Bentley built a single, solitary Corniche in 1939 that was badly damaged when it crashed and hit a tree shortly after completion in France.
In preparation for the car’s repair, body and chassis were separated, and the chassis returned to Derby in the UK — the body damage repaired locally before it was moved to the dock in Dieppe for its return too.
But somewhere along the way somebody screwed up because the body remained waiting at the docks where it was destroyed later in a bombing raid during the Second World War.
In the normal course of events that would be the end of our tale, but the clever lads at Bentley have managed to recreate the car, and in doing so have filled in the missing link in its long and illustrious history.
Using only the original technical drawings and the skills of the men and women of Mulliner, Bentley’s in-house bespoke and coachbuilding section, this unique Corniche has been rebuilt in Crewe using original Corniche and MkV mechanical components and a completely re-made body, identical in every detail to the original.
“It’s been a fantastic team effort,” Design Director at Bentley and Director of Mulliner, Stefan Sielaff, said.
“We have highly skilled craftsmen within Mulliner and around the rest of Bentley Motors, and they all have massive pride in what they’ve achieved with this car.”
In the late-1930s, Greek racer André Embiricos commissioned the sporting Bentley, based on the old 4¼ Litre chassis.
It was styled by talented designer Georges Paulin, and built by French coachbuilder Pourtout.
Although privately commissioned, it was much-admired and secretly encouraged among Bentley engineers and management, who were convinced the factory should produce a sportier version of the forthcoming MkV saloon.
It was agreed the Corniche should be built to investigate the idea.
The car would have a lightweight chassis, built from thinner steel, fitted with a tuned version of the MkV engine matched to an overdrive gearbox created to suit.
The Corniche was a collaboration between Bentley and third parties such as Georges Paulin, the French car designer who designed the bodywork and Carrosserie Vanvooren in Paris who made the bodywork.
The car was completed by May 1939 and tried out at Brooklands race circuit, where it achieved well over 100mph – a significant improvement on the standard MkV.
Streamlining had only just started to be adopted on production cars of the period, so the smooth lines of the Corniche were ahead of their time.
It had been recognised the huge, upright, traditional Bentley radiator adversely affected top speed, and the smoothed nose of the Corniche was a direct reaction to that understanding.
The pillarless body, with front and rear-hinged doors was also extremely innovative for the period, and the complicated curves of the front wings and the long sweeps of the rears were a long way from typical designs.
In staid 1930s Britain, the Corniche was pure fantasy-made-real.
Many of the parts that had been produced to make further Corniche models were kept until the early 1970s before being sold off to specialists and enthusiasts.
Then, in 2001, automotive historian and former Bentley director Ken Lea decided to try to use original parts as the basis for a recreation of the Corniche.
The project was based in Derby, with volunteers gathering information and parts to assemble the chassis.
In 2008, with the project out of money, Bentley Motors provided an injection of funds, and work started on the ash frame and aluminium bodywork with coachbuilders Ashley & James in Lymington, Hampshire.
The body was created from the outline drawings given to the project by the family of the car’s original designer, George Paulin.
The project continued to make slow progress until it was brought in-house to Mulliner at Bentley Motors at the request of new Chairman and CEO Adrian Hallmark.
The Mulsanne body-in-white team, where panels are still hand-formed, helped with final detailed finessing of panels.
The paint laboratory spent many hours producing colour samples of the main body colour of Imperial Maroon and the side flash of Heather Grey from the limited descriptions available.
Head of Interior Design Darren Day and his team produced CAD designs for the seats and door trims derived from detailed historical research.
The Mulliner trim team worked from the designs to create a period-appropriate interior in typical Vanvooren style, using the correct Connolly Vaumol hide, West of England cloth and the carpet from a roll discovered stored away on site.
In the Mulliner workshop, Mulliner Master Carpenter Gary Bedson devised a steam booth to allow him to bend sections of wood for the interior window surrounds, often spending over an hour wreathed in steam just to attain a few degrees more curvature.
Other team members worked hard to re-create the front grille, using CAD to analyse airflow and design each individual slat, which were then hand-formed by skilled metalworkers over a period of three months.
Six Mulliner apprentices, one of whom even created an authentic tool tray for the boot of the Corniche, were also involved throughout the car’s time with Mulliner
The ground-up rebuild highlights the breadth of skills within the Mulliner bespoke division, and links the fabled Embiricos 4¼ Litre and R Type Continental.
The born again Corniche is set to make its first public appearance at Salon Privé at Blenheim Palace in September and will join Bentley’s Heritage fleet, which already includes WO Bentley’s 8 Litre and the Birkin Team Blower — to be used and exhibited at events around the world.