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A one-off Bentley that was blown up at the start of WW2 has been painstakingly recreated by Bentley’s Mulliner workshop as part of the marque’s centenary celebrations.
The 1939 Bentley Corniche was a prototype produced for a private commission and based on a 4¼ Litre chassis. It underwent 15,000 miles of endurance testing but was sadly destroyed in a bombing raid in France before it had a chance to enter production.
A plan to rebuild it was first mooted back in 2001 and now, finally, the project is complete – with the reconstructed beauty due to make its debut next month at the Salon Privé show in Oxfordshire.
With radical, streamlined styling, complex curves, and a pillarless body with front- and rear-hinged doors, the Corniche was an other-worldly creation in ’30s Britain.
It was the result of a commission by famous Greek racer André Embiricos for a sporting Bentley, based on the old 4¼ Litre chassis and was designed by Georges Paulin of coachbuilders Pourtout, with Carrosserie Vanvooren in Paris crafting the body.
Despite being a private project, it was fully supported by in-house staff at Bentley, who thought the marque should offer a high-performance version of the MkV saloon that was slated for launch in October 1939.
As an extension of that idea, thinner-than-usual steel was used for the Corniche’s lightweight chassis and power came from a tuned version of the MkV’s unit.
Following completion in May ’39, the Corniche was tested at Brooklands and achieved speeds of over 100mph, clearly outpacing the stock MkV.
On-road testing in France followed, but damage by a bus that July forced a return to Vanvooren. With the work completed, a works test driver took it to Bentley’s Châteauroux depot when, again, disaster struck.
As he neared his destination, a car pulled in front of the Corniche, causing its driver to swerve. The Bentley hit a tree and rolled onto its side. Fresh from a rebuild, the work had to start all over again.
And there was no time to lose, with the Corniche scheduled to star at both the Earls Court and Paris motor shows later in the year.
The chassis went back to Crewe, while the body remained in France for repairs. On completion, it was transported to Dieppe for shipping to the UK – but the fairytale reunion between the two parts never happened.
An administrative error delayed it at the docks and while it was waiting, Dieppe suffered heavy bombing. The Corniche’s body was destroyed, and that was the end of the story – until 2001.
That was when former Bentley director and automotive historian Ken Lea led a volunteer-force of enthusiasts to try to use original parts as the basis for a Corniche recreation.
Bentley Motors stepped in when funds ran dry in 2008 and work on the ash frame and aluminium bodywork began, entrusted to coachbuilders Ashley & James in Lymington, Hampshire, with the body crafted from the outline drawings gifted by the family of original designer Paulin.
But progress was slow, until Chairman and CEO Adrian Hallmark brought the project in-house to Mulliner at Bentley Motors in February 2018, where a dedicated team – often working in their own time – lavished hours of care, attention and innovation on what is Mulliner’s first classic car project.
Using original Corniche and MkV mechanical components, plus a re-made body and unique interior trim, it’s identical to the original that wowed 80 years ago.
“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,” said 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.”
“It’s been a fantastic team effort,” added 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.”
You can see this unique Corniche at Salon Privé on 5-7 September – for tickets, click here.