Possibly the unluckiest Bentley ever has been completely restored by bespoke division Mulliner in a project that took nearly two decades to come to fruition. The once ground-breaking Corniche had endured more than its fair share of misfortune back in 1939, including two major crashes and damage caused by a World War 2 bomb, but a rebuild first thought up by former Bentley director Ken Lea has seen it returned to the road after 18 painstaking years of restoration.
It’s a mark of the car’s unfortunate early existence that its story is at least as remarkable as the intricate work done to bring it back to original condition. The story begins conventionally enough: the car was born in 1939 as a prototype for a lighter, faster version of the then forthcoming MkV, with a chassis made from thinner-grade steel and an uprated 4.5-litre straight-six with an overdrive gearbox mounted at the front. Its body was designed by French car designer Georges Paulin and hand made by Parisian firm Carrosserie Vanvooren, providing it with a shape slippery enough to surpass 100mph at Brooklands.
But it’s here that the car’s good fortune ended. Times a million. During testing in France that July the one-off Corniche was hit by a bus, requiring it to be rebuilt before it could return to the road. Unseen forces must have wanted it off the road because upon returning to France a month later its driver crashed it into a tree in a bid to avoid another impact with a vehicle, rolling it onto its side. Bentley set out to repair the damaged saloon again, shipping the chassis back to Blighty and the body back to its French builder. But the sections would not meet again thanks to a World War 2 bomb, which flattened the storage facility the body was being kept at after its delivery was delayed by an administration error. You couldn’t make it up.
You might have assumed at this point that the Corniche was cursed and beyond saving, but such was its significance – the streamlined body inspired several later Bentley models and the benchmarks for performance it set weren’t matched for several more years, to name but two accolades – that its return to life began again in the noughties. Initially the work was handled in Derby by volunteers and enthusiasts, including some employees of Bentley who worked out of hours, before the firm provided official backing from 2008.
From then onwards, the process of restoration set out to recreate each and every missing component as it would have been, using historical documents and the original sketches for basis. That it took a further 11 years to complete the Corniche, despite its relative technological simplicity and the involvement of Mulliner experts with the very latest computer aided design on hand, emphasises just how exquisitely detailed the hand-made work is. Even the door hinges and boot-located tool box were tirelessly matched to the originals.
The finished car, painted in the original shade of Imperial Maroon, has rather conveniently been completed in Bentley’s centenary year and it will now join the firm’s heritage fleet, meaning it’ll actually be used and taken to events all over the world. Which is brilliant news and a wonderful return to life for a car that has only ever known bad luck. Let’s hope it won’t be going near any bus lanes anytime soon.