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1914 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Labourdette Skiff-Torpedo

Henri Labourdette Introduces the Sensational Skiff-Torpedo

In 1912 French coachbuilder, Jean-Henri Labourdette created an exciting new automobile body style when he built his first Skiff-Torpedo coachwork on a 20 h.p. Panhard & Levassor chassis that was comissioned by Chevalier René de Knyff. It was constructed with the same basic methods used for a wooden boat. Oak was selected for the framing, and the outer planking of mahogany fastened with copper rivets – the affect was sensational.

Soon other coachbuilders quickly offered their own versions aimed at the well-to-do sporting motorist. Different shapes and styles soon evolved, and a few were even constructed with the hood also covered in the same wooden treatment. Most were offered for four passengers, but another form used only a single rear seat. Doors for entry were the exception, and access to most was by using a side-mounted step plate. This new style of body remained popular until as late as the mid-twenties.

  • Jean-Henri Labourdette Panhard & Levassor  Skiff Torpedeo
  • Henri Labourdette poster showing the new Skiff-Torpedo coachwork.

At the fourteenth annual Paris Salon held in the fall of 1913, the new body-style was one of the most popular on exhibit. Labourdette had half a dozen on display at their stand built on Panhard, Peugeot and Abadal chassis’. The builders deluxe form of construction used three layers of planking over the oak framework and ribs; two layers being diagonal and crossed with the outer layer being horizontal.

To protect and enhance the wood, boat finishes were used that were then polished to a high luster. Ornate boat deck ventilators were often added for effect and passenger comfort. The ribs and planking on the interior sides of the bodies were normally left exposed. The upholstery was often fastened in place with snaps, but on more finished jobs tacks were used with the edges covered with welting.

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  • 1914 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Labourdette Skiff-Torpedo. Photos courtesy of

A practical advantage of the new bodies was that in finished form the complete weight of a four passenger body was reported at the time to only be between 150 and 250 pounds. The construction was also stronger that traditional coachwork weighing about 600 pounds. One of the first Labourdette bodies was unfortunately put to the test when during an accident one of the cars hit a tree. The chassis ended up being badly wrecked, but all the planking stayed attached to the body.

The wooden skiff form of coachwork was not as popular here in the US, but a few were built. At the New York Auto show in 1916 the Holbrook Company offered a Crane-Simplex with a yacht-inspired design and a boat-like windshield and fittings. Automotive artist Melbourne Brindle later owned and restored the unique car that has survived. The photos below are from The Automobile October 23, 1913, coverage of the Paris Salon coverage by W.F. Bradley.

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  • A Schneider chassis above with mixed color woods and a Labourdette bodied Panhard below.


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  •             Four views above and below of a three-passenger Alin & Liautard body on an Abadal chassis. sk7

6 responses to “Henri Labourdette Introduces the Sensational Skiff-Torpedo

  1. That Silver Ghost Skiff looks incredible!

    More information at

    Le Skiff – a 1914 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost recreated as the doppelganger of one of the earliest and most significant Labourdette skiffs. Its chassis was rescued from a bog in England in the 60s. Every piece of valuable brass or other parts had been stripped. A line across the engine block indicated the water level. And yet this car runs today. Its owner decided to recreate Labourdette body # 3577 of Honduran mahogany, using old photos as a template. The car has no doors, and the wood planks run in continuous strips from the cowl to the rear centerline. Two little iron steps on each side assist one in climbing aboard. The car won ‘Most Elegant Open Car’ at Pebble Beach in 2000 and is on display during the summer of 2002 at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, California.


  2. My incredible husband, Fred Buess (Buess Restorations) restored this amazing Rolls-Royce. It was billed “Most Beautiful Car in the World” and I have to agree! It drives as sleek as it looks and I will never forget driving it along the 17-mile drive in Carmel. His heart is poured into every nut and bolt of this rolling work of art…a real triumph! I hope every future owner enjoys this impeccable Ghost as much as we did! Just seeing it in this article brought back some of the best memories of my life. Thank you! Sincerely, Rhonda Buess

  3. The Labourdette bodied Peugeot Skiff, once owned by the tenor and pioneer car collector James Melton, is in the collection at the Seal Cove Auto Museum. This sensational automobile has been shown at Pebble Beach, Retromobile, and Amelia Island. It is currently on loan to the Owls Head Transportation Museum for display the winter of 2015 and will be back at the Seal Cove for this season’s opening, May 1.

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