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Car of the Month

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Rossfeldt: Rolls-Royce and Bentley / From the Dawn of the 20th Century into the new Millennium




Car of the Month - May 2022
Rolls-Royce Wraith, 1939, #WEC26
Saloon by H.J. Mulliner


Rolls-Royce Wraith

Coachwork on this car appears particularly attractive not least because it is an exponent of what is commonly referred to as “Razor Edge Design”. That term had been coined to describe the fairly sharp edges which accentuate certain contours to such an extent these become dominant lines. An aspect rarely mentioned in the literature is this was considerably more than a fashion feature.

The background: Starting during the 2nd half of the 1920s and continuing into the 1930s (and afterwards) with enormous success 'Pressed Steel Bodies' had been produced. These were considerably less expensive than bespoke coachwork. On high output the traditional coachbuilders' working procedures would have caused a severe bottleneck. Various factories were erected in European countries, e.g. by Ambi Budd who provided bodyshells for a considerable number of motor car manufacturers. 'Cheap' bodies produced fairly quickly, hence with high production figures and with an acceptable quality-standard made their way into the luxury segment.

Rolls-Royce Wraith

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Such development, of course, strangled the business of established coachbuilders. Each car with a pressed steel body was one car less to become fitted with a coachbuilt body. However, there was one feature which at that time - due to standard of technology then - could not be achieved with the presses that were available. No sharp edges could be formed because then the plane coachwork panels fed into the machine broke or ripped or distorted in such areas. Damage has been to such a degree it needed more efforts to 'iron out' the mishap than would have to be invested in 'hand beating' such a form from a panel. No less a capacity than John Polwhele Blatchley (who started his career with Gurney Nutting and later became elevated to the position of Chief Stylist of Rolls-Royce) once did explain the technical standard of the 1930s forced "pressed bodies to look like a combination of bubbles".

This is obvious from many American products - even from the luxury segment. But two examples are shown hereunder: a 1937 Cadillac 75 Fleetwood and a 1935 Packard 12 Club Sedan. The 'Bubble Design' dictated by limitations of pressed bodies even made its way into 'traditional coachbuilding'.

Cadillac & Packard

However a development opposite to this was ignited by Freestone & Webb introduction of  'Razor Edge Design'. That was a subtle form to let the coachwork-lines herald the message: "This is no mass-production pressed steel body - this is bespoke coachwork with panels formed by skilled craftsmen!" Obvious from showing the feature of 'razor edges' which at that time could exclusively only be made by hand. It caused an impact when Upper Crust Attitude combined with craftsmen's skill appeared in a most attractive way with Freestone & Webb’s impressive Sportsman's Coupé on 1933 Phantom II chassis #42PY. 'Razor Edge' features from then on spread to more creations by Freestone & Webb and were eagerly copied by other coachbuilders, too. When H.J. Mulliner  designed the coachwork for the 1939 Rolls-Royce Wraith, #WEC26 that was proof among their staff were artisans in 'Razor Edge Design'.

Rolls-Royce Phantom II

Actually, that fashion did survive well into the period after World War II. Post-1945 advanced technology did permit the company supplying Rolls-Royce at Crewe with standard coachwork, i.e. Pressed Steel (sic!), to arrange for 'bodies in white' they made for Mark VI & R-Type and Silver Dawn to show 'Razor Edge' tails. And a faint echo is the rear edge on the roof of the Silver Cloud model series. Technology had progressed to such a standard that on pressed bodies could be achieved such razor edges which during pre-war years had been an exclusive hallmark of handmade coachwork.

Rolls-Royce Wraith

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