Drawing on experience

Translating two dimensions into three takes skill, vision and sometimes educated guesswork

Am on the trail of two Bentleys: one obliterated by war, the other present only in two dimensions. But there’s a connection that brings me to Hampshire and the coachbuilding workshops of VintageCars.com. First, the 2D absentee. There are a dozen or more cars here being dressed in aluminium, but Dugal Revie leads me to another shed, lifts up a long cylinder and unrolls a drawing on the floor. Sixteen feet of it, a baffling matrix of complex intersecting curves, profile overlaid on cross-section on top of plan view. Even though I know what it ought to be it’s a few moments before I can pick out the sweeping roofline of the Embiricos Bentley, the streamlined 4¼ designed by Georges Paulin in 1938 for Greek shipping magnate André Embiricos. Paulin, a Parisian dentist as well as a stylist, was an aerodynamic visionary who designed retractable hard-tops and low-drag bodywork for a range of vehicles such as Delage, Delahaye and notably the Darl’mat Peugeots. With its slippery form and easy 100mph-plus cruising gait, the big Bentley was a revelation in a world used to wind-snagging wings and cliff-face radiators, and to my eye it’s easily the most handsome of the streamline experiments motor makers tried in that late pre-war period. A few years ago I came across a sister Paulin Derby in Philadelphia, but that retains the upright Bentley grille and is far less sleek.

I’ve seen the Embiricos car on the road and in its Californian museum, I own one of Tim Dykes’ lovingly detailed MPH models of it, and I’ve inspected the replica built by Bob Petersen in Devon, but I never expected to see it dissected on paper. And I’m amazed to discover that Paulin gave Pourtout, the coachbuilder he worked with, this all-in-one full-size Post-It note. So was Dugal, charged with getting it restored and making a copy for the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust. A British Museum restorer stabilised the fragile paper, and a digital version has produced a more legible copy, which Dugal needed for the second project – the Bentley Corniche.

The real instigator of the Embiricos was Walter Sleator, enterprising owner of the Franco-Britannic Garage in Paris and Rolls importer for France. Proud of the mechanical qualities of ‘the Silent Sports Car’ but convinced a slippery body would release the aerodynamic handbrake of Crewe conservatism, he persuaded RR to condone a private streamline project, with full corporate deniability if it was a failure. Sleator was lucky to find such an amenable client as amateur racer Embiricos, who not only paid for it but was very happy to let magazines and experts from Crewe enjoy some long continental trips in it, particularly on Herr Hitler’s wonderful autobahns that receive much praise in the Motor article describing the run. With no equivalent high-speed roads in the UK, continental trials were a large part of Rolls-Bentley development.

Having extensively tested it, Rolls-Bentley engineers saw the future and rapidly planned their own experimental version – the Corniche. Also a Paulin design but built by van Vooren in Paris on the forthcoming (though in the event war-stymied) MkV chassis, the taller four-door shape is not in the same class visually, with more bulk and fuss perhaps showing Crewe interference. In mid-1939 RR testers took it to France and Italy and over some of the famous Mille Miglia passes, and down those long, lazy Routes Nationales it confirmed the theory: cutting drag brought major benefits. But after an accident near Chateauroux the chassis was sent home while the body was repaired locally.

In the meantime war broke out, and having by 1940 got only as far as Dieppe docks the unique panel work was destroyed by bombing.

Since then it’s been known only in photos, but three years ago the RRHT decided to build a Corniche replica. They sourced one of the few MkV chassis around but, with no definitive drawing, Dugal and partners Miles Renton-Skinner and Andy Wort had the difficult task of working from photos. Not that they aren’t used to that; as well as body restorations (they don’t do running gear), owners bring sketches here to see their dream design turn into aluminium, whether a 1920s landaulet or a 1970s sports-racer. Not to mention the steam-powered Land Speed Record car they bodied. And because I like to see fresh thinking as well as replication it’s heartening that, above his workbench, Miles has sketches for his own dream machine – a Corsica-inspired roadster on a Riley chassis.

But there are lots of other cars to build first. Between the massive wheeling machines that gently ease flat ally into beautiful curves I can see a V12 Atalanta for restoration, the pram-sized tail for an Austin 7 racer, a Park Ward Bentley coupé being converted to a convertible – VintageCars construct the full hood mechanism – and a delicious Nembo spyder for a 330 chassis. It’s being shaped over the original Nembo buck, a wire frame of such sculptural intricacy I’d happily hang it on my wall.

Almost everything here is a one-off, although they do a steady trickle of MkVI Bentley specials to a standard pattern, so they’re used to judging form by hand and eye. And you have to have an eye, the awareness of when a wing peaks nicely or a bonnet has the right fall. Miles and Dugal both worked for Rod Jolley, another top coachbuilder, and agree it takes 10 years to learn the skills. But I think the visual sense has to be born in you. Dugal tells me that at the well-known London coachbuilder Barkers, the body men were paid more than the ones who did the wings. “But we think wings are harder to get right.”

They’ve also had to learn the diverse techniques of different coachworks: Miles shows me the complications of repairing a Barker body on a 1936 Bentley 3½ where the firm was trying out steel framing instead of ash. It’s a minefield of water traps and corrosion.

Surprisingly for this advanced design, Pourtout stuck to ash framing for the Embiricos car, including one oddity, as Dugal points out: “They used wood framing right up to the radiator. I’ve never seen a Derby with wood ahead of the scuttle before.” Construction details like that were important to the integrity of the Corniche project, hence the value of the drawing.

Creating the shape involved many sketches, then full-size drawings, templates and wooden bucks, with frequent reference to the few photos. Luckily some of those show the car on its side after the accident, allowing Dugal and Miles to replicate the complex vented undertray that helped the big machine slip through the air. But getting the shape right is only part of it: the guys have to figure out all the functional aspects of this pillarless four-door too, as Dugal explains: the concealed hinges that swing up and out, drip channels, window drops, rain seals… With the ash frame built the Corniche is rapidly taking shape, though as they try each panel separately it currently looks like an e-fit from Crimewatch. But I have to say that, in bare alloy at least, it looks better than in the fussy two-tone scheme of the prototype. Yet it’s easy to see how elements from this design carried forward into the MkVI which followed it, particularly around the C-pillar, while the streamline heritage eventually surfaced in the elegant R-type Continental.

With the original destroyed even DSJ would not object to an honest recreation of this sort, and personally I’m excited to see it happen. Though if I were starting a car from scratch I would be pointing Dugal and Miles towards that drawing stretched out on the shop floor…

I had a near-miss with the Embiricos Bentley. Its first owner sold it pretty soon to H?F?S?Hay, who not only drove it for years but three times entered it at Le Mans, finishing all three and scoring a sixth place in 1949 with Tommy Wisdom. Some time in the 1990s I took a phone call from someone who was clearing out Hay family premises and had found parts from the car, including Le Mans components. They were minor items – the rear glass with filler holes, wheel and light guards, bonnet straps – but he felt they should go to the current owner. I sent a message to the Arturo Keller collection, where the car resides, but heard nothing.

And I lost my caller’s number. If it was you, I apologise – and can I still make an offer? I’d be thrilled to have even these trivial connections to a famous car on my shelves. Another missed opportunity…