Curbside Classic: 1982 Rolls-Royce Corniche Convertible – The Crème de la Crème

Rolls-Royce said Monday that they delivered 3,538 cars in 2011, an all-time sales record, beating the previous record set in 1978.  Toyota ships that many cars every three hours around the clock. Small volume does not make R-R a cottage industry.  At $246,500 for the Ghost and $380,000 for the Phantom, 2011 was a billion-dollar year.

Everyone knows Rolls-Royce, its iconic grille topped by the Spirit of Ecstasy, as the very best, the finest motorcar on the road, no expense spared. The Crème de la Crème. Everyone always has, around the world.  The sun never sets on the Rolls-Royce.  All this recognition on just a few thousand cars a year.  For 107 years.

This early-1980s Rolls-Royce Corniche Convertible makes semi-regular appearances at an office park near my office.  I often pass it as I walk to lunch.   Sometimes it’s even parked with the top down. Thirty years later its leather smells fabulous.

There it is. The Grille. Elegant, posh, genteel, well heeled, to the manner born. Upper class. Old school. Old money. One percent. The Real Thing. Often quoted by pretenders to the crown, but never equaled.

This Rolls-Royce Corniche is a two-door convertible built on a 120.5 inch wheelbase, 204 inches long, 5,000 pounds.  Coil-spring independent suspension front and rear includes a hydraulic self-leveling system, built by R-R under license from Citroën, but without their pneumatic springs. Four wheel ventilated power disc brakes, 15 inch stainless steel wheels, rack and pinion power steering.  A Corniche cost $162,500 in 1982, $360,000 in today’s dollars.

Rolls-Royce model year spotting is a subtle art.  From the wheels and its interior (no air bags, discontinuous console, mid-dash digital readouts) this car appears to be somewhere between 1982 and 1985.  Technically this is a Corniche II, but the nameplate says Corniche. Any expert spotters out there?

Elegant in its simplicity, well proportioned, free from excess of any kind. I do have one nit to pick, the slight crease between door and rear wheel which defines the forward edge of the bustle. Why does it taper back like that? It looks OK in the photo, in life you don’t see it so clearly, and when it catches your eye you might think it’s a dent. My non-car-crazy lunch companion noticed that too.

5,100 Corniches were built from 1971 to 1995, all based on the same Silver Shadow platform, outliving the sedan itself.  (Which was to be called the Silver Mist, until someone pointed out that ‘mist’ is the German word for manure.)   The 1965 Silver Shadow four-door sedan was Rolls-Royce’s first unit body car.  Even a Rolls-Royce has limits.  Its dimensions are constrained by England’s narrow roads and tight corners, so space-efficient design is important.  Going to unitary construction delivered more interior room in a car 3.5 inches narrower and 7 inches shorter than its predecessor.

My favorite feature is this deliciously extensive door handle.  It’s almost as long as an entire Triumph Mayflower.

Coachbuilders H. J. Mulliner and Park Ward, both of London, eventually merged into R-R’s Mulliner Park Ward division by 1961.  Much of the Rolls-Royce reputation for ultimate quality is due to the MPW craftsmen, many of whom had decades of experience.  According to the Roßfeldt Archives, Corniche bodies were built at MPW in London, shipped to the famous Rolls-Royce factory in Crewe, Cheshire, northwest England, for installation of their running gear, and returned to London where the MPW coachbuilders finished the cars.   An expensive way to run a factory, but the cars went to their expert builders, rather than the other way around.

Not having developed Paul’s knack for reflection-free interior photography, I’ll spare you my photos.  Here’s a much better view of another early-Eighties Corniche.  140 mph speedometer.  Digital indicators for time and temperature.  The leather, wood and workmanship speak for themselves.

Rolls-Royce engines are legendary.  Spitfire fighters and their R-R Merlin V-12 engines played a key role in winning the Battle of Britain.  Under the Corniche hood sits the timeless Rolls-Royce L-series V-8 engine, at 6.75 liters.  Introduced in 1959, the L-series is the longest-lived engine still in production cars today. (Lamborghini’s V-12 is from ’62, and the Chevy small block, while still being built, is no longer in new production cars.) Corniche’s L410I has Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection, distributed through that octopus at the back. Our astute commenter Slow Joe Crow spotted the GM Frigidaire AC compressor at the front. This Rolls-Royce engine’s power is “adequate”  (240 hp, if you must know, at 4000 rpm), delivered through a GM-built Turbo Hydramatic 400 transmission.  Top speed 118.  Efficiency was not an objective: 7 mpg city, 10 highway, 8 combined (US EPA).

Spirit of Ecstasy, the Flying Lady, has quite a remarkable story of her own, starting with “The Whisper”.  John Walter Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu and a pioneer of British motoring, had a secret love, Eleanor Velasco Thornton, his secretary.  They could not marry since she was not of his class, and he married someone high-born.  But they continued their affair in secret for more than a decade.

Early Rolls radiators carried no ornaments.  Lord Montagu had sculptor Charles Sykes create one for his car, and Eleanor was the model.  In “The Whisper” she has a finger pressed to her lips to keep the secret of their love. Tragically, Eleanor and Lord Montagu were on the SS Persia when it was torpedoed by a German sub in 1915.  He survived but she did not.

In 1911 R-R commissioned Sykes to design an ornament for production cars, and he based it on “The Whisper”.  They directed him to embody “the spirit of the Rolls-Royce, namely, speed with silence, absence of vibration, the mysterious harnessing of great energy and a beautiful living organism of superb grace…”

“Spirit of Ecstasy” (or “Ellie in Her Nightie” to the less reverent) has been the symbol of Rolls-Royce ever since.  The modern Spirit can dive instantly into her shell when bumped from any direction, to avoid impaling the commoners.  She may also withdraw at dashboard command.

Our Corniche’s driver enjoys this view of the Flying Lady at the far end of its long, tall hood.  Life is good behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce, very good indeed.


CC Follow-Up: Come summer (2012) she returned with her top down.