No car provides more of a sense of occasion than a Rolls-Royce – except perhaps a Bentley. But even at this level there are degrees of style, and while Rolls-Royce’s huge saloons are undeniably opulent and classy, it’s the company’s convertibles and coupés (especially the former) which are king. Which is why the Rolls-Royce Corniche offers arguably the ultimate in style; it’s not gauche or kitsch, but it’s somehow understated in a rather obvious way.
Looking at the Corniche today, you’d almost struggle to think that it was launched at a time that the company was in serious trouble. The entire automotive sector was going through some big changes thanks to a financial crisis, and Rolls-Royce’s automobile division was seriously struggling. Thankfully the market for luxury vehicles would once again start booming, meaning Rolls-Royce was well placed to take advantage with its new Corniche.
Although it was based on the ‘T-Series’ Silver Shadow, the two-door Corniche was something altogether more regal – and for a Rolls-Royce, that’s saying something. Considerably more expensive when new, the Corniche came with a larger engine, revised dashboard as well as a larger grille as well as a coachbuilt two-door coupe or convertible body from Mulliner Park Ward. Today these coupe and convertible Rolls-Royces and Bentleys fetch much larger premiums over their more prosaic four-door counterparts – yet they still represent surprisingly good value.
The problem is that seemingly good cars can be a fast route to bankruptcy, so you really need to have your wits about you when buying – or you need to enlist the help of a specialist to make sure you don’t get your fingers burned.
The name Corniche was actually briefly used by Rolls-Royce before World War II, and adorned the hood of a Bentley MkV with a prototype body built by Carrosserie Vanvooren of Paris. This car featured some unusual aerodynamic properties, and had been through more than 15,000miles of endurance testing before war broke out. The car was sadly blown up while sat on the quayside waiting to be shipped home from Dieppe.
Which one to buy?
Bentleys carry a premium as they’re much rarer; if you’re on a budget you could go for a fixed-head coupé instead. While the closed cars are much rarer, they’re much better to drive as the bodyshells are far more rigid. It’s also true that the later cars are better to drive than the earlier ones, thanks to various chassis developments. As a result, the later cars are the most valuable.
The Corniche’s huge bulk and cosseting suspension mean it’s wallowy, which is why it’s worth finding a car that’s been fitted with a Harvey Bailey suspension kit. This transforms the handling without upsetting the ride and best of all, fitting one of these kits is much the same as overhauling the standard set-up.
The right colour scheme can make a difference to Corniche values – and the hue of the paint and trim can make a big difference to how easy it is to find a buyer. Shades such as gold or brown for the exterior will never be popular, but dark blue is very sought after, and so is magnolia leather. Early cars are also desirable because they have a classic look about them. However, the later models with fuel injection and anti-lock brakes are also in demand.
Performance and specs
Rolls-Royce Corniche IV
Engine 6750cc, V8
Power 325bhp @ 4000rpm
Torque 544lb ft @ 2100rpm
Top speed 135mph
Gearbox Four-speed auto
Dimensions and weight
• Rust can be a major issue that’s always costly to fix properly. Start by checking the sills; if they’re rotten, significant corrosion elsewhere is likely. Also check the wheelarch lips, front and rear valances and boot floor; the boot lid seals also perish, leading to leaks.
• Even if the metalwork is OK, make sure the paint isn’t damaged as the sheer size of the car means resprays cost plenty.
• The brightwork lasts well as it’s almost all stainless steel, but it’s very expensive to renew, so make sure it’s all there and undamaged.
• The unstressed V8 lasts well but annual coolant changes are essential, using the correct Castrol/ICI fluid. Eventually the cylinder liners corrode, and shrink, squeezing the piston. You’ll know there’s a problem, because this causes a knocking sound. Even if the engine sounds fine, there’s no guarantee that it won’t start in the future, so ask for evidence that the coolant has been changed regularly.
• The automatic gearbox is cooled by pipes that run alongside the unit to the radiator. When one of the pipe bursts due to corrosion, which it eventually will, the transmission will run dry and be destroyed. The key is to replace the pipes before this happens.
• The suspension uses a Citroen-derived hydraulic self-levelling system. This is a simple system, and is generally very reliable. The LHM fluid should be renewed every four years. Check the hydraulic reservoir in the engine bay, which should contain the correct amount of bright green fluid. The other issue to look out for is tired looking piped and hoses, which could leave a mess on your driveway when they fail.
• Along with the hydraulics, there’s also the likelihood of the rear spring pans corroding. If they are left too long, there’s a risk that the springs could fall out. Subframe mounting bushes – known as ‘brillo pads’ – need to be changed occasionally, which is a surprisingly difficult and expensive job.
• Rear brake drums are not an easy job to rebuild, and specialist tools are needed to remove the hubs. The parts from Rolls-Royce are costly too, so expect big bills if work is required.
• The hydraulics run at very high pressures, which means they have to be replaced every 96,000 miles, regardless. There are sensors and a warning light on the dash to warn of failures, but this light is often disconnected. It’s advisable to check that all the lights illuminate when you start the ignition.
• The recurculating ball steering of earlier cars can wear but the worst can usually be adjusted out. Unwanted play can also be traced back to wear in the numerous ball joints in the steering system.
• All cars got power steering, so analyse the various pipes’ condition as they can corrode. The power steering pump belt can also fail, so check for perishing.
1965: The Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Bentley T-series are launched, in four-door form.
1966: The Mulliner Park Ward Silver Shadow two-door saloon arrives.
1967: A two-door convertible debuts.
1968: A three-speed GM400 transmission is now fitted.
1969: The interior is facelifted.
1970: A 6750cc V8 replaces the 6230cc unit previously fitted.
1971: Two-door cars are now sold Corniches. The radiator is raked slightly forward, the hub caps get ventilation slots to cool the brakes while a redesigned dashboard now includes a rev counter – the first time ever on a Rolls-Royce. The engine gets extra power thanks to a redesigned exhaust and bigger valves.
1974: There’s now a wider track, longer wheelbase and flared wheelarches.
1976: A split-level air conditioning system debuts, there are improved seats and a redesigned (dished) steering wheel.
1977: The exterior design is refreshed plus rack-and-pinion steering is now fitted.
1979: There’s now independent rear suspension.
1981: The Corniche saloon dies.
1984: The Bentley Corniche becomes the Continental, with colour-coded bumpers and mirrors, a new dashboard, redesigned seats and fresh colour options.
1986: Bosch fuel injection is now fitted, and the Spirit of Ecstasy now retracts into the radiator shell.
1988: The Corniche II features redesigned seats, anti-lock brakes and redesigned seats; later there are overhauled seats, fresh instrumentation and a sportier steering wheel.
1990: The Corniche III has redesigned alloy wheels, more dashboard and seating revisions plus a new MK Motronic engine management system.
1992: The Corniche IV brings adaptive suspension, a GM four-speed automatic gearbox, front airbags, a glass rear window and a fully automatic roof.
1993: Upgrades hike power by 20 per cent.
1995: The last Corniches are made. Called the Corniche S, 25 examples are built. Total production runs to 5,146, including 1,108 saloons.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
Early coupe Corniches can range from anywhere between £10,000 for a rusty restoration, to £50,000 mint example. Prepare to pay around 30 per cent more if you want the convertible versions though. Later (convertible only) Corniche models are generally worth up to around £80,000, although something very special could still easily cost more than £100,000.
Words: Richard Dredge