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SNAPSHOT 164: 1939 Bentley Mk V Corniche

This Snapshot at first appears to be no more than an effective advertisement for Girling brakes.  Its emphasis on progress in its copy justifies an illustration of a modern car.  But there is something curious about the whole picture.

It was found in the February 1942 issue of The Automobile Engineer, and the illustration is unmistakeably of the unique Bentley Mk V Corniche, experimental chassis 14-B-V.  So far, so modern and therefore so reasonable.  The only problem is that this car no longer existed at the time of the advertisement.  According to most accounts, the body (if not, perhaps, the chassis) had been destroyed by enemy air attacks on the docks at Dieppe sometime around May 1940.

We do not know when this advertisement was first shown.  Perhaps its first publication was soon after June 1939 when the car had just been completed ready for testing, first at Brooklands and then in France and Italy.  And, with the strictures imposed by the war, Girling may simply have continually repeated the publicity without concern for the fate of the car.

The tale of the Corniche, although often heard, is worth repeating here because its short life was eventful to say the least.  The story starts at the end of 1938 when Rolls-Royce issued a specification for a Continental version of the Bentley Mk V, a car designed to replace the 4¼-Litre but confined by the war to only 17 production examples.  Every attempt was made to lighten this very special version, from thinner gauge steel in the chassis, through magnesium alloy castings to pressed steel road wheels instead of ‘wires’. Completed in chassis form in February 1939, the car was sent to Paris to be fitted with the latest in streamlined bodywork, designed by Georges Paulin and built by Van Vooren, with vee windscreen, cowled front end and faired-in headlamps.

Testing started in June 1939, with a lap of 109 mph at Brooklands.  Late in June the continental testing started.  Late in July, the car was involved in a collision with a bus, had the damage straightened out and then soon after was running at high speed on a straight road  when a car pulled out into its path.  The test driver Percy Rose tried to avoid impact, but the car skidded, hit a tree and ended up on its side in a ditch. The chassis returned to Derby (some accounts deny this) and the body went to Chateauroux (between Paris and Limoges) for repair.

War was declared while repairs were still underway.  All contact with the car was lost until May 1940 when news reached Derby that the coachwork had arrived at Dieppe, but could not be shipped to England – and was assumed lost to enemy bombardment.  Thus ended the life of a thoroughly modern prototype.

All, however, was not lost.  In 1951 was born Corniche II, a high-performance sports saloon prototype clearly influenced by its pre-war namesake.  This was experimental chassis 9-B-VI, registration OLG 490 – forever known as ‘Olga’, and the progenitor of the legendary R-Type Continental.

Picture courtesy of the Richard Roberts Archive


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