Motoring: How to get the perfect body

Not quite happy with the new Roller, got a few thousand to spare? Pull up at Hooper's of Marylebone, car customisers extraordinaire.

From the outside, it looks like any other car dealership, in this case, one selling examples of the cut-price Range-Rover rival, Ssangyong. It's a far cry from the glittering past of a company which once counted most of the crowned heads of Europe and the colonies, as well as movie stars and millionaires among its customers, selling them the world's most exclusive hand-crafted automobiles with price tags that made Rolls-Royce's look cheap. In fact, since 1807, long before Rolls and Royce had even met, Hooper & Co of Marylebone High Street, London, had been making first horse-drawn carriages then car bodies.

Hooper was a name I'd come across countless times in books and magazines, often in connection with some fabulous, polished aluminium-bodied vintage Rolls-Royce that had been unearthed in India. In the early Nineties the company's winged "H" emblem cropped up on several modified Rolls-Royces and Bentleys that Hooper had cut and stretched, or rebodied entirely, and then slapped on an astronomical price tag. Since then I'd heard nothing of Hooper and was curious to find out what had happened to the firm.

Inside the Marylebone showroom, sales director Julian Cutts explained: "The recession in the early Nineties nearly wiped us out. The Far East, North Pacific Rim, Japan, Germany - all those markets went and it was a real struggle to get rid of the last of the coach-built Rolls-Royces and Bentleys."

It may have been an indignity for an ancient and venerable firm, but the Ssangyong franchise pretty much kept the company afloat. Today, in a more healthy state, Hooper maintains its links with its glamorous past, selling second-hand Rollers and Bentleys alongside the new imports, and servicing the luxury cars in its garage in Willesden. There are even plans to produce 10 two-door versions of the new four-door Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph. Only billionaires need apply.

At Willesden, sales manager Peter Perry gave me a brief tour of the cars in the workshop. Most striking was a vast blue 1965 Phantom Landaulette, in a state of unseemly undress in the corner. "That came over from Nigeria," Peter told me. "But when they lifted it on a crane from the docks in Lagos, they put a chain through the windows and that buckled the roof like a wigwam.

Things could have been worse. "I have heard of old Rollers from Africa coming over with dead monkeys in the chassis," claimed Bruce Watton, whose job it is to refit this monster. I asked him about the challenges of reconstructing a unique vehicle without records or blueprints. "The main problem is we've been working on this for eight years and the bits are scattered all over the place. We have a war cry, "It's in here somewhere!" Underneath all the craftsmanship, you often find they use bits of cigarette packets instead of washers, or wooden screws because that was all they had handy." The car, worth around pounds 200,000 when completed, will be delivered to the chairman and owner of Hooper, John Dick, to add to his collection of Hooper cars in his home on Jersey.

Dick is only the latest in a long and at times infamous line of owners of the company. Founded by George Hooper in 1807, Hooper & Co began life building horse-drawn carriages for the Prince Regent and much of Britain's high society. Word spread across Europe of the quality of Hooper's work, with Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany, the Tsar of Russia and Empress Eugenie of France queuing up to cushion their rears in unique, hand-crafted interiors made from silk, brocade, leather and exotic woods. (Hooper coaches are still used for state occasions).

In the first decades of motor-car production, manufacturers tended to sell only chassis and running gear, which the customer would then take to a coachbuilder to have the body of their choice fitted (sometimes two bodies would be made, one for summer and one for winter), and by the time Hooper bodied its first Rolls-Royce, a 1909 Silver Ghost, it had pretty much sewn up the top end of that market, too.

For the first half of the century, until the advent of the monocoque chassis (where the car body and chassis are in one), Hooper-bodied cars were a must for the beautiful people of the day. Rudyard Kipling ordered a Silver Ghost with a Roi de Belge body (from an original design by the King of Belgium) for his mistress, Cleo de Merode. Landscape painter Michaelis requested that his Rolls-Royce Phantom II be converted into a mobile artist's studio, with a roof that could flip up for use as an easel; while the Aga Khan, the King of Abyssynia, millionaire Nubar Gulbenkian, the Shah of Persia, and countless Maharajahs also bought Hooper-bodied cars. (King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra went as far as having His and Hers Landaulettes made in black and white.) The most spectacular of the earlier Hooper cars were the Silver Ghosts that went to India, nearly always bodied by Hooper with polished aluminium over English ash. They would have bearers on the back to take a couple of members of the Maharajah's staff, gun racks and two big spotlights mounted on staunchions on the running boards for hunting after dark.

So far, so tasteful, until Lord Bernard Docker, chief of Daimler, and more particularly his vulgarian wife Norah, got their hands on the company in the Fifties. Each year, Lady Docker would order a new Daimler limousine, each more extravagant than the last (despite her rebuke to the press, "Do not dare call my new Daimler vulgar!" they were roundly condemned as such), with gold-leaf stars on the side panels, ivory door fittings, zebra-skin seat covers, and boots lined with crocodile skin. While attending the royal wedding in Monaco (both Rainier and Grace Kelly were Hooper customers, naturally), she refused to leave her car to travel in coaches with the other guests, threw a tantrum and was asked to leave.

As you can imagine this did little to help Hooper's image among the elite, and with the landed gentry a dying breed and times changing in the former colonies, Hooper's market all but disappeared. In 1959, despite the patronage of stars such as Gregory Peck and Charlie Chaplin, Hooper car body production ceased altogether with the three cars exhibited at the Olympia Motor Show.

Three decades later, Hooper's bespoke coach-building service was revived on the back of an economic boom and an influx of oil money. Much of that work was adapting Range-Rovers for falconry trips into the deserts of the Middle East, and creating one-off Rolls-Royces (or 10-offs, for one customer, the Sultan of Brunei, who, apparently, always bought everything, even cars, in batches of 10). During this time of unprecedented conspicuous consumption, Hooper also created a limited run of stretched Rolls-Royce Silver Spurs with a partially retractable roof, called a Landaulette. This monstrosity, of which Lady Docker would have been proud, found only two takers. Even more excessive was the Hooper Empress, an ungainly two-door conversion of the Bentley Turbo R, of which five examples were sold for pounds 270,000.

"There are always people, no matter what's going on in the world economy, who want something exclusive and hand-made," Cutts told me, adding more candidly, "You don't have to be Einstein to work out that it's very expensive. It's completely stupid if you think about it, but these people want to make some sort of statement about their lifestyle. They are immensely rich." Whether or not they will be rich enough to pay more than pounds 250,000 for a two-door Silver Seraph is another matter. But who knows, if they can get the Sultan of Brunei interested, he might buy the lot

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