The Long-Lost Bentley Corniche Prototype Was Crashed, Bombed, Then Lost. Now It’s Been Resurrected At The Factory
In 1939, the Corniche was the planned sporting version of the new MkV saloon, and it’s still counted as the missing link between traditional pre-war Bentleys and the swoopy R Type Continentals of the 1950s—which inspired the current Continental GT. But it had a short and remarkably unfortunate life…
The prototype Corniche was built using a lightweight version of the Mk5 chassis and a tuned MkV engine. In early tests it achieved 111mph at Brooklands, which was a big improvement on previous models. Its then-radical styling by Frenchman Georges Paulin was a massive departure for the company, though it had been inspired by the privately-commissioned Embiricos Bentley that preceded it.
After Brooklands, the Corniche prototype was taken to Bentley’s base in Chateauroux in France for further testing. There it was hit by a bus, and returned to coachbuilder Vanvooren in Paris. On August 8 1939 the repaired Corniche was collected by a Bentley test driver, who headed back to Chateauroux, only for a car to pull in front of him on the wet roads. The test driver swerved, missed the car, but the Corniche went off the road, hit a tree and rolled onto its side.
With a rush to repair the Corniche once again in readiness for the forthcoming London and Paris motor shows, the Corniche body was removed from its chassis, to be repaired at a local body shop. The chassis was shipped back to the Bentley factory in Derby, UK. Meanwhile, in September 1939, war broke out.
When the body was finally ready again, it was May 1940 but ferries were still crossing the English Channel. The body was taken to Dieppe on the French coast, only to be held up in a confusion over import duty. While the payment dispute rumbled on, Dieppe was bombed, and the Corniche was destroyed.
That would have been it for the Corniche but for the efforts of former Bentley director and historian Ken Lea, who spearheaded a project to recreate the Corniche using what’s thought to be the original lightweight chassis (or one of the other two made) along with some of the spares that had been produced in readiness for Corniche production.
A new body was made by UK coachbuilders Ashley & James, and the chassis built up at the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust, before the project was moved to the Bentley factory in Crewe. Responsibility for completing the project fell to the Mulliner division, where new Bentleys are personalised to individual customers’ requests.
The Mulliner team worked with other departments at the factory to finesse and paint the bodywork, construct the intricate front grille and create a complete interior. The design of the interior was overseen by Bentley’s interior design director Darren Day, working from research material discovered by Ken Lea—no pictures of the original interior exist. The seats, trims and the wood (including the intricately curved wooden sections around the door windows) were then created by Mulliner team and the Bentley trimming department.
The Corniche was ready for its first drive around the factory on July 10, the 100th birthday of the Bentley company, and it’s since been completed ready for its first public appearance at Salon Privé in September.
Images courtesy of Bentley Motors