Back in the early days of automobiles, when you had to be I-have-three-footman wealthy to own a horseless carriage, the way most cars were sold was in two distinct parts: an automobile company would sell you an engine/rolling chassis unit, and then you'd have a body built by a coachwork company.
Among very high-end cars, this tradition, born from the old horse-and-carriage era, continued for quite some time for the Crawley set. Rolls-Royce worked this way all the way up to WWII, and prior to that Duesenberg, Delahaye, Bugatti, Ferrari, and others employed this separate-bodyworks system as well. Nowadays, it's clearly an archaic, inefficient method, as dead as parrafin lamps and openly-discussed eugenics schemes.
And I'm pretty sure this obsolete system will be huge in the future.
The reason I think independent coachwork companies will be due for a comeback in the next few decades is based on three technological advances that I'm certain will happen: massive platform simplification by automobile companies, the widespread adoption of full drive-by-wire systems, and the rise of large-scale rapid-prototyping technology.
We're already seeing all of these things today. Almost every car company is attempting to minimize the number of platforms they build cars on, for effiicency and money-saving reasons. The Volkswagen group, for example, is heading towards a modular platform system that incorporates only four or so major platform component types. From these basic platforms, a huge variety of cars are being built.
This degree of platform simplification is a goal of nearly every mainstream car company, because it saves tons of money. And we all know that saving money is pretty much the only motivation you can reliably count on to make innovation happen.
Drive-by-wire systems are, of course, almost here already. Throttle-by-wire is common, and just this past year I drove Nissan's steer-by-wire system, which can eliminate the need for a physical steering column. What all of these mean, coachwork-wise, is that the need for mechanical connections from driver controls to a chassis are pretty much eliminated. That means the possibility of much greater flexibility in body design, and greater flexibility with what bodies can go on what platforms. If you don't have to worry about a steering column, for example, you can position the driver way up front, like an old Jeep FC, or way way back, like the position in a Jaguar E-Type, all on the same chassis.
3D printing-wise, we're already seeing cars bodied with rapid-prototyping machines, and 3D printing service bureaus are already around. The concept of on-demand manufacture of products is about as close to sci-fi magic devices like Star Trek replicators, and this will become a huge industry. Hell, it's already a huge industry, and we're just in its infancy.
3D printing today is analogous to where personal computers were in the late '70s: the first crude-but-usable models are starting to approach affordability. I'd say we're about at the level of the Altair now — there's hobbyist-level machines available that actually work, but they're still a bit too technical for the general public. The 3D printing equivalent of the Apple II or Commodore 64 hasn't arrived yet, but it's coming.
That's just for consumer-level models. Larger-scale, industrial 3D printing is developing rapidly as well, and it's these advances that will be key to the new crop of carrozzeria.
Here's what I'm picturing, in, say, the year 2030: when you decide to buy a car, you'll have options quite similar to what we have today. Large companies selling complete cars in brands and models we're all familiar with. There will still be Ford Mustangs and Porsche 911s and New-Pontiac Aztek 2s and most or all the names and models we've grown so fond of will likely be around. And you can option and buy the car you like much like today.
But there will be another option. You'll be able to buy a body-less platform as well. With widespread platform standardization, you'll have a small number of platforms to choose from, say Small Transverse FWD or Mid longitudinal RWD for conventional drivetrains, or maybe an all-electric hub-motored one, like GM's HyWire concept. There will be some to pick from, but not many.
You'll then be able to customize your platform with modular suspension and drivetrain options — comfortable, softer suspension parts or stiffer performance parts. Aftermarket companies will offer more options, as they do today. Depending on the platform and company, you'll have gas, diesel, or electric options, all that. The key here is that modular platforms will be key, and the cost-saving measures employed by companies can offer buyers huge levels of customization.
Now, here's where the new coachbuilding companies come in. You'd arrange for your rolling platform to be delivered to a local 3D printing service bureau that has contracts with the car manufacturer. That service bureau would also have contracts with a number of coachbuilding companies, who would only supply data to the service bureau to "print" your car's body.
Let's imagine this in more detail. You log onto the service bureau's website (or whatever the future equivalent is) and open your account. Your purchased platform is shown, and along with that is a list of coachbuilders who make bodies or body parts that work with your chosen platform. You'd pick a company, then go to their site to select the body you want, or customize your own body from their library of modular parts.
I imagine along with established, old school coachbuilding companies like Ghia, Pininfarina, Italdesign/Giugiaro, etc. there would be an explosion of new, much smaller companies. Since all these companies have to actually provide is data, the overhead is much, much lower. A coachbuilding company could be a group of gifted designers right out of ArtCenter, with innovative but very niche-market ideas. Since they don't need to sell thousands of them, small, unusual ideas can be tried. I'd think the minimum a coaachbuilding company would have to do is have at least one of each of their designs actually printed, installed, and finished so it can be evaluated and tested for quality and safety by the NHTSA or some similar regulatory group.
There'd have to be standards, of course. Established standards for safety, reliability, etc. And then there's the platform hard points standards needed to be able to mount bodies. In an ideal world, you could hope for one universal platform mounting standard that works for everything and magically retains all flexibility, but that's unlikely. Realistically, each company will have their own platform standards, and coachbuilding firms would have to decide what platforms to support.
This would be much like software today. Companies make applications for Windows or Mac or iOS or Android, and very often they can easily port apps from one platform to another. There's limitations, sure — you can't run Photoshop on a phone, but there's plenty of apps tailored to each platform. And that's how the coachbuilding companies will do it.
So, back to our hypothetical futuro-purchase, you pick your body type (I'm opting for a Hillman Imp Husky replica from a coachbuilding company that specializes in small retro-remakes, on a small hub-motored electric car platform from, oh, Tesla, let's say) pick a color, and click "Build My Car!" The body data files are sent to the 3D printing house which prints your body (possibly with the color integrated into the plastic material), mounts it on your platform, and contacts you to come pick it up (I was too cheap to have it delivered).
The interior could be sourced from the company that builds the platform or perhaps from the coachbuilder; I'd hope either way would work.
The possibilities offered here I think are huge. While not everyone is interested enough in their cars to undertake this level of customization, there is still a huge market of people who are. And not just gearheads. Think about what this could mean to the utility-vehicle business. Small businesses that deliver anything could get custom-designed vehicles that make their work much more efficient and prevent loss due to damage from transit. Picture a wedding cake baker buying a vehicle with a custom enclosed rear specifically designed to cradle large-scale cakes. Far too small a market for normal manufacturers, but when it's just 3D data waiting to be printed, it's viable. Custom small pizza delivery cars with pizza-sized racks. Plumber's vans with integrated pipe and parts storage. Food trucks with built-in sinks and counters. The possibilities are huge.
Plus, for regular consumers, the possibility of buying one basic platform and keeping it for a very long time, re-bodying it and modifying it as needed. You may start with a roadster body and sport suspension, get a job that needs a truck, so replace it with a pickup body and load-bearing rear springs, then get married and have a pack of kids, so a van body goes on, kids move away or are sold to the asteroid mines, and back to a sportscar body, with appropriate drivetrain upgrades. It's an interesting thought.
There's going to be an explosion of 3D printing technology, likely analogous to the personal computer boom, the desktop publishing explosion, or the web, um, eruption (?) we've just witnessed. Cars should take advantage of the incredible opportunities offered by this, and I think they will.
I'm not seeing the future as dystopian at all, or all of us saddled with the same, boring cars that mass-market research forces on us. These new technologies can lead to a flowering of variety and personal taste, and I can't wait.