They Still Make It By Hand On Savile Row

Fewer and fewer cars are built by hand each year. If you’re a romantic, you’ve got to go elsewhere for your fix.

byMax Prince|
Culture photo


One of my all-time favorite automotive anecdotes is about the Lamborghini Countach’s spoiler. The backstory is well known: Walter Wolf, Canadian racing impresario, orders a custom LP400S with F1 style wing; customers fall in love with said LP400S; said wing becomes the Countach’s trademark. Lesser known is that the spoiler was never an official option, because Lamborghini didn’t have money to go through homologation. It could only be fitted after a car was “sold.” So they got a little shop down the road to build and paint the wings. Whenever an order came in, Lamborghini engineers would run down there, fetch two armfuls of aero, pull a Countach outside the factory, then install the wing, by hand, in the parking lot, using an electric drill.

The point of this story is not that Italian problem solving is hilarious (which it is), nor that many Countachs drive like they were assembled in a parking lot (which they do). Rather, it’s to illustrate that behind interesting cars are interesting people. Peculiar, maybe, sometimes silly and often stupid, but interesting. The further human beings are removed from the process, the more inherently boring cars become, because robots cannot make decisions. Robots don’t leave fingerprints.

Fewer and fewer cars are made by hand each year. There’s no use bemoaning it, because progress is inevitable and, really, standardization is probably best for the industry at large. But if you’re a romantic, the kind that cherishes a forty-year-old anecdote about making supercars in Old World Italy, you’ve got to go elsewhere for your fix. Distillers. Gunsmiths. Watchmakers. Panel beaters. Places where humans still leave fingerprints. One of those places, possibly the most famous, is Savile Row, the legendary bespoke garment district in Central London. 

Keith Levett in the archive room at Henry Poole & Co. The place was established in 1806, and sits in Mayfair at the heart of Savile Row. Each suit takes over 60 hours to create. Churchill wore Henry Poole. Dickens and Oscar Wilde did, too. , Dan Kitwood/Getty
The archive room is filled with these ledgers. They go back nearly 200 years. The livery department has a Royal Warrant and makes ceremonial uniforms and garments, coachmen, footmen and chauffeurs. , Dan Kitwood/Getty
At Gieves & Hawkes Tailors, Tom Slatter, Bespoke Coatmaker, prepares the cloth for a formal business suit. The whole two-piece getup will take eight weeks to complete., Dan Kitwood/Getty
Here, Bespoke Head Cutter Peter O'Neill marks out and cuts a suit pattern. Price? Basic cuts start at around $5,000.
Chalk. Scissors. Thick bristle brush and a tape measure. You won't find any electronics, no drones doing a human hand's work, at Gieves & Hawkes., Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty
There's no better example of planned obsolescence than the tennis shoe. Not on Savile Row. Carréducker shoe workshop trains real cobblers, restoring or measuring and corking and burnishing from scratch., Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty
Down the street, at Dege & Skinner, they still use a Fifties-era Singer sewing machine in the workshop., Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty
But nearly everything else, right down to sewing in the label, is done by hand. Dege & Skinner was Savile Row's first on-site bespoke shirtmaker. Can't make it to London? The compnay will send a tailor stateside by appointment to meet, measure and fit bespoke garments., Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty
Houndstooth? Power stripes? Glen Plaid? Your choice of patterns, cut from the raw. 
Norton & Sons takes a special pride in their trousers, each chalked out and trimmed until perfect. The company was founded in 1821. Norton & Sons will make fewer than 200 suits total this year., Chris Young/AFP/Getty
They've got ledgers, too. Look closely at January, 1951, and you'll see "Lawrence Olivier" scrawled across the spine. Three books over, "Gregory Peck" and "Clark Gable.", Bruno Vincent/Getty
Templates for glasses frames shape on display at the Stratford shop. Denzel Washington gets his specs here, and so does Johnny Depp. The store began trading in 1932. It's now the only bespoke framemaker left in Britain. , Oli Scarff/Getty
No machine can make compontents this intricate., Oli Scarff/Getty