The Corniche paradox.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.