business were often enlisted into the war effort. After the war the English, French, and Italian coachbuilding firms found a market once again but it was greatly diminished and with every passing year into the late 1950s, market forces for limited production, labor intensive, coachbuilt motorcars  steadily eroded followed by more and more closures of once proud firms. 

Today the magnificent limited production coachbuilt cars of the early years and especially the cars built in the 1930s, 1950s, and even  a few examples into the 1960s are revered all over the world by collectors.

Car collectors instinctively knew that limited production motorcars were worthy artifacts deserving of collecting and protecting. Collectors started collecting, at first the very early motorcars. In the early 1950s the collecting bug really took off; value of the motorcars did too. Each year more and more collecting activity popped up : shows, auctions, museums, clubs, and special events.

In the US by the 1980s value of the cars had risen so much that it now became possible once again to commission a craftsman to build a new fender , section of a body, or a whole body that had been damaged beyond repair. However, the old skill sets of hand making a fender or whole body had almost disappeared except  for a few scattered shops and individuals around the world.

 Coachbuilding was never a very lucrative business nor did the coachbuilding firms employ a lot of craftsman.  The considerable skill sets needed to make a flat sheet of aluminum or steel become a beautiful  car body were never widely known.

The craft awoke again in the 1980s only because a new market had emerged both in collector car restoration and for one- off special cars and motorcycles . With each passing year worldwide more and more car collectors and restoration shops desire to learn the arcane skill sets of the coachbuilder.

Tonight at the Lars Anderson Museum  you will be treated to a close up look at the art and craft of coachbuilding presented by Wray Schelin  owner of Pro Shaper Sheet Metal located in Charlton, MA.

Wray was inducted into the world of collector car restoration  via his step  grandfather Ted Billing of Shrewsbury MA. Ted had started collecting and restoring his own cars in 1956 with his initial purchase of a 1935 Auburn boat tail speedster. Ted started a professional restoration shop at his Shrewsbury location in 1960. Wray started working part-time after school and weekends  for Ted in 1963 at the age of 12.  At Ted’s shop he learned all he could about restoration.  

In 1986 Wray turned his attention to learning all he could about coachbuilding.  Now at his 20,000 sq ft  shop in Charlton, MA he is teaching the craft to students that attend his coachbuilding classes from all over the world. Tonight he will pull back the curtain removing the mystery of the craft by demonstrating and discussing the Art and Craft of Coachbuilding.