One expects to see certain things in suburban driveways during wintertime… but a Rolls-Royce Corniche? Not so much. Even back in the 1980s when this example was built, I considered Corniche convertibles to be almost mythical creatures – about as commonly seen as a sasquatch, but a bit more refined. Unlike sasquatches, Corniches were rare due to their price. When new, this 1982 Rolls-Royce carried a list price of about $160,000, roughly the cost of four Mercedes-Benz 380SLs. But it wasn’t just pricey exclusivity that fascinated me about these cars – it was also the flauntingly anachronistic design – after all, this was based on the Silver Shadow sedan, which debuted in way back 1965. And amazingly, Corniche still sat at the top of the world two decades later. To me, the Corniche was in a league of its own.
Initially, I was disappointed that when I finally found a Corniche convertible, I could only get photos of its back end, with the top up. Upon thinking about it more, though, this is somewhat of a unique view, since most Corniche pictures that we see show the front, and feature a dropped top. No worries however, we have plenty of promotional images here, to supplement these driveway shots.
It may be forever associated with stodgy Big Money, but in the early 1970s, Rolls-Royce’s advertising tried to inject some youthful exuberance into its brand’s rather starchy model lineup. Billed as a gran turismo upon its 1971 introduction, Corniche (initially available in coupe or convertible forms) was the most likely Rolls-Royce in decades to actually accomplish this goal, since the remainder of the firm’s lineup consisted of sedans and limousines. As if to prove that point, Corniche received the distinction of being the only Rolls-Royce to share an advertising photo with a police cruiser. Whether early Corniche buyers ended up being more youthful than previous Rolls-Royce customers is unclear, but the chances are good that after a short time, any distinction vanished. Corniches didn’t exactly exude youthfulness. Wealth, yes… youth, not so much.
Corniche was derived from Rolls-Royce’s Silver Shadow sedan, which was first introduced in 1965 to replace the Silver Cloud. Six years later, the Corniche 2-door saloon and drophead came along, both sharing the Silver Shadow’s 119.5” wheelbase and much of its body design. And while the 2-door bowed out in 1980, the convertible remained in Rolls-Royce’s lineup seemingly forever. 25 model years to be exact – during which time 5,172 Corniche convertibles were built. But this car’s impact exceeded its numbers, for the Corniche became the very embodiment of extreme wealth. Somehow it’s hard to imagine that would have been the case if the Corniche had been updated to the squarish 1980s Silver Spirit design instead.
For millions of Americans in the 1970s – my family undoubtedly included – this was their closest encounter with a Corniche. Pick up any magazine from late 1975 and it’s a good bet that there’ll be a Kool cigarettes sweepstakes ad giving away a “cool green” Corniche. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. picked the right car – they received three million (!) entries. The lucky winner was a 51-year-old machinist from western Massachusetts… no word on what he did with the car.
This particular Corniche seemed out of place in the driveway of a Northern Virginia rambler, but then I noticed the van in front of it, belonging to a company that repairs upholstery and convertible tops. Now that makes a bit of sense; perhaps this Rolls-Royce was dropped off for a repair, which would also explain its out-of-state plate. After all, it can’t be easy to get vintage Rolls-Royce fabrics mended, so if an owner found someone who could tackle the job, it would be worth a bit of a drive. Incidentally, Rolls-Royce was justifiably proud of its convertible top, which was heavily padded to avoid the “starved cow” look (their phrase, not mine), where a top’s unsightly ribs show through the stretched canvas.
Since Corniche changed precious little over its 25-year lifespan, identifying a specific car’s year isn’t always easy. This example throws off carspotters because it is fitted with a factory-spec third brake light, however it is not a 1986+ model, but rather from 1982. Actual ’86 Corniches would have a “Corniche II” badge, body-colored bumpers, and back-up lights integrated into the license plate surround.
If you’re curious, the round stickers on the back are (left) the Seal of the President of the United States, and (right) a tourism sticker for the New Jersey shore. Personally, I wouldn’t adorn the back of my Rolls-Royce with 99¢ stickers, but to each his own.
Rolls-Royce shelved their attempts to pass off this car as a youthful gran turismo, switching to ads more like this one, from 1977. Staged among the marble statues of Rome’s Stadio dei Marmi, the Rolls-Royce with its Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament blends right in. Actually, the Spirit of Ecstasy, first used by Rolls-Royce in 1911, is older than the classical-inspired statues at the Stadio dei Marmi, which were built in the 1920s.
This Corniche II ad shows some of the model’s mid-1980s upgrades such as color-keyed bumpers and mirrors. All Corniches were powered by Rolls-Royce’s 6.75-liter V-8 producing “adequate” horsepower, though this powerplant did receive upgrades over the years.
Later models were billed as Corniche III and IV – changes were largely underhood, with upgrades such as ABS brakes, a new automatic transmission (the 3-speed GM Turbo-Hydramatic 400 was the Corniche’s transmission until 1992), and suspension upgrades. In outward appearance, the image above from a 1994 brochure is tough to distinguish from an earlier Corniche. Nevertheless, even after two decades in production, this car still carried a similarly ethereal aura as it did when new.
It’s an aura that I associate with fantasy — likely because of the only other Corniche that I recall seeing in an everyday setting. When I was a teenager, I had an after-school job doing filing-type work at an office near home. A stockbroker from another office in the same building where I worked owned an early black Corniche coupe, which he drove to work occasionally, and I would trudge by it in the parking lot en route to my after-school job. The Corniche always perked me up a bit, since just for a few seconds, I could daydream that I was somewhere else — somewhere elegant and fashionable, like maybe in the French Riviera, from where the car’s name was derived. A fantasy for sure, but one that few other cars could deliver.
And for a few seconds while photographing this Corniche, I felt like I was somewhere else, like maybe in Beverly Hills thirty years ago. I suppose that has always been the point of this car; it can transport people into a fantasy land, as only a somewhat anachronistic Old World car can possibly do. Even four 380SLs couldn’t quite manage that feat.
Photographed in Annandale, Virginia in January 2021.