Are bespoke luxury cars a thing of the past?

April 8th, 2021

The recent demise of Bristol Cars removed yet another prominent name from a sector of the vehicle market that has been dying for decades.

Here we are not looking at the replica industry, which each year adds thousands of ‘tribute’ Cobras, GT40s, Jaguars, Lamborghinis and others to global vehicle numbers.  The products of brands once referred to collectively as ‘bespoke’ are vastly more expensive and exclusive.

This enclave of the global industry has existed from the earliest days of automotive history. Britain, Europe and the USA were all home to specialist manufacturers that built cars by hand to the personal specification of immensely wealthy buyers. No unique attribute was impossible to achieve. It just cost a lot of money.

During the depths of the greatest economic disaster in world history – the Great Depression of the 1930’s – US brands like Duesenberg and Pierce Arrow flourished. So did Bugatti, Delage, Mercedes and Rolls-Royce but it would be the second tier of speciality brands that would generate the greatest interest among enthusiast owners and people who wanted a sporty car that reflected their individuality.

By 1950 many of the great automotive brands of previous decades were gone but new ones rushed to fill the void. The Maserati Brothers and Enzo Ferrari needed to fund their forays into motor sport, so a new class of sports and touring cars emerged.

Also in Italy, refrigerator maker Iso and tractor baron Ferruccio Lamborghini would add to the mix with their own exclusive and expensive models.

Britain saw specialist products from Aston-Martin, Bristol, Allard and Jensen. Most would at some point adopt US-made V8 engines as a source of low-cost performance, as did French manufacturer Facel and Swiss-based Monteverdi.

A few rungs below these exalted brands were the low-volume sports and kit-car suppliers and it was via these that Australia began to make a contribution.

Fibreglass pioneer Bill Buckle made Goggomobil Darts to earn a living and classy GT coupes to race and promote his business. So too the Bolwell brothers, who replaced their successful Mark 7 with a V8-powered Nagari and were poised to enter the world market before Government regulators intervened.

In 1960’s Britain and the USA, celebrity owners were still keen to own specialised cars and businesses existed to satisfy that need. Brands like Stutz, Excalibur, Zimmer and Clenet built ‘neoclassics’ which took body styles inspired by earlier designs and grafted them onto a modern chassis.

In Britain, the coachbuilding trade which once had produced elaborate limousines moved more towards customising, where size did not matter at all and cost was immaterial. Among the most famous was coachbuilder Harold Radford who produced station wagon – aka ‘shooting brake’ – conversions for various Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Aston-Martin models.

Radfords also produced custom-made Minis for film idols and pop stars including one built for Beatles member Ringo Starr with a hatchback and the rear seat removed so his drum kit could be carried.

Although cars like these sold to immensely rich people who drove them minimal distances, the 1970s oil shortages and subsequent price rises crippled demand for low volume, high performance vehicles. This and a proliferation of design rules applying to different world markets saw brands like Jensen, Iso, Monteverdi disappear and others in financial trouble.

One that weathered this and other economic storms and does to this day is Morgan. The British-based brand that achieved fame by building wooden-framed sports cars remains viable and every car it makes is pre-sold.

Another which showed great promise and only recently disappeared was Australia’s Own HSV. Holden Special Vehicles was born in turbulent circumstances and survived by building low volume versions of Holden’s that were popular at the time.

Some of its final designs were made in tiny numbers and have been achieving extraordinary values when offered at recent public auction sales.

No matter how exclusive or scarce your car you may be, Enthusiast Insurance will almost certainly know what it is and be able to offer cost-effective insurance.

Unusual models very rarely travel very far or go out very often and since Enthusiast operates under the principle of ‘Drive Less, Spend Less’ we can offer great insurance deals on all kinds of vehicles.

To find out more and obtain a Quick Quote, visit any time of day or night that is convenient to you. If you need to arrange immediate cover, Enthusiast offers convenient monthly payments at no extra charge.