The "Shooting Brake" Started Life as an Aristocratic Hunting Car

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 13, 2018

The concept is decidedly British. As the New York Times describes it, the “shooting brake” is “a sleek wagon with two doors and sports-car panache, its image entangled with European aristocracy, fox hunt and baying hounds.”

The Mercedes-Benz CLA Shooting Brake is the modern interpretation. (Mercedes-Benz photo)

Archaic as a car for fox hunts may be, the shooting brake is making a comeback lately, with concept cars in the category from Volvo, Audi and Renault (which called its Altica a “break de chasse.”). Mercedes built a CLA Shooting Brake, and the concept sort of fits the Ferrari FF also.

The Ferrari FF, another kind of shooting brake. (Ferrari photo)

To equip the hunt, shooting brakes don’t require only two doors; in fact it works better with four, plus the rear hatch. The genesis of the concept is the huge country homes, with vast estates, maintained by the British aristocracy between the world wars. Weekends at such places were excuses for killing as many small animals as possible—birds, mostly. And that didn’t even include the ritualized fox hunt.

According to OldWoodies.com:

The woodies of the British Isles were the product of an aristocratic culture. Just as road-going motorized transport was first adopted by the only people who could afford such extravagance, the wealthy land owner was among the first to press the motor car into sporting use.  Originally, a “brake” was a sturdy horse-drawn wagon meant for off-road use. The wooden-bodied estate car met the need for carrying capacity with the prerequisite impression of affluence. What vehicle could better serve the lords of the realm while participating in the social ritual of hunting?  Bespoke craftsmanship merged with the heady rush of mechanized mobility.

During the era of the coachbuilt body, between the world wars, small shops guided by gifted designers created fabulous bodies to mount on the finest chassis that money could buy. If one were inconvenienced by a vehicular mishap, an opportunity arose to change the body to fulfill other needs. Thus, last year’s grand touring car could metamorphose into a covered, wood-paneled estate car.

The “brake” part was originally “break,” and it refers to the English break for teatime. You could sit in your shooting car and put your feet up while enjoying your repast. Isn’t that cool? If you got tired of the grand tourer you used for cruising to Cannes, you could have an all-new body built on the chassis and chase foxes instead.

There are other origin stories, of course. One says they’re called “brakes” because that described the carriage used to train and “break in” newly acquired horses.  

A 1953 Lea Francis shooting brake of the type made for Lady Mary Percy to shoot animals.

The original shooting brakes survived well into the 1950s, the last gasp of the coachbuilt era. The cars were made to order. A 1954 Lea Francis, for example, was especially built for Lady Mary Percy, lady in waiting to the Royal Family.

Shooting brakes, like this Rolls, came with all the trimmings.

The concept made its way into the colonies, including India, where maharajahs used them (with enthusiastic participation by their British overlords) for “pig sticking.” Wild boar, don’t you know. The Rolls-Royce was a popular shooting brake, and I actually saw one such holdover from the Raj in the southern city of Vizakaputnam many years ago.

There's nothing like a good old fashioned pig sticking. 

What, you want more about pig sticking? It’s kind of labor-intensive, and involves running down the boars on horseback and dispatching them with spears. The cars got them into the field of play. The sport depends on a horde of native “beaters” to flush out the boars. This is from an account about a visit to India by the Prince of Wales in 1922:

The spirited boars charged and knocked down beaters and riders as they smashed their way through the thorny scrub. They slashed vengefully at their hateful pursuers with their vicious tusks injuring the horses and not sparing even the elephants. The jungle was beat six times that day with the ecstatic parties of hunters giving chase to their deadly, tusked game, unmindful of the bleeding from the vicious scratches by the thorns. The Maharaja’s hospitality was at its best with refreshments being served outdoors despite the general melee.  The Prince got two boars, including one with a single spear through the heart. The party returned to the Palace for lunch. The Prince had so enjoyed the day at pig-sticking that when plans were being made during the evening ball for the mixed shooting the following day, he decided to opt out and go for a repeat of pig-sticking instead. He got another pig that day.

Enlightening, isn’t it? Shooting brakes made their way to the U.S., and were used in places like Texas for scouring vast ranches for game. Here’s one I shot (not with a gun) at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.

Note the longhorns.This very British Rolls had to adjust to life in Texas. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This vehicle, which won an award in Florida, is one of 3,512 Phantoms built between 1925 and 1931. The original metal body is history, replaced with a Sussex-built hand-made wooden cab of mahogany and oak. The car got commandeered by the U.S. Army during World War II, after which it came over to America with an English family in the early 50s. After a detour to Switzerland, it relocated to Texas, where it began “fulfilling its estate-car duties at a large ranch in Texas.”

The Rolls in Texas, as recently posted for sale.

Features include leather bench seats, and a folding rear wooden bench “to create more space separated by gun racks.” The rear tailgate has removable legs that can be used “to serve high tea whilst at hunt or picnic aside the polo pitch.”

The pig didn't get much say in this form of sport.

I haven’t stuck any pigs lately, so I probably won’t be needing a shooting brake anytime soon. American hunters used to accommodate their guns and dead game in pickups and SUVs (remember the classic deer strapped to the hood?), but now everyone has one or the other. What’s the modern hunter to do and remain distinctive?


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