Veteran to classic: Coachwork

The three Mulliners

Great coachbuilders are just as much a part of motoring history as the manufacturers of the chassis to which their craftwork was fitted, but less is known about most of them than about the motor companies.

Indeed, there is often confusion between the three Mulliners, all of whom made bodywork for the better-class chassis in the days before integral construction, when ca owners could choose the kind of coach-work they required and have it made spacially for them. The three Mulliners were HJ Mulliner & Co Ltd, Arthur Mulliner, and Mulliners Ltd.

The first named was the best known and the most prolific. In fact there were links between the companies, because in 1900 HJ Mulliner had purchased from his cousins, AG Mulliner of Liverpool and Arthur Mulliner of Northampton, the motor-car body-building firm of Mulliner (London) Ltd. To the premises in Brooke Street, off Bond Street in Mayfair, were added those in Bedford Park, Bath Road, Chiswick, with new showrooms in Grafton street. Just prior to WW1, HJ Mulliner retired, having sold his company to the long-established coach-builders of John Croall of Edinburgh – but the former name was retained, and the company was managed by HJ’s brother-in-law Frank Piesse.

Right from the start HJ Mulliner had attracted much favourable comment especially after it had constructed a fine body on a 40/50 Rolls-Royce chassis for the Hon CS Rolls. The company, managed in those times by a Mr Johnstone and his son, introduced several bodywork innovations and the late David Scott-Moncrieff said that its coachwork had all the elegance and dash of James Young and Gurney Nutting bodies, coupled with quality almost up to Hooper standards. Indeed he wrote that had he been able to afford it his second choice after Hooper would have been for bodywork by HJ Mulliner.

The concern continued to prosper after the 1930’s, when the demand for individual coachwork had diminished drastically. In 1959 Rolls-Royce Ltd took it over, and by 1961 had merged its two body-building companies into the one concern of HJ Mulliner, Park Ward Ltd (after the war and before the merger, HJ Mulliner had made 1127 Bentley bodies).

This company must not be confused with Arthur Mulliner Ltd, a more provincial concern based in Northampton, whose origins dated from very early times. In the 1870s it was firm of of carriers which which later built wagons and coaches. By 1900 it was one of the leading body-builders in England, but ceased activity when war broke out again in 1939, becoming a subsidiary of Henley’s Ltd distributing Rootes Group cars.

The third Mulliner was Mulliners Ltd of Birmingham, a much smaller firm than the other two. Its works were adjacent to the Calthorpe factory, of which it became a subsidiary, making those striking polished-aluminium bodies on the 10hp Calthorpe chassis; the body-plate on my 1924 12/20 Calthorpe reads “Mulliner-Birmingham”.

The comparative outputs of the three Mulliners in the inter-war years can be assessed to some extent by the bodies they made for Bentley chassis, as listed in Stanley Sedgwick’s erudite book All The Pre-War Bentleys. For the WO 3-litre to the 4-litre chassis, H J Mulliner made 243 bodies (compared with 669 by Vanden Plas), Arthur Mulliner only 18, and Mulliners 11. If we extend this to cover the Rolls-Royce Bentleys from the 31/2-litre to the MkV (for which Park Ward made 1066 bodies), the Mulliner’s totals increase to 410, 58 and 13 respectively.

At the 1910 Olympia Show, where the band of His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards played and visitors could dine in the hall for 5/- (25p) in typical Edwardian splendour, HJ Mulliner showed its coachwork on Rolls-Royce, Napier, De Dion and a small Lorraine-Dietrich, chassis prices only being quoted; Mulliner of Long Acre and Northampton chose to exhibit its wares on Napier, Vauxhall, Lancia and a 14/20 Sheffield Simplex — the 30hp Vauxhall with patent fully-collapsible head costing £900, and the bodies on the 30hp Napier and the Lancia being of very light construction.

In 1919, when the motor industry was optimistically trying to recover from the war and meet the expected boom in car sales (although it was a year or two before this materialised), HJ Mulliner exhibited at the London Motor Show two Crossleys (one with a limousine body made for the High Commissioner of Canada, the other a landaulette, also with seven seats), as well as a 36hp Straker-Squire with a four-seater interior cabriolet body upholstered in Bedford cord, openable vee-windscreen and sliding front seats, (the latter now commonplace, but worthy of comment then). It also hedged its bets with some models of its smaller bodies.

Not to be outdone, Arthur Mulliner showed a sporting saloon-coupe on a Buick chassis, with vee screen and dashboard, sliding seats which had spring-loaded adjustable back-rests to give access to the back compartment, yellow finish and a black top. It also had a three-quarter cabriolet (chassis unnamed) with completely folding-away occasional seats and a new type hood with concealed extending mechanism. Mulliners did not take a stand. I am not conversant with the motor trade, so do not know whether car makers offered their chassis free to these coach-builders for show publicity, or whether they had to be purchased — perhaps three was some financial arrangement should a purchaser be found?

By 1924 there was still a healthy demand for specialist bodies. At Olympia, HJ Mulliner had a two-seater three-quarter cabriolet on a long-chassis 3-litre Bentley (in a “ciel” colour, with upholstery in antique brown leather), a dark blue 18/30 Panhard Pullman limousine (with a garish red panel of inlaid walnut, hardwood and ebony), and an 18hp Voisin with special “automatic back scuttle torpedo” body (in Mulliner blue with grey leather upholstery).

Arthur Mulliner chose to show saloon-limousines on Rolls-Royce, 30hp Armstrong Siddeley and Vauxhall chassis. The Rolls was in dark red with an aluminium bonnettop, plated fittings and calf-skin upholstery. The other cars were dark blue and primrose and black respectively.

One might have thought the demand for coachbuilt bodywork would be diminishing by 1930, but all three Mulliners had stands at that year’s Olympia Show. Having been one of the first to introduce the type, HJ showed a semi-panelled Weymann body on a 40/50 Rolls-Royce chassis — this one done in special grey with black relief, and with a Pytchley sun-roof. Arthur Mulliner had a 40/50 Rolls-Royce enclosed limousine, a four-door saloon on a 20/30 Daimler chassis, and a sports-saloon on a 21hp Lanchester. The Midlands’ Mulliner also exhibited much-improved semi-panelled Weymann saloons on 16hp, 12hp and 7hp Austin chassis.

It all smacks very much of a time when all cars were truly individualistic. WB