How Niels van Roij is renewing the auto industry
Niels van Roij sees the future of auto design as more personal, more unique, more artisanal — and his custom car designs are propelling us forward.
The Dutch auto designer's multidisciplinary studio specializes in the early industry's process of coachbuilding — building custom vehicles from the ground up, catered specifically to each individual client's needs and lifestyle.
After years of mass-production revolutionizing the industry, Niels van Roij envisions our cultural shift of reconnecting with the coachbuilt car practice — on a more accessible, modernized level thanks to cutting-edge tech and talent. His design-oriented team hones in to each detail of the vehicle, encouraging hands-on collaboration with each client that builds a connection to every project.
Scroll for a chat with the studio founder on his industry journey.
What was the first thing that sparked your passion for design, and cars in particular?
I was interested from a very early age, like a typical car designer in that sense. My mom still has the first car drawings I created at four years old — obviously, I had no clue about car design and that it would be my career in the future.
As a small boy, I would enjoy washing cars for family and friends ― not just the fact that I could handle the car, but also the fact that you get to feel all the materials. You are up close to it, and you see curvature and how things are put together — not just technically, but also from a design perspective.
In the '80s my parents had a SEAT Ibiza, a small little square, comparable to the size and dimensions of a Volkswagen City Golf ― I remember walking around and nearly getting on my knees to see the curves in the body, and the little details of the grill and the logo. I've always been fascinated in how vehicles work, and trying to understand what I'm seeing. Cars are very interesting, especially now, considering how they will evolve in the future.
You believe in a more personal, unique, and artisanal future for the auto industry. In that sense, what are the greatest benefits of seeking the coachbuilding technique when creating a new vehicle?
My projects are like tailor-made suits. Even if it may not be my goal to have a specific car changed, it's the client's wish and it's ultimately their bespoke suit on four wheels.
Obviously, the big benefit of having a coachbuilt car is that you as an owner can decide to make specific decisions. I act as the eyes and the hands of the client, but in the end, it's always their idea that I translate into a tangible object. With coachbuilding, you can't get more personal — this is the highest level of what you can get in a car.
That personal experience is often more important to my clients than the car in the end. Which may sound odd, but they own other cars that merely represent a transaction. It's not like walking into a dealership and picking what you want, it is truly a very personal object that feels almost it's like a part of the family.
Coachbuilding addresses the sustainability issue with cars, people getting rid of them after 3 or 5 years. You might want to update it a bit, but it remains this tailor-made suit — if some thread is coming off, you don't throw it away, you go to a tailor and say, "Can you fix this?".
Your Breadvan Hommage transcends time. How does a design remains forever relevant?
What we do has longevity, I don't focus on trends and do what is cool now — because when a car takes one and half to two years to build, the trend is already gone when we're finished. Our goal is to truly create something timeless, which is hard to achieve in an object — but you can at least try to make it last as long as possible when it comes to outside perception.
In the end, it's a personal object for my clients, so it's not mass produced — that creates that personal relationship with the object at the end, which makes them use it in a different way. They're not thinking, "I'll get a new one after three years anyway, when my lease ends." If you truly think long-term, 60 or 100 years from now, it's very likely that these cars will still be around rather than in a junkyard — because of the fact that people know that someone took care of it when it was built.
Coachbuilding is a very timeless technique that can transform already strong models with top-level expertise. Why do you think leather continues to translate the interior experience of cars year after year?
Cars are rooted in tradition. From a very early time, leather was the go-to material. Initially not because of luxury, but because of its intrinsic qualities to be strong and durable. Back in the day, passengers would often would sit on fabrics, cause fabrics were hand-made, always nice to the touch ― while the driver was sitting outside on leather, like farmers with leather reins on their horses, because leather was the strongest material — it could take a beating, it could take a punch, it could take rain.
Now we live in a day and age where the basic car interior is cloth and the luxury car interior is leather. Of course, the leathers are not comparable, the thick workman's leather versus today's supple, soft, car interior leather — they're two different worlds.
Its role has changed, but it still carries this connection that people have. In the end, it's tradition and in the future, cars will still be rooted in tradition.
People like how leather ages with their journey ― just two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a client in Belgium who said, "I actually don't want perfect leather. I want a story in my car, it's my car, my personal car, with my family, that's how it should be.".
Do you have another favorite project aside from the Breadvan Hommage design?
In a way it's like asking a parent about which child is the favorite — because of the fact that it's such a personal business, each connection with every car and client is personal. We worked on Silver Spectre Shooting Brake, a Rolls-Royce-based car that we introduced towards the end of 2020 — it's a dark red car and the entire boot area has been covered in leather. The client wanted the Shooting Brake car based on a Rolls-Royce — shooting-brake is a very classic body, used for hunting — but it's basically sort of a marriage between a sporty and luxurious car and a station car. It's the best of both worlds, you have a luxury car with a bit more boot space, it's more practical and can handle continental distances.
If you open up the boot of a car it should be something special, just like the interior. A car interior is double curved, as we call it, so there's not a true straight line in there, like the human body — why not have the boot on the same level? With double-curved surfaces that are nice to the touch and are telling the same story as the interior is.
The interior of the car is black, as the base color, with white and red along with the seats, the dashboard, the door panels. On the boot area you'll see the same double-curved volumes, not just flat leather. The different leather pieces are humanlike, organically grown. Like the interior, it's not just a bolted-on door handle, it's a continuous flow of shapes. In this case, we applied a full leather interior with the goal of elevating the material — making it look and feel softer — rather than just making everything in that boot out of leather.
Creating a one-off vehicle is very exclusive and involves a lot of artisan work — do envision the future of the automotive industry gravitating toward more custom work & artisanship?
Absolutely — I think it will be more like this, because new technology allows for it. It makes people feel special to have a relationship with the object, compared to today's throwaway kind of culture. People like to be pampered a bit, to design their own things, to have more meaningful relationships with their objects, including their cars.
All cars used to be coachbuilt, that's why it's called coachbuilding — before cars, you had your carriage and coach made by your carpenter. You custom designed your own carriage for your horse and carriage line-up, and later that same person was the one to build the car ― they never changed the name.
Since Henry Ford invented mass production in the '30s, now virtually almost everybody can afford a car, new or second-hand. Now, people say, "Okay, but can't I have my tailor-made suit as a car?" People have a renewed belief in getting in touch with their possessions, rather than simply using them and throwing them away. I truly believe that coachbuilding is the future because it's getting more relevant — to have this personal thing designed around your life, your wishes, and your preferences.
The industry's bespoke future looks bright, Niels.
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