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 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.
Many team members from Mulliner and across the wider Bentley Motors business dedicated their personal time to work on the Corniche, and staff from other divisions joined in.
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; and 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 original 1939 Corniche
In the late-1930s, 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. Although privately commissioned, it was much-admired and secretly encouraged among Bentley engineers and management, who were convinced that the factory should produce a more sporting version of the forthcoming MkV saloon.
It was agreed that the Corniche should be built to investigate the idea. It would have a lightweight chassis, built from thinner-than-standard gauge steel, fitted with a tuned version of the Mark V engine matched to an overdrive gearbox created to suit. The Corniche was built as 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 Mark V. 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 at least been recognised that the huge upright radiator of a traditional Bentley adversely affected the 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 the typical designs of the period. In staid 1930s Britain, this was pure fantasy-made-real.
After Brooklands, the Corniche went to France for road testing, but in July 1939 it was damaged by a bus and returned to Vanvooren for repairs and body improvements. When completed, on August 8, it was collected by a Bentley test driver, who headed straight for the Bentley depot at Chateauroux where the testing was based. It was as he neared the HQ that a car pulled in front of the Corniche, causing the Bentley test driver to swerve and hit a tree. The car rolled onto its side, causing extensive damage.
The Corniche was due to be displayed at the Earls Court and Paris motor shows later that year, so there was no time to lose. The body was removed from the chassis, and the chassis returned to Crewe, while the body went to a local repair shop in France.
The Corniche body was eventually completed in France, and transported to Dieppe to be shipped home. However, an administration error at the docks caused a delay, and while the Corniche body was stored waiting to be shipped it was destroyed when Dieppe was heavily bombed during WWII.