Skiff automobile - a seemingly self-contradicting phrase. Are we speaking of a boat or a car? As it happens, we are speaking of both as one because the term skiff used in conjunction with automobile has come to refer to an open, sporting body erected upon an automotive chassis and constructed of wood, just as a boat would have been in the early years of the automobile. Indeed, the very definition of the word skiff in both English and French dictionaries means rowboat, small boat, dinghy, etcetera.
The construction of skiff bodies on automobile chassis was primarily a French innovation. Boat-shaped automobiles, designed specifically to cheat the wind, appeared in races as early as 1897, but more than a dozen years then passed before a boat inspired a tourer. The year was 1912 when a then-famous person, the Chevalier Rene de Knyff, approached the Heri Labourdette coachbuilding company to design and furnish a special body for him. Frederick Úsher, automotive historian of reknown, has researched this signal occation:
'Fortunately we do not have to hyphothesize about that occasion,' writes Úsher, 'since what transpired has been recorded for us by one of the protagonists, Jean-Henri Labourdette. This vignette and its significance can be better appreciated with brief sketches of the two actors in the drama.
'In 1910, on the death of his father Henri, young Jean-Henri had taken over the direction of the coachbuilding firm founded by his grandfather in the nineteenth century. Jean-Henri Labourdette, born in 1888, now in his early twenties, not only had the credentials but had already exhibited the talent that such an inheritance might promise. Several years previously he had participated in the design and construction of an extra-light closed body for the Chevalier Rene de Knyff, and the Chevalier was greatly pleased with the results.
'In contrast to Labourdette and twice his age at the time, the Chevalier de Knyff was a towering figure from the heroic era of early automobile racing. From the very first races and for a half century thereafter he would devote his talent and intelligence to motor racing, finishing his career as president of the Commission Sportive International in 1946. There is hardly a comparative figure in the annals. Charles Jarrott, as a participant and eye-witness of these early years, gives us a vivid picture of de Knyff in his Ten Years of Motors and Motor Racing, first published in 1906:
From the very beginning of the sport, no race of importance was run without the Chevalier being a competitor...de Knyff always was and is today the most interesting figure...of the French automobile world.
'At the time of their meeting in 1912 the Chevalier was a director of the Panhard et Levassor firm, whose powerful automobiles driven largely by the Chevalier had dominated the early races. What follows is Labourdette's account of his meeting with de Knyff:
The Chevalier Rene de Knyff invited me to his office and made me a proposal: 'I would like a very very light but comfortable torpedo offering the least wind resistance.' As he was a great sportsman and practiced bicycling and rowing daily, he suggested to me: 'You know that I do rowing. Why don't you build this body like my skiff, in mahogany with ribbing and all? It's light and strong.' I pointed out to him that a boat did not have doors and that was why its hull was rigid. 'That doesn't matter,' he responded. 'Make me a torpedo without doors.'
'But how will you get in?' I objected.
'One will step over.'
'And the ladies?'
'Well, they will also step over. We will finally see their legs,' he laughed (in 1912, how daring it was to see a woman's legs).
I left Rene de Knyff promising him a beautiful and efficient solution. But, on the way, I scratched my head. What to do? But I thought, as I went, that this project offered the opportunity to realize my idea of the integration of the hood with the body. Únderstanding and forward thinking, Rene de Knyff had left it to me.
To acquaint myself with naval construction, I went to the firm of Despujols who had been one of the first to construct motor-boats and who had a great reputation. Their shipyard was located at the Ile de Jatte.
I constructed the skiff in triple layers of mahogany planking, riveted on a frame of ash. According to what I had seen, between the second and third plies I had placed a layer of canvas, which assured great rigidity.
Since it was almost impossible to sketch a form for the rear of the body I decided to model it. This was the first time, I think, that automobile body forms were studied by modeling in wax.
When the body was put on the scale the needle registered 180 kg (approximately 400 pounds) to the great admiration of the experts. This weight comprised the body, the windshield, the four fenders, the running boards (or step plates), spare wheel carrier, upholstery, the floorboards of grooved mahogany (they were elegant, light and we saved the weight of carpet). The ribs of the hull were exposed, thus we also saved the weight of interior trim....
'The resulting design was little short of revolutionary at the time', write Úsher. 'Today critics consider it to be one of the most beautiful automobiles ever, a masterpiece of the art of bodybuilding. To appreciate the impact of Labourdette's 'skiff' one must see it in the context of its contemporaries. Most designs of that era were characterized by a 'box' which covered the engine, terminating with a break at the windshield, and behind this, a bulky upholstered body for the passengers. At the very rear the fuel tank was slung between the frame rails.
'Labourdette's skiff combined all these separate elements into one harmonious whole with graceful transitions and elegant curving lines. The engine hood flared up to a low, slanting windshield and the gas tank was hidden behind the front seat to expose the rounded, voluptuous tail. And while the construction technique suggested by the Chevalier did produce the light weight he desired, the lines that Labourdette provided went on to visually accentuate the idea. After satisfying all its technical requirements there was the added elegance and flair typical of a Labourdette design.'
The emergence of the skiff theme as an automobile body design probably emanated from the increasing use of body designs that had certain aerodynamic qualities that lessened wind resistance, like the bow and sometimes the stern of a boat did.
It must be considered that the very unique appearance of a skiff body would be appealing to certain potential owners who needed to have something different, something no one else had. Skiff construction fulfilled this desire, but above all, it was possible to save weight, and that was tantamount to adding power to the engine concurrent with providing a new look. One could have an automobile of singular appearance that was more powerful than an automobile with a standard body.
In any case, the skiff idea took hold and soon Labourdette was erecting skiff bodies on many different chassis. Examples are known to have been constructed on chassis from Hispano-Suiza, Renault, Peugeot, Rolls-Royce, Abadal, Delauney-Belleville, Lancia and even Citroen.
Other coachbuilders were also active in designing and manufacturing skiffs although it was Labourdette that made the most of them and became famous for them, pioneering the most successful of the various types of skiff construction. It employed a lightweight but strong frame of ash ribs on close centers erected upon sturdy wood members forming the sills or longitudinal rails, thus forming the foundation for the body skin. Three layers of 3 to 4 millimeters of wood were then applied, with the innermost layer running at a 45 degree angle to the sills, the next layer at 90 degrees to the first, and the outermost layer running horizontally. A layer of canvas could be placed between the two diagonal layers. Then all layers were joined with copper rivets on close centers, and it is not an exaggeration to state that there could be 10,000 individual rivets in the bodies for larger cars. In some cases the compound curves of the body required intricate curves to be formed in wood and the only way to achieve these shapes was to steam-bend the pieces.
Mulbacher, Duquesne, Schebera and Ansart et Teisseire were other makers of skiff bodies, and all but the last used construction techniques similar to Labourdette. Ansart et Teisseire used solid wood planking of considerable thickness, thus limiting the forms the designer could require.
Even Nieuport, the airplane manufacturer made a sole skiff automobile. It was commissioned by Andre Dubonnet of aperitif and racing fame, and it became the famous Hisspano-Suiza known as the 'tulipwood' car. And there in lies a tale.
Much has been written about tulipwood being used on the exterior of skiff bodies. This is an entirely inaccurate statement as bodies of this type were made of mahogany. This is borne out by Labourdette himself in his book Úne Siecle de Carrosserie Francaise in which he consistently refers to skiff bodies being constructed of acajou (mahogany). Intensive research was initiated several years ago by an English Hispano-Suiza owner seeking to make a replica of the Dubonnet car specifically. He sought advice from a German professor whose expertise was the science of lumber. We quote from a letter from Dr. H. G. Richter of the Institute fur Holzbiolgie and Holzschutz (the Instititue for Wood Biology and Wood Protection) of Hamburg, Germany, in 1991 pursuant to his personal examination of the Dubonnet car:
The timbers employed for exterior planking of car body and wings are identical and certainly not tulipwood in the sense that this trade name was commonly used for (Dalbergia decipularis) of the botanical family of Fabacease. Neither does it correspond to any of the timbers that have, at one time or another, carried the trade name tulip wood as for instance 'Dalbergia nigra (Brazilian rosewood)...
According to surface characteristics (colour, grain, etc) and structural features accessible to microscopic examination the timber used for planking is one of the 'mahogany' group, most likely Swietenia macrophylla (Central or South America) or Swietenia mahogoni of the West Indies....
Furthermore, woods that could be classified as tulipwood are dense and hard and thus quite unacceptable for automobile body use; they would be prone to excessive cracking and cannot be used for compound curves. Various species of mahogany easily meet the requirements, and thus we see that the Nieuport and Labourdette bodies were mahogany. So too are the Mulbacher, Duquesne, and Ansart et Teisseire skiff bodies, by personal observation of the author of this article, whose professional career involved the use of mahogany and other woods.
A replica of the Chevalier Rene de Knyff skiff exists. It was undertaken by the Het Museum of Automobiles in the Netherlands, and although he did not live long enough to see it completed, Jean-Henri Labourdette lent his expertise and his memory to the reconstruction of the masterpiece.
Very few original examples of skiff type construction survive. The skiffs selected to be exhibited at Pebble Beach today are believed to be original - maintained but not restored or replicated - examples.Source - by Jules Heumann with excerpts from Frederick A. Usher