Loads of car companies have sought to create ‘classic collections’, highlights Iain Robertson, as a means to showcase their historical relevance but, for Bentley, the process with just one car was not just time-consuming but demanded intense expertise.
Trying desperately to avoid encroaching on the Seven Deadly Sins, I am hoping that ‘desire’ does not find any close correlations, because I have seldom (apart from that elusive Dino 246GT) desired a car more than I do Bentley’s latest model. While it is undoubtedly a classic, it is also painfully new.
It has become a fascination of the less well-founded car brands to snaffle-up early editions of their volume motorcars, as a means to draw attention to their landmark talents. Naturally, some of them have created game-changing models in their time, such as Ford and its RS2000, or Mustang; or Citroen and its fabulous DS of the mid-1950s. However, my toes curl slightly, when I hear that Fiat has collected some early 500s, or that Chinese-owned MG has been sniffing around at cars that may carry the octagonal badge but have little to do with what MG represents today.
The problems for volume producers lie mainly in the sheer disposability of their products. Never built for much more than in-built obsolescence, a future life as a classic car never appeared in the original model’s stars. On the other hand, for some brands, creating an instant classic is a good reason to celebrate. To be fair, this usually happens for the marques to which we might attach the sobriquet ‘collectable’, in which classification you would certainly include Ferrari, Porsche, Bugatti, Rolls-Royce and Bentley.
In fact, Bentley has re-created a long-lost car from its illustrious past that provides a crucial link in the history of its most important models. The ground-up rebuild of the only 1939 Corniche ever made, the sole nature of which insists that it has classic status, highlights the marque’s design pedigree and period technological innovation, allied to the breadth of skills within coachbuilder Mulliner’s ‘bespoking’ division, especially as it connects the fabled Embiricos 4¼ Litre and R Type Continental models.
As the only car of its type now in existence, it is unique, in the much-abused true definition of that word. As it happens, the Corniche was conceived as a high-performance version of the MkV saloon, itself a technological advancement that was due to be launched in October 1939. Its styling was a radical step forward from the traditional Bentleys of the 1920s and 1930s, introducing ‘streamlining’ to help deliver greater speed and performance, aspects that had become intrinsic to the Derby-based car maker, following a run of successes in races and endurance events.
The original Corniche was lost in France in 1939, at the outbreak of World War II. It was damaged extensively in a traffic accident, while undergoing road tests in France in August of that year. Sent for repairs, the chassis made it home to the Bentley plant in Derby but the bodywork was destroyed in a subsequent bombing raid on Dieppe later in 1939 and was never seen again. It was a rather ‘difficult’ period for any car maker, even Bentley.
The ground-up restoration project was started originally several years ago by volunteers from the WO Bentley Memorial Foundation and the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation, although it was brought in-house in February 2018, under the watchful eye of Chairman and chief executive, Adrian Hallmark, who requested that it be completed in 2019, to coincide with and celebrate Bentley’s centenary.
As he tells us: “The 1939 Corniche was a clear step-up in Bentley’s design language, which is evident, when set alongside 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. Mulliner’s stunning recreation of the Corniche demonstrates clearly our skills in restoring the greats from Bentley’s back catalogue, as well as making beautiful personalised modern Bentleys.”
The project fell naturally to the now in-house Mulliner division, where, since the 1970s, one-off cars have been built for discerning collectors and Royalty, including two beautiful State Limousines manufactured in 2002 that are kept at Buckingham Palace Mews, as HM The Queen uses them regularly. Today, various production models are adapted and built to particular customers’ exacting specifications, the list of which can be as long as their owners’ ‘in the black’ bank statements. Amazingly, as Mulliner’s first ever historic project, the Corniche has demonstrated the full breadth of the division’s coachbuilding and restoration skills, not that any observers were in any doubt.
Using only the original technical drawings, because that is all that the specialist panel-beaters, wood-workers and trim exponents had to guide them, Bentley’s in-house coach-building division rebuilt this unique Corniche at Crewe, where the company has been headquartered for several decades, using original Corniche and MkV mechanical components and a completely re-manufactured body, identical in every detail to the original. Yet, how far can you go to refer to this utterly beautiful car as anything other than brand spanking new?
All that remained of the original was its buckled and slowly rusting chassis. Every other element is recreated, albeit much as it had been by the original specialists at Bentley, eighty years ago. There are sure to be differences in the raw materials used, as advancements have been made in manufacturing standards that improve them to new pinnacles of quality. Yet, I can perceive its immense value to Bentley, not merely as a showpiece at classic car shows and events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
The Corniche makes 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 models, to be used and exhibited at events around the world. Bentley is very careful not to mention the actual cost of this project but you have to reckon that it is in the region of £1.5-2m, even though its value to Bentley and the history of the marque is considerably greater.