NJH Smith delves deeper into the story behind the photos of those mysterious prototypes, discovered in a plain envelope at the WOBMF, which you never knew existed. Images: Courtesy of WOBMF archives

Our lead image is the only one of the four prototype photos depicting a Bentley to actually enter series production. Fortunate Members who own an S2 or S3 Continental bodied by Park Ward will immediately have realised that the model captured in the Styling Office at Crewe is an embryonic version of their own car – and that the design breaks almost completely with any Bentley which had previously emerged from either Crewe or its favoured coachbuilders. The story behind the model demonstrates how, on occasion, Crewe embraced radical and innovatory approaches despite its reputation for gradual and considered evolution.

The revolution revolves around Vilhelm Koren, Senior Styling Engineer at Crewe from 1957-1961.
Born in Norway in 1921, Koren was a Renaissance Man – artist, designer, stylist and car enthusiast – whose cosmopolitan background, aesthetic sensibilities and breadth of international experience distinguished him significantly from the typical car stylist.

Koren’s early days
After pre-war education at an arts and handicraft school in Oslo and service in the Royal Norwegian Navy during World War II, he studied painting briefly in Paris, followed by a sojourn in Kenya. By 1954 he had unsurprisingly gravitated to Turin, then emerging as the epicentre of world automotive design, coachbuilding and advanced body engineering, as Pinin Farina, Bertone, Ghia, Vignale and Zagato ascended towards the zenith of their creativity and influence. Here Koren became involved with tuning maestro Virgilio Conrero in a rebodying exercise for the 1954 Mille Miglia; the chassis in question was very much a Conrero hybrid, built to the order of Swiss privateer Robert Fehlmann for the 1953 race and originally sporting one of Ghia’s striking but somewhat bulbous Ghia Supersonic bodies.

The Pinin Farina Florida, which influenced car design into the 1970s

In the 1953 event the car crashed and was further damaged in a subsequent fire. Nothing daunted, Fehlmann submitted an entry for 1954 and, after rejecting a new proposal from Ghia, opted for a compact, tautly drawn and ultrastylish barchetta body designed by the untried Vilhelm Koren. Remarkably, this was Koren’s first known foray into car design and, though very much in the vein of the evolving barchetta style of the mid-1950s, marked an exceptionally assured debut. The completed car was quickly fitted with a streamlined top for the Mille Miglia, but regrettably Fehlmann again failed to finish.

It’s clear that Koren had built a certain reputation, because in 1956 he received a commission from Horace Titus, Helena Rubinstein’s second son, to design a Jaguar XK140. Koren presented two proposals: the first was a svelte, streamlined coupe which combined pronounced tumblehome on its flanks with pre-echoes of the Aston Martin DB4; the second was an innovative sports estate. Koren joins Crewe Styling team Though the proposals advanced to the stage of models, both remained unrealised and Titus died in 1958. Meanwhile, in London, Koren was combining a career as a general designer with studies in Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art (RCA). It was through an exhibition of his work at the RCA in 1957 that he is believed to have been talent spotted by Whitney Straight, then Executive Vice-Chairman of Rolls- Royce’s car division.

The second stage of the model, with revised nose

The production version of the S2 Continental DHC, with the finalised design for the front lamp housings

While there is some uncertainty about the precise sequence of events that led to Koren’s move to Crewe, by October 1957 he was installed in the Styling Office as Senior Styling Engineer, with John Blatchley remaining as Chief Styling Engineer. The radical implications of Koren’s appointment cannot be overestimated. While Blatchley was perhaps the most talented British coachwork designer of his generation, he was constrained by Crewe’s culture and a conservative customer base to work within the classical orthodoxies. By contrast, Koren was imbued with a modernist spirit formed in the crucible of Turin, realised in his Jaguar designs and given voice in his 1956 thesis for the RCA, which gave high praise to Pinin Farina’s seminal Lancia Florida of 1955, declaring that it “combines classical purity with functionalism to an outstanding degree”.

The prototype takes shape Blatchley and Koren worked in parallel on separate projects. While Blatchley concentrated on the mainstream, it was logical to try out Koren with a lower volume model that would enable Crewe to gauge customer reaction to an advanced design with minimum commitment of time and resources. The project chosen was the replacement for Park Ward’s S1 Continental, scheduled to clothe Continental versions of the V8-engined S2. And it is here that our prototype photo takes its bow. To quote Martin Bourne, then soon to join the Styling Office: “Koren set to work on a scale model in clay with a vengeance, working at a fearsome pace.”

The first stage of evolution towards the S2 Continental, launched in 1959, was nicknamed the ‘Korenental’ for its distinctive styling, an inflection point in the conception of the modern Bentley. While the form of the body and roof are close to the production version (and notably influenced by the Lancia Florida), the twin headlamps, sloping bonnet, air scoop and absence of a traditional upright Bentley radiator grille doomed the advanced frontal design to rejection, only for elements to resurface two years later in Koren’s sensational 61-B Korea prototype and the first prototype of the Bentley Burma, one of the range under development to replace the S Type. Undaunted, Koren reworked the front of the same clay model into a more conventional aspect and this, after further redesign of the lamp housings, remained in production until 1966, effectively unaltered save for modification (after Koren’s departure from Crewe) to twin headlight configuration for the S3 Continental.

Park Ward’s drawings for fixed head and convertible versions of the S2 Continental

Koren’s fixed head design, as finally launched on the S3 Continental, with twin headlamps designed after his departure from Crewe

Park Ward, owned by Rolls-Royce since 1939, moved swiftly to build the prototype and Koren spent increasing amounts of time at its London factory supervising progress. This prototype poses a question: Koren’s model represented a fixed head saloon and the sequential numbering of Park Ward’s 1958 drawings for fixed head and drophead versions suggests that both were designed in parallel.

Prototype plot thickens…
Yet in October 1959, the S2 Continental was only launched as a drophead; why was introduction of the fixed head delayed until the S3 Continental appeared in late 1962? The delay probably derives from Rolls-Royce’s acquisition of the independent coachbuilder HJ Mulliner in 1959. Initially, the factories of both Park Ward, at Willesden, and HJ Mulliner, at Chiswick, remained in operation. Moreover, at the 1958 Earls Court Motor Show, Mulliner had introduced a striking two-door saloon for the S1 Continental (design 7500, revised to 7514 for the S2) which was closely related to its successful four-door Flying Spur. To Crewe management, already nervous about Koren’s modern design, logic would have dictated that pausing the fixed head version would provide continued employment for the Chiswick team, avoid offering two versions of the fixed head Continental in a limited market and minimise risk if the drophead ‘Korenental’ did not find favour with customers.

All’s well that ends well
However, the contrary was true and concerns were unfounded. Koren’s innovative approach was warmly received, with production totalling 125 S2 dropheads, 86 S3 dropheads and 104 S3 fixed heads.

  • The author is indebted to Will Morrison, former WOBMF Honorary Archivist, for permission to use information and photographs from his interview with Vilhelm Koren


The story behind our mystery photos happily reaches a satisfying conclusion. But it leaves a single loose end: what did the future hold for Koren himself? Once his role in productionising the S2 Continental was complete he returned to Crewe, but only designed one further car: Bentley prototype 61-B, project name ‘Korea’.
This remarkable car was a short-chassis version of the aforementioned Burma range; but, unlike the Burma saloon which was powered by Crewe’s F60 straight-six engine, the Korea was equipped with the new V8 and clothed with striking Koren coachwork that combined a lower, more rounded evolution of the ‘Korenental’ FHC design, with a twin headlamp front derived from the model in our picture and a cleverly integrated Bentley radiator. The result? In Koren’s own words, “…my four-seater Ferrari with Bentley luxury and comfort.” The 61-B achieved 133mph on the M1, but the cancellation of the Burma project put paid to any hopes of production and, understandably disappointed, Koren left Crewe in October 1961. He returned to the RCA as a part-time lecturer on furniture design, while also building a successful career in renovating and modernising houses to private commission. He died in London on 10 November 2016 aged 95.


Thank you to the Bentley Drivers Club (BDC) for giving us kind permission to use this article on our website.

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