Lost to war, a Bentley show car is finally reborn
The 1939 Bentley Corniche show car, long lost to the fog of war, is back. Using original drawings and traditional coachbuilding techniques aided by modern technology, the crew at Bentley’s in-house coachbuilding Mulliner division has recreated, identical in every detail to the original, they say, a missing link in the company’s 100-year history.
While modern-day enthusiasts may associate that model name with Bentley’s former relative Rolls-Royce, the original Corniche, named for mountainside roads, was a Bentley.
The project started as a labor (labour?) of love by Bentley enthusiasts. In 2001, former Bentley director Ken Lea decided to recreate the Corniche, using original Mk V parts and period spares that Bentley had made for the one-off car. He was joined by a group of volunteers who started searching for documentation and other components and began assembling the chassis. The volunteers ran out of funds in 2008, so Bentley Motors stepped in with some money, allowing the coachbuilders at Ashley & James to start work on the aluminum body and its ash wood structure, fashioned from Georges Paulin’s original sketches, donated to the project by his family.
Progress was slow until Bentley’s new chairman and CEO, Adrian Hallmark, offered to bring the project in-house at Mulliner to have it ready in time for this year’s centenary celebration. Team members at both Mulliner and Bentley’s wider operations donated their own time to work on the Corniche. The aluminum panels were hand-formed at Mulliner, Bentley’s paint lab developed the Heather Gray over Imperial Maroon paint from period descriptions (there are no extant color photographs of the ’39 Corniche), and the interior was fabricated in Vanvooren’s typical styling from CAD drawings based on historical research. Period-correct Connolly Vaumol leather and West of England cloth were used for the interior and the recreated Corniche has floors covered with carpet from a vintage roll that was found stored at Bentley.
Computer aided design was also used in the fabrication of the custom front grille, to optimize airflow. Skilled metalshapers then hand-formed each individual slat, taking three months to complete the masterpiece.
A Mulliner apprentice even recreated the Corniche’s custom, trunk-mounted tool tray.
The original Bentley Corniche was inspired by a custom-bodied 4¼-liter Bentley commissioned by Greek racer André Embiricos and designed by Georges Paulin. Its streamlined styling so impressed the engineers and managers at Bentley that they decided to make a more sporting version of the Mk V sedan they were about to release. Bentley sent a chassis lightened with the use of thinner gauge steel, a tuned Mk V engine, and an overdrive gearbox to the coachbuilders at Carrosserie Vanvooren in Paris, who fabricated a body per Paulin’s design.
Streamlining was a combination of rudimentary aerodynamics with the art-deco stylings of the day. Though the use of wind tunnels had not yet become commonplace, it was understood that Bentley’s traditional upright radiator grille was an obstacle to maximum speed. Paulin’s smoothed front end cut through the wind better. When tested at the Brooklands track back in England, the Corniche was well able to “do the ton,” easily exceeding 100 mph, quite a bit faster than the standard Mk V.
While the Corniche was never put into series production (from the fact that Bentley had made spare parts, it’s possible the company considered it as a limited edition) its pillarless body, complexly curved front fenders, and sweeping rears would influence generations of post-war Bentleys. Current Bentley models still share some of the Corniche’s styling DNA.
After high-speed testing at Brooklands, the Corniche returned to France for real-world road testing, where it was hit by a bus. Vanvooren repaired it and made some new modifications, but when Bentley’s factory driver was returning it to their testing facility at Chateauroux, he had to swerve to avoid a car that cut him off, hitting a tree and then rolling the car. Scheduled for display that year at the Earls Court and Paris auto shows, the chassis was returned to Bentley headquarters at Crewe in the UK, while a repair shop in France did the bodywork with little time to spare. Once completed, the body was shipped to the port at Dieppe for transport back to England. Unfortunately, paperwork errors delayed shipment, a world war broke out, and the body was destroyed in a bombing raid.
The recreated Corniche will be joining W.O. Bentley’s historic 8 Liter and the supercharged Birkin Team Blower as part of Bentley’s Heritage Fleet. It will have its first public showing in September at the Salon Privé at Blenheim Palace.