The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

The Corniche paradox. 

Rolls Royce Corniche. (c) momentcar

The mid-1960’s were exciting times for Rolls-Royce. As development of the Silver Shadow progressed, the company shared the blueprints and specifications for its new saloon model with Mulliner Park Ward. The London based coachbuilder had a long history of producing bespoke models on Rolls-Royce chassis. Now that Rolls-Royce was moving to unitary construction, this would no longer be so straightforward, but Mulliner was keen to continue its traditional business. A plan was agreed whereby the coachbuilder would produce two-door coupé and convertible versions of the Silver Shadow.

The coupé was launched in 1965 alongside the Silver Shadow. The coachbuilder had used its advance notice productively, adding some dynamism to the rather staid saloon. The side profile now sported a flowing waistline with distinctive haunches over the rear wheels*. The rear screen was more inclined, as was the rear edge of the boot lid. The Silver Shadow’s tall vertical rear lights were replaced with smaller, sloping units, with the reversing lights relocated to the rear panel either side of the number plate.

The car was a coupé in name only as it shared the Silver Shadow’s generous 119.5in (3,035mm) wheelbase and 203.5in (5,169mm) overall length.

Rolls Royce silver Shadow 2-door saloon by James Young. (c) Classic Driver

Incidentally, for those conservative souls who found Mulliner’s design a touch outré, there was an alternative from another coachbuilder, James Young. This two-door was described as a saloon rather than a coupé. It remained entirely faithful to the Silver Shadow’s design and maintained its front, rear and side profile unchanged. It was, in reality, a conversion rather than a fully coachbuilt model. Only 35 Rolls-Royce (and 15 Bentley T-Series) examples were built between 1966 and 1967 as Young was unable to sell the model profitably against the more stylish Mulliner design.

The Drophead Coupé convertible model followed in 1966 and was identical to the coupé below the waistline. Mechanically, both coupé and convertible were indistinguishable from the Silver Shadow, with Rolls-Royce’s venerable 6.75 litre V8 engine mated to a three-speed GM automatic transmission.

So taken was Rolls-Royce with Mulliner’s work that, in March 1971, it adopted both models into its own official range, rechristening them the Corniche coupé and convertible after the sinuous coastal mountain roads found along the French Riviera. Production remained outsourced to the coachbuilder.

The convertible soon became a fixture on the French Côte d’Azur and in Monaco, as well as in the wealthiest enclaves of Florida and Southern California. Both models remained broadly unchanged until 1977, when they received the same mechanical and cosmetic updates as the Silver Shadow. These included rack and pinion steering and modifications to the front suspension to improve handling. They are readily identified by their new impact absorbing bumpers without over-riders. Unlike the Silver Shadow, however, they were not given the Series II designation. Later in the same year, both were equipped with Bosch fuel injection.

1980 Corniche Coupé. (c) hemmings

In March 1981, following the launch of the new Silver Spirit saloon, the Corniche coupé (and its Bentley equivalent) were discontinued. The convertible however remained in production without significant alteration, although the Bentley version was renamed Continental in July 1984 and given colour-keyed bumpers, a new dashboard and other cosmetic changes to distinguish it more readily from its Rolls-Royce sibling – as was happening concurrently with the Silver Spirit and Mulsanne saloons.

The Corniche was belatedly given a rather overblown Series II designation from 1986, which was accompanied by only minor cosmetic changes. Anti-lock brakes were fitted from 1988, when the car received new combined reversing and rear fog lights either side of the number plate.

The Series III model was launched at the 1989 Frankfurt motor show. It introduced air bags, as well as upgrades to the fuel injection and suspension systems, new alloy wheels, colour-keyed bumpers and other trim changes.

In January 1992, the Series IV Corniche was launched at the Detroit motor show. It featured a new GM four-speed automatic gearbox and adaptive suspension. The convertible hood finally received a glass rather than plastic rear window and no longer needed to be manually latched to the windscreen header rail. Production was moved to the Rolls-Royce factory in Crewe in anticipation of the closure of Mulliner’s operation two years later.

The very last Corniche Mark IV built. (c) Bonhams

The Corniche finally ended production in the summer of 1995. The last 25 cars were special turbocharged models badged Corniche S. Including the pre-Corniche name Mulliner cars, the convertible remained in production for 29 years. A total of 3,316 convertibles and 1,159 coupés were manufactured under both the Rolls-Royce and Bentley nameplates**.

That is not, however, the end of the story. In 2000, a new Series V Corniche was launched. Although the new convertible took its design cues from the 1998 Silver Seraph saloon, it was actually based on the platform of the 1995 Bentley Azure convertible, which in turn can be traced back through the 1991 Continental coupé to the 1980 SZ series Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit and Bentley Mulsanne saloons and, ultimately therefore, to the 1965 Silver Shadow.

Unlike its long-lived predecessor, the Corniche V would stay in production for only just over two years before falling victim to the bungled 1998 Volkswagen takeover of Rolls-Royce. The German company acquired all the physical assets and intellectual property but, critically, not the right to use the Rolls-Royce name. That instead was bought by BMW. A compromise was reached whereby Volkswagen would continue to manufacture the Silver Seraph until 2002, at which point it would be discontinued to make way for the first BMW-era Phantom, launched in 2003.

In light of this, it is unclear why Volkswagen bothered to launch the new Corniche for such a short production run. One might speculate that because it was, presumably, a relatively low-cost rebodying of the existing Azure model, it was still profitable to do so. A total of 384 Corniche V models were sold, compared with 602 Azure models over the same period.

The Azure-based Corniche V. (c) pistonheads

One also wonders why Volkswagen did not instead sell the Corniche V as a Bentley, replacing the decade-old design of the Continental / Azure. Stylistically, it would have aligned better with the Arnage Saloon, which would remain in production until 2009. In any event, VW finally replaced the Azure in 2006 with a new model which was based on the Arnage platform, but this also had a short production run, dying with the Arnage in 2009 without a replacement.

So there you have it – the Corniche – unique in enjoying both the longest and shortest production life of any Rolls-Royce model.

* One would never be so vulgar as to refer to this as a ‘coke-bottle’ style.

** These figures do not include production of the pre-1971 Mulliner Park Ward Coupé and Drophead models.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

16 thoughts on “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times”

  1. Thank you for this tribute to my personal favourite Rolls-Royce, Daniel!

    A marque enthusiast once told me that if he wants to see a Corniche Coupé, he travels to Paris, for that city apparently was the natural habitat of the Fixed Head variant (which is my personal preference). To me, this combination of car and locale sums up the appeal of the Cornice Coupé: The splendour is all in good taste, lending it an air of opulent luxury, rather than ostentatiousness.

    From today’s perspective, it doesn’t even appear particularly huge anymore. Which is another testament to the quality of J P Blatchley & Bill Allen’s design, which never appeared bloated or in any way uncomfortably large, unlike the Camargue or a Mercedes C140. A coupé of this size is a very difficult design to ‘get right’.

  2. It seems it’s not Mulliner’s first attempt at a Corniche. The original was a saloon, though, and they only made one:

    I like the Coupé versions very much – I’d prefer an early Bentley model. The motoring journalist, Quentin Willson, once compared the Silver Shadow’s styling to a Hillman Hunter’s. Although amusing, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration.

    1. I only remember that the Silver Shadow was often criticised for looking like an enlarged Peugeot 403 .

    2. Dave, I’ve heard a rumour that to my knowledge never have been substantiated that Pininfarina was consulted on the Silver Shadow and that’s why there’s a “family” resemblance. RR had problems going over to a “single bow”- style and Pininfarina essentially recycled the 403 from ten years prior. Considering the lead times, I would guess the delay is on Rolls-Royce. As said, I’ve never heard this verified, but it would be fun if someone could delve into it.

    3. Obviously, one must always bear in mind that the motor industry is a smaller and stranger place than most of us might imagine, but nevertheless, I’m a little dubious about this. Especially as it would appear, as anyone who has spent time on Keith Adams’ excellent AROnline, that RR had been working towards the definitive Silver Shadow shape from the early 1960s, as they investigated a unitary construction car to replace the Silver Cloud series.

      RR, clearly facing a serious knowledge deficit in unitary construction, investigated (around 1961-’62) employing the body shell of the BMC Westminster/Vanden Plas. Dubbed project Java, a number of styling models were produced to this effect, (under the supervision of J.P. Blatchley) all of which, while never quite hiding their architecture, combined stylistic elements one would see later in the Silver Shadow and later, the Corniche models. The final styling scheme, which dates from around the period when the idea was abandoned, bears a striking resemblance to the Shadow.

      Obviously, it wouldn’t have been unheard of for RR to have commissioned Pininfarina to evaluate the proposed Shadow design – after all the Torinese design house was the pre-eminent consultancy at the time and one noted in particular for their taste and sympathy towards the more high-end car manufacturers. Equally it’s not beyond imagination that the Italian carrozzeria might have made suggestions which were incorporated into the completed design, but I somewhat doubt that RR management, as aloof from day to day concerns as we might like to imagine, wouldn’t have noticed any putative resemblance to the fine, if somewhat declassé Peugeot, which was by then very much yesterday’s design. (The 404 being the contemporary Peugeot model by then).

      I must say that I have never made a visual connection between Shadow and 403. Now that it has been raised, I can perhaps see why one might do so, but frankly, (and for what it’s worth), my belief is that it’s purely coincidental. Put the two side by side and (no disrespect to the Peugeot, as it’s a fine car), the assertion evaporates.

    4. Good morning gentlemen. The Silver Shadow / Peugeot 403 similarity is a fascinating story but I’m inclined to agree with Eóin that the resemblance was merely coincidental. Those early 1960’s Rolls-Royce and Bentley prototypes clearly show the development of the Silver Shadow style front end, albeit mated to some unlikely looking donor bodies. We almost had a Rolls-Royce with those ubiquitous doors from the Austin 1800!

      Here’s a link to the AROnline page Eóin mentions:

    5. Thank you all for the answers. As said, I have no idea from where I picked up that information, after over forty years of reading up about cars, much of the sources of my information is just a blur.

      But I found the story credible, or at least tantalizing, considering Pininfarinas involvement in the brand both before and after. The story went PF did that consultancy work in secret, because RR wanted to be seen as the sole purveyor of their in-house design, especially after making such a leap from a “double bow” to a “single bow”-line.

      And Pininfarina did such work in secret many brands like Jaguar and later Honda. Like how PF was behind the mid eighties third generation Honda Civic and Accord, and how their deft touch can be recognized especially in the shooting brake-like Civic hatchback and Accord AeroDeck.

      The reason myths are so lasting is because they are so credible in the sense of “it could actually be true!” I’ll file this under unsubstantiated for the time being.

  3. Good morning Christopher and Charles, and thanks for your comments. The fixed head Corniche is lovely, and a really clever interpretation of the Silver Shadow design. It was similar enough to remain clearly related, but still different enough to look distinctive.

    I suspect that James Young knew their goose was cooked when they first saw the Mulliner coupé.

    Regarding the Camargue, it’s always amazed me how a design house as talented as Pininfarina could produce something so uncouth. Even at launch, it looked crude and completely lacking in subtlety:

    It always seemed widest at waist height and needed wider front and rear tracks to stop it looking under-wheeled. That bright trim on the bodywork below the DLO looked odd. It was deleted on later cars but there was an underlying crease in the bodywork that remained. The single centrally sited reversing lamp, covered by a ‘portcullis’ grille on early cars, also looked strange, especially as there was plenty of room for wider rear light clusters to accommodate a pair.

    By comparison, I think that the Silver Spirit was a much more accomplished design in a similar, rectilinear style.

    1. Charles,

      Paolo Martin is a curious case, insofar as his work at Pininfarina was mostly up there with the output of Giugiaro and Gandini at the time (Modulo, BMC 1800, Fiat 130 Coupé), in creative terms. As with so many other designers going freelance, however, the quality of Martin’s output deteriorated once he was, depending on one’s viewpoint, either liberated from the corporate shackles or left to his own devices without the guidance and facilities his employer had previously provided.

      I’m not even going to mention his Stutz design as the most obvious example, but his (rightfully rejected) proposal for the Bugatti EB110:

      We all love to accuse companies of stifling the creativity of the individual. While this is mostly true, there are also cases when the individual’s creativity needs a particular corporate context to flourish.

    2. Before joining Pininfarina, Martin worked at Bertone, where he designed the instrument binnacle and gauges for Gandini’s Alfa Montreal.

      His later, brief stint at Ghia was ironic insofar as Filippo Sappino, his superior, had previously been working at PF too. There his proposal for the Ferrari 512S was chosen instead of Martin’s design, which allegedly displeased the latter to such an extent that he decided to spend Ferragosto at PF’s workshop, in order to create a polystyrene model of what we know today as the Modulo.

      For all its creative wealth, Turin is a small town in many respects.

  4. I like this site also because it brings to me forgotten pictures, scenes or things I saw or I knew and which resurface all of a sudden.
    In this case it was the parking of a supermarket at the Italian-French border in the Eighties and the scene is that of a white Corniche convertible with MC plates, completely battered and smashed on all sides, with a typical little white dog on board, possibly called Idefix; the proprietor was an old man in his eighties, slowly approaching the car with two supermarket bags in his hands.
    It was clear that the car was his car, and it was also clear that he didn’t give a damn about it.
    The whole thing was so scenographic that I looked around for film makers, but it was just real life.

  5. The 6.75 litre engine didn’t make it to the Shadow and derivatives until 1970. The cars referred to in the first few paragraphs had the 6230 cc original production version of the engine. And to call it venerable when it was less than a decade old seems a bit much.

    1. In addition, the changeover from the four speed GM Hydramatic to the Turbo 400 3 speed slushbox wasn’t until the middle of 1968. No longer did RR have to fettle each GM Hydramatic to try and get it to shift smoothly on a long term basis — it had no torque converter, just a fluid flywheel and a complicated torque-splitting epicyclic design whose clutch/mechanical logic engagements were well known for going out of adjustment ever since the first one rolled out in an Oldsmobile just pre-war. Tough unit though. The lack of smoothness was why all the GM divisions developed their own automatics in the 1950s save Oldsmobile and Cadillac. Finally, GM just threw in the towel and copied the Chrysler Torqueflite to get the Turbo 400. Then all the weitd and wonderful various GM automatics were dropped in favour of the 400, except for a cheap two-speed on lower class Chevrolets for short while.

      The information on the engine sizes is, by the way, already the subject of a DTW article by a certain Richard Herriott from 20 Jun 2015.

    2. Thank you for the corrections, Bill, which are duly noted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: