GRR

Thank Frankel it’s Friday: the curious story of the Bentley Corniche

08th August 2019
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

The world is full of ‘what if’ moments, and few more so than ours. But there can’t be many car companies whose histories were changed by the dropping of a single bomb on a single car. But such was the fate of Bentley. Perhaps, or at least possibly. Welcome then to the curious story of the rise, fall and rise of the Bentley Corniche.

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If the Corniche word makes you think of convertible Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows, think again, for this was a very different kind of Corniche. A Corniche commissioned before the war which, had it survived, had it not been for that pesky bomb, could have sent Bentley off in an entirely different direction after it. But it was not to be. First the Corniche itself disappeared into fragments courtesy of the Luftwaffe, then its story disappeared first into Bentley history, then obscurity. All that was believed to have survived were a handful of pre-war photographs, some showing the car rather inelegantly and somewhat crumpled on its side.

But what a car it was! Indeed there was only one Bentley that had ever looked anything like it, the famed ‘Embiricos’ Bentley of 1938, whose sleek lines actually gained most famed after the war when the car not only entered Le Mans three times in succession between 1949-51, but finished them all, the first of which in sixth place.

But the Embiricos had nothing to do with Bentley and even before the outbreak of hostilities was based on outdated running gear. The car Bentley was going to introduce was called the Mk V, which came with a new chassis, a new engine, independent front suspension and synchromesh on all forward gears save first. Mechanically it was a transformation, but visually it looked quite exceptionally similar to the ‘Derby’ Bentleys produced by Rolls-Royce soon after acquiring Bentley in 1931.

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So Bentley decided to investigate the possibility of a faster, more sporting version of the Mk V, one whose appearance did justice to the changes beneath. They charged the same Georges Paulin who’d created the shape of the Embiricos to do something even more striking but with four doors and asked renown French coachbuilder Vanvooren to build it. In that moment the Corniche was born.

It was some creation, as modern, continental and sporting as those of the Mk V were upright English traditional. It had a special lightweight chassis and a gutsier engine too. By July 1939 the Corniche was roaming around Europe doing high speed testing and there it remained until a test driver binned it on wet roads in August. The car hit a tree and rolled, the driver lucky to emerge without significant injury.

Both body and chassis were separated, the former staying in France for repairs, the latter shipped back to the factory. But then war broke out and in Derby all thoughts of the Corniche were set aside. But in France work on the body continued until it was finally finished and sent to north coast to catch the boat home. And even then all would have been fine had the car not been delayed by officialdom and left sitting on the docks at Dieppe. It was still there when the Luftwaffe turned up…

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And that really should have been the end of the Corniche. And it was, until 2001 when Bentley historian Ken Lea located a lightweight chassis (apparently three were made and it’s not known for sure whether this is car’s original or not), and installed a Mk V engine. His dream of recreating the Corniche was becoming a reality.

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But funds were short and it took an age for it all to come together, despite the existence of many original technical drawings owned both by Bentley and the Paulin family. But in 2008 money from Bentley Motors helped finance the creation of the new body by Ashley & James in Lymington. But it would be another decade and the arrival in Crewe of new CEO Adrian Hallmark before the project could be completed.

Hallmark brought the car to Crewe and gave it to Bentley’s Mulliner personal commissioning department who created its interior, finished exterior detailing and painted it. The car was ready to be driven on July 10th this year, which just happened also to be the company’s centenary.

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The recreated Corniche will now join Bentley’s historic fleet and sit alongside EXP2, the world’s oldest Bentley, Birkin’s fabled Number Two team Blower and W.O’s own 8.0-litre. It will make its global public debut at the Salon Privé Bentley concours on September 7th, where both Adrian Hallmark and I are on the judging panel. It promises to be quite an occasion.

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