It is safe to say that Bentley has really gone to town with its hundredth anniversary celebrations. From bespoke books to futuristic concept cars and a myriad of events around the world, the company has been showcasing their global success and their commitment to a future of innovation. The latest of its centenary projects has been the re-creation of the 1939 Bentley Corniche by Mulliner, a one-off vehicle that unfortunately was lost at the start of WWII.
The Corniche was conceived in the late 1930s, when Greek racer André Embiricos commissioned a sporting Bentley, based on the old 4¼ Litre chassis. It was styled by talented designer Georges Paulin, and built by French coachbuilder Pourtout. The Corniche was meant to be a high performance version of the MkV saloon, itself a technological advance that was due to be launched in October 1939. The design of the Corniche meant quite a change from the traditional Bentley´s of the previous decades. It introduced ‘Streamlining’ to help deliver greater speed and performance and heavily influenced post-war models, from the R Type Continental right through to the current Continental GT.
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 the typical designs of the period. In staid 1930s Britain, this was pure fantasy-made-real. Unfortunately, it wasn´t in the Corniche´s destiny to live a life of glamour, as it was designed to do. After successful trials at Brooklands, the car went to France to undergo road tests, and in August 1939, it was involved in a nasty traffic accident. The chasses ended up in the Bentley plant in Derby for repairs, but the bodywork was destroyed in a bombing raid on Dieppe later in 1939 and was never seen again.
Years ago, volunteers from the WO Bentley Memorial Foundation and the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation started to work on a project to re-create the long lost Corniche. 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.
In early 2018, Chairman and Chief Executive Adrian Hallmark brought the project in-house, to the Mulliner division (they´ve been making one-off cars for collectors and Royalty since the 1970s) and asked for it to be completed by 2019, for Bentley´s centenary celebrations. The project to re-create the Corniche was overseen by a team of four: Ken Lea; Robin Peel, Head of Heritage; Ian Broomhall, Mulliner Operations Manager and Glyn Davies, Mulliner Special Projects leader.
“The 1939 Corniche was a clear step in Bentley’s design language which is evident when set aside the later and now iconic R Type Continental. It is a pivotal car in the history of Bentley, demonstrating that even then, this great British marque was at the cutting edge of design and technology,” commented Hallmark. “Mulliner’s stunning recreation of the Corniche clearly demonstrates our skill in restoring the greats from Bentley’s back catalogue as well as making beautiful personalised modern Bentleys.”
The interior of the Bentley Corniche.Using only the original technical drawings and the skills of the men and women of Mulliner, the Corniche has been rebuilt in Crewe using original Corniche and MkV mechanical components and a completely re-made body, identical to the original. Every aspect of the project received Mulliner attention. From the special paint mixes – named Imperial Maroon and Heather Grey – to the unique interior trim, the accessories such as the tool tray and even the Mulliner tread plates on the door shuts were created from scratch.
“It’s been a fantastic team effort,” said Stefan Sielaff, Design Director at Bentley and Director of Mulliner. “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.”
We spoke to several Bentley owners and enthusiasts, and it is clear that the re-creation of the Corniche is causing a lot of excitement in the Bentley loving community. One of these Bentley lovers, Andrew Hildreth told us: “Bentley Motors rebuilding of the original Corniche illustrates two important aspects of the bespoke nature of luxury and their cars. First, that Bentley has always been committed to understanding its history to inform the future. The nature of bespoke may have changed in terms of materials and design, but the same ethos to the individual Bentley owner remains a constant. Second, that the original Corniche demonstrates how path-breaking the design was for the time. The standard Mark V 4.5 litre car had been transformed into the flowing lines and the detailed bodywork that illustrate Bentley’s commitment to elegance and luxury.”
The Corniche will 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.