We all dreamed one day to take a ride in a Rolls Royce. We have all even imagined sometimes, lovers of chimeras, to own one. Just to give yourself a minute of Thomas Crown. A second of Faye Dunaway in a Brewster Green coupe. Or a few days of golden existence on the Riviera between Cannes and Menton. On the road, therefore, without a roof, at the wheel of one of the most beautiful cars in the history of the automobile.
By François Tauriac
The Corniche cabriolet has borrowed its name from a steep road in the heights of Monaco. It seems that driving a Rolls cabrio there would be the only way not to be noticed at the Monte-Carlo casino. This car is, for the true purists, much more than a simple English car for show. It is a true art of living. When it came out in 1965, the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, from which the convertible coupe is derived, was a bombshell in the automotive world. Not that its straight, straight-waisted body line was revolutionary. No, it simply marked the Crewe brand’s wish to enter the modern world. First pontoon body, self-supporting hull of the firm honored by the Queen, it followed in the line of the very prestigious Silver Cloud and Phantom V. These were certainly magnificent, even illustrious vehicles, but some people described them as heavy and outdated. At Rolls, they even went so far as to equip the Shadow with an all-aluminum 6.7-liter V8, succumbing to the American fashion. The last detail of this revolution on wheels, the legend even tells that the Silver Shadow was conceived to be driven by its owners and not exclusively by a helmeted driver. Chocking ! So much so that when the Corniche coupe was launched in 1967, it almost bankrupted the cap manufacturers – who had to sell off their stock of headgear by offering it to valet parking.
Even though it’s a strict two-door, the Corniche is no shorter than its sister sedan. It measures exactly the same length, 5.18 meters. Because it has the same platform, reinforced and made heavier. Almost 20 cm more than an Audi A6 station wagon! It obviously keeps the mythical grille of its elder sister, an exact copy of the pediments of Greek temples, and of course, its legendary mascot The spirit of Extasy, this representation of a young woman with her arms spread out like wings, her dress floating in the wind, created in 1911 by the sculptor Charles Sykes Bill Allen obviously designed it, but unlike the sedan, for which he is also the designer, he made the body line run away from the door and undulate as it bounces elegantly off the rear wing. A wavy curl reminiscent of the TR4’s wiggle. It was not Rolls that built the Corniche in its early days, but two of the brand’s favourite coachbuilders, Mulliner Park Ward and John Young. The car was made entirely by hand. That’s one of the reasons why it cost 5 times the price of the E-type jaguar at the time!
We regularly talk to L’Honoré about the emotion that overwhelms us when we discover a mythical line or the comfort of a famous interior. Getting inside a Rolls is one of those unique moments that sometimes punctuate the existence of the “Celadons” of the bodywork that we are. Entering a Corniche is like pushing the door of a cathedral porch open to a very secret English salon. The door of this car is incredibly heavy. It is operated by a lock so beautiful and oblong that it looks like the protective guard of a sword handle. The car is high: 1.83 meters. Its roof reaches the height of a Range Rover. One climbs almost on board and, it is when one settles behind the fine hoop of black bakelite of the wheel, that the visit can begin.
A thin border of beech…
Because a double R as the English say, it is discovered. It can also be seen as a monument, a sculpture or a private museum. Of course, there’s the burr walnut dashboard that sits in front of the glaring eyes encompassing the Smith instrumentation. But only the trained eye will notice the fine beech border that completes the bottom of this masterpiece of marquetry. Then there are the seats. More armchairs for that matter. Evidemment d’orchestre. Because the Connolly leather of their seats sings the opera of luxury and comfort. We sit there almost like in Clubs. Ours are red. Burgundy even. And it’s like being in a Cartier jewelry box. Finally, there is the key-wiper-load indicator set, dear to the heart of the brand, which sits like a signature in the middle of the dashboard. The refinement of the electric window controls, with end stroke controlled by specific buttons, so as to never pinch the hood. The carpets, so thick, that they seem to want to make your shoes disappear. And finally, a multitude of lights that light up like a Christmas tree when you turn the Yale key to start the engine.
Don’t look for any whirring sounds when you start up. A Rolls V8, even with a central camshaft of almost 7 liters of displacement, topped by two huge SU carburetors and developing, according to the brand, “sufficient power” (i.e. around 240 hp) does not make the slightest noise. So much so that it is even necessary to look at the rev counter to be sure that the engine has started. Then, we put the lever of the box on Drive. The beast, enormous, majestic, sinks slightly, in a royal genuflection, to mark the engagement of the transmission. The two lights of the red hydraulic are well extinguished, it is time to cut the road. The weather is nice. Then we take off. The mohair lining disappears from the ceiling as the roof opens electrically and the car jumps up from all four wheels as one. It may weigh close to 3 tons, but it does not suffer from any heaviness. The rack and pinion steering is precise. Over-assisted even in Cadillac fashion. But strangely enough, you can handle this monster with a single finger. But don’t think that just because the wheels are spinning like crazy and the front end is responding precisely, that the beast will turn. Fortunately, it always ends up doing so. But at the cost of impressive body rolls.
The hydropneumatic suspension of Citroën origin, revisited (or complexified?) by the English engineers, is only distantly related to the Koni sport. In any case, we don’t “attack” in a Rolls. We let ourselves be rocked. This car is a carriage that floats above the road like a luxury yacht surfing on the fresh water waves of Lake Como. A cloud of whipped cream on an Irish coffe. An air-cushion sofa, a flying carpet stuffed with goose feathers, like a luxury comforter. The gearbox is incredibly smooth. You can hardly feel the 3 gears of this GM. As for the brakes, they have a triple circuit and 6 shoes, including 4 on the front wheels. In other words, they serve their purpose perfectly. From then on, driving on the Corniche is more like a sweet dream than a vulgar ride. Even if the consumption of the beast is gargantuan. 25 liters in normal use. 35 in town…But rare pleasures are priceless. And you can enjoy this cruise with a Jocondian smile, as you would let a mouthful of creamy osciètre melt in your mouth.
Corniche and Silver Shadow have a reputation for being high maintenance. Normal, the triple hydraulic system that equips them is a monster of complexity. It works with a special Rolls Royce liquid which has the particularity of being corrosive. And that some replace with Lookeed. If the car does not run often, he will conscientiously attack the meters of tubing that run under the car. The two front pumps, the attitude correctors, the nitrogen spheres subjected to a crazy pressure of 170 bars! The engine is said to be puncture-proof. But beware of hydraulic tappets, when they snap it’s a sign of a worn out camshaft or worse. The pieces cost a small fortune. Even if many specialists have emerged in recent years, breaking the monopoly of institutions, and even offering used parts. It must be said that the car was the most produced in the history of the brand. From 1965 to 1980, no less than 31,175 units were built. So there are even breakages in England. There are grilles, wheels, axles, boxes, engines… But the mechanics on this car is not for everyone. Finally, let’s hear from Xavier Gérault. This high-flying mechanic, specialist of the Flying Lady, spent 10 years at the Franco-British, the parent company of the brand. On his own at XG Auto, he has more than 30 years of experience on double R’s in his small workshop in Asnières. “An RR is really a very specific car. I had a customer who spent an hour trying to remove the left front wheel of his Corniche to change the brake pads,” he laughs. He finally called me. I had to tell him that the tightening was reversed, only on that wheel!”
This is the kind of mishap that can happen if you want to do your own mechanics. But if the car has been well maintained and has a clear history, don’t hesitate to buy one,” advises Xavier. You can find one for 10,000 euros in the UK, right-hand drive. Corniches are 5 or 6 times more expensive. Of course, maintenance can be very expensive, but this car is fantastic. I have customers who have been driving a Shadow for 30 years. They have many other cars in their collection. But they wouldn’t give up their Rolls for anything. They say that if you haven’t had a Rolex by the time you’re 50, you’ve missed your life. It must be the same for the Rolls. So treat yourself to a Shadow. You will pay the price of a GMT Master. It may not be as reliable as the aviator’s favorite watch, but you’ll be traveling in first class, which is even better than counting time zones.