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Bentley’s beautiful past

Here’s an astonishing picture of a car that has, literally, risen from the ashes.

It’s the only 1939 Bentley Corniche ever made and has been re-created with a ground-up rebuild.

In 1939 the styling of the Corniche was a radical step forward from the traditional Bentleys of the 1920s and ’30s, introducing “streamlining” to give greater speed and performance.

It heavily influenced post-war models from the R Type Continental right through to the current Continental GT.

The car was lost in France at the outbreak of World War II after being extensively damaged during road tests in August 1939.

Sent for repairs, the chassis made it home to the Bentley plant in Derby, but the bodywork was destroyed in a bombing raid on Dieppe later in 1939, and was never seen again.

The project to re-create it was originally started several years ago by volunteers from the WO Bentley Memorial Foundation and the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation, but was brought in-house in February 2018, under the eye of Chairman and Chief Executive Adrian Hallmark, who asked for it to be completed in 2019 to celebrate Bentley’s centenary.

The project was taken on by Bentley’s Mulliner division where, since the 1970s, one-off cars have been built for collectors and Royalty, including two State Limousines made in 2002.

As Mulliner’s first historic car project, the Corniche shows the breadth of the division’s coach-building and restoration skills.

Using only the original technical drawings it has been rebuilt in Crewe using original Corniche and MkV mechanical components and a completely re-made body, identical to the original in every detail.

Stefan Sielaff, Design Director at Bentley and Director of Mulliner, said: “We have highly skilled craftsmen within Mulliner and around the rest of Bentley Motors. They all have massive pride in what they’ve achieved with this car.”

The original 1939 Corniche was commissioned by Greek racer André Embiricos. Based on the old 4¼ Litre chassis. It was styled by designer Georges Paulin, and built by French coach-builder 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.

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The car was completed in May 1939 and tried out at Brooklands race circuit, where it achieved well over 100mph – a significant improvement on the standard MkV.

Streamlining had only just started to be used on production cars, so the smooth lines of the Corniche were ahead of their time.

It had 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.

Its 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 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 driver to swerve and hit a tree. The car rolled on to 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.