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Rollston: Coachbuilt to the nth degree

Post WWI saw the rise of customized coachbuilt vehicles. Rollston established themselves as the American 'go to' for coachbuilt excellence.
A Duesenberg Model J wearing coachwork by Rollston. When the coachbuilder went bankrupt in 1938, it reorganized later that year as Rollson.

A Duesenberg Model J wearing coachwork by Rollston. When the coachbuilder went bankrupt in 1938, it reorganized later that year as Rollson.

Seeing an automobile with classic lines is an outside affair. Sensing the custom quality of a classic from the inside is the greater reflection. After all, most car owners did not spend precious hours seated aside their cars — they spent precious hours seated inside their cars traveling with family, hosting friends or conducting serious business. So it was that custom car designers strove to meet the whims and needs of customers. Even in that word is the base word “custom,” and any designer of special-order cars in years past knew it, if worth their salt. Truly, the custom-er was always right — and the custom-izer had better know it.

Custom designs seemed best, in the long run, when applied to a large, long and luxurious chassis with ample interior space for specialties, plus grand body touches that quietly announced the status of the person in back. Indeed, many custom cars were never intended to be owner-driver conveyances. Let that task fall to a retainer, a trusty driver-mechanic-bodyguard type of person who gave the car owner more value than initially implied.

Rollston
Calling cards of distinction

Calling cards of distinction

It may have been interior trimming that brought a good stream of business to the likes of several hallmark houses of car design. Among them was coachbuilder Rollston, a business launched in the rough-and-tumble post-World War I days, when wealthy car buyers claimed luxury cars as proper status symbols amid a fiscally frank period of risky normalization. In that wake of tossing and rolling economies that were swirling, churning and ebbing throughout the civilized world, people tried finding peace, prosperity and safety after the huge conflagration. Many people who were fiscally endowed wanted to whip the world to shape, even if they needed to use the rear comfort zone of their special-ordered automobiles to plan it.

The choice of the name Rollston smacked of the brand Rolls-Royce, much more of a four-wheeled friend of the family than it was an automobile. Yet, Packard and other brands favored the Rollston touch, very much American in principle. There-to-fore, in the days before the United States entered the Great War of 1914-1918, coachbuilders coaxed their business by making very fine conveyances in limited numbers such as five, ten, a dozen, perhaps a score with matching similarities. Selling high-priced cars in special “runs” seemed enough to keep select small custom houses in business. But Rollston took a different tact. Its leadership aimed at one-of-a-kind cars — the break-the-mold type — that exuded exclusivity in the Nth degree. Those single works were practically artistic and as much individualistic as the owners who enjoyed the same feel in society. Once recognized for whom they belonged, those cars were visual public-address systems alerting patricians and the proletariat to the coming of a kingly sort, in an American way.

 Packard’s 1940 Custom Super Eight Model 180 with all-weather cabriolet coachwork by Rollson was at the peak of the line. It combined classical ambiance with the special magic of Rollson touches and appointments, even in this late stage of classic customs.


Packard’s 1940 Custom Super Eight Model 180 with all-weather cabriolet coachwork by Rollson was at the peak of the line. It combined classical ambiance with the special magic of Rollson touches and appointments, even in this late stage of classic customs.

It was Grover C. Parvis who held a special fondness for Rollston work. He put muscle behind that fondness. Parvis dominated Packard’s custom body direction from its New York site. Fancy the fact that Rollston’s leadership appreciated their own New York roots. Atop that, Parvis appreciated the fact that Packard over-engineered its cars for the purpose of affirming its grip on the luxury car field. Build a luxurious car to last, and buyers would come, seemed the plan. Rollston bought into that ideal. So the match of Rollston design on a Packard chassis was ultra-natural.

That’s not to say Rollston coachwork didn’t appear on other chassis. Rollston also produced exquisite bodies for chassis from such marques as Stutz, Duesenberg, Minerva and others.

Among body designs, town cars (in the classical sense of having a driver’s compartment open to the elements, but temporarily closeable with the onset of inclement weather), were considered the peak of elegance — and an almost sinful expense. A Rollston Packard town car could reach $9,000, even $10,000 and more, depending on special touches ordered in a damn-the-dollars, devil-may-care deal. That is how the business progressed through the 1920s and into the iffy time of the dirt-poor 1930s, when financial survival gained ground over extravagance and status.

For two decades, the Rollston nameplate was firmly and fondly attached on custom designs of Packard lineage, town cars being perhaps the most cherished choice of carriage. As the custom design market dwindled, even artisans at Rollston needed to put meat and potatoes on their dinner tables. So did management. Thus, redesigns on existing bodies and chassis became, well, acceptable. Necessary. But never run-of-the-mill. This held true even for cars well beyond new, but still offering years of faithful service. For owners of such cars, it was a bargain facelift and freshening from Rollston that was much cheaper than an all-new car. Times had changed and continued on that track into the early 1940s. Rollston itself was not immune to the financial pressures of the Great Depression, and in 1938, it went bankrupt. However, it reorganized as Rollson later that same year. Some outstanding, slightly aged cars were outfitted and refitted by Rollston (and Rollson) and other carriage operations as a means of survival; call it “vintage wine in new skins.”

By World War II, Rollson found the custom body business had collapsed, but adapted its business to meet the U.S. government’s need for components in ships. It continues to build sheet metal products in New York state.

By now you, no doubt, have taken notice that the names of Rollston’s leaders and designers of its body-building business are not included in this column. No fault there, since it is a salute to the name Rollston to let it stand on its merits, not on human frailties or whims. That was the way the firm enjoyed its business. Anonymity is virtuous. Let the sculpture stand on its own. Let the workmanship bespeak veritable greatness. Let the Rollston classic custom strike its own manner of success among buyers when new, even now and anon, and, undoubtedly, well into the future.

Excelsior!

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