By Patrick Smith
The build sheet as we know it today in the collector car hobby, is a post world war invention. A product of the consumer age and early computers, build sheets from the 1960s and 1970s have a certain appearance and some uniform standards. The build sheet idea was around before the '50s however. We can trace the concept back to the coachbuilt era of the 1920s and '30s. Back then cars were toys for the very wealthy and the few who could afford to buy one also had them made to order. Several coach building firms such as Lebaron-Bonney, Brewster & Co., Locke or Derham developed a following of loyal customers who would hire them to design their latest purchases.
Sometimes the buyer would leave it up to the coach builder to suggest a suitable chassis for the body but most often the chassis was purchased and sent to the coachbuilders. Most often these orders came from the dealerships of various luxury cars. The senior salesmen usually had a rapport between their clients and the coachbuilders and it was through this network that a custom body order would be completed. Another person of importance during this process was the chauffeur. This man was in charge of the regular maintenance and driving duties of the car. He had real world experience with the attributes of certain designs and drive trains and this usually affected the selection of chassis.
A meeting with one or more custom builders was the next step, either at the coach builder's office or at the dealer show room. Scale drawings of proposed designs were made usually on a scale of 1 inch to one foot. Each design was given a number. Factory blue prints of the chassis were consulted to determine important factors such as axle kick up, location of steering wheel, and most important to the body builder: the D post. The D post was the angle of your steering column; the height of which determined how low cut you could design the cowl for a sporting look. The lower the angle of the steering column, the more rakish profile you could design for a sleek appearance which was desirable for a torpedo or boat tail speedster body. At the other end of the scale, Rolls Royce and American luxury models usually specified the highest angled steering column for long term driving comfort and this was called the 'A position.' The cut down, sporty jobs had a low raking steering column which was called 'D position' in the blueprints.
Once the chassis dimensions were laid out, sketches for the interior and body were done to scale and were numbered for showing the customer. When the customer selected a design, that particular drawing was used for development. Any changes in specs were added and the sketch given a revision number. The sketches were handed over to the artist for a color rendering which is basically a brochure-like illustration of the car for the customer.
A 1930 Hispano Suiza Convertible Phaeton is shown in a LeBaron sales catalog. These renderings were done to show clients how their car would appear. R.L. Stickney handled the renderings for LeBaron and also illustrated color catalogs for Lincoln Motors.
Once the renderings were seen and approved it was time to draw up a set of specifications for the body-build order. This is a complete list of chassis type, body construction, paint and trimming, interior, chassis, drivetrain and any extras specified by the customer as part of his order. It is a description of what his car should be when finished. The customer specifications sheet was matched with the chassis manufacturer's blue prints for the chassis and together they comprised the plans for making a custom order car.
A customer specifications sheet listed all the details of the car's construction from chassis to body and interior. This along with draftsmen's drawings helped builders assemble the car to custom order.
Draftsmen produced layouts of the body called the body draft. They were reproduced full size on 16 feet manila board. Tracings could be made off these and rolled up for convenient storage. Frequently large sheets of alloy metal were used and coated with lacquer. This prevented shrinkage from humidity changes that occurred with manila. These were in effect, the "build sheets of the 1920s and '30s luxury cars. Most have vanished due to the companies going out of business after the war.