Iceberg Right Ahead

Rolls Royce’s Cullinan SUV has landed. Is this the price of luxury?

The sheer face of ultimate luxury. Image credit: (c) BMW Blog

Flawed diamond

In 1971, the unthinkable occurred. The once impregnable Rolls Royce entered receivership, owing to costs incurred developing the RB211 turbojet engine programme. Many viewed it as a watershed – after all, if RR could go under, who was safe? In the years that followed, Rolls Royce Motors stayed afloat, if only by the skin of their teeth. By the time Vickers bailed in 1988, it was clear the Silver Lady had lost more than her spirit.

Today, there are no such dangers. Not only is Rolls Royce well-funded and protected within the BMW mothership, but the market for ultra-luxury vehicles has never been as insatiable. A point borne out by Aston Martin CEO, Andy Palmer, who told Automotive News last week,  “Richer people are getting richer and there are more of them, and the area which is growing quickest and represents their biggest spend is luxury and ultraluxury cars.”

What fresh hell is this?

“Clear off my land! We’re having tiffin.” Image credit: (c) CNET

Which may go some way to explain why Goodwood saw fit to develop the the Cullinan SUV. After all, according to automotive industry orthodoxy, an SUV model is the best hedge against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune there is right now.

And the market clearly is there: Quoting figures from JATO Dynamics, Automotive News last week cited combined global car sales for ultra-luxury marques at 6,475 cars in 2002. Last year the figure had grown to 29,554. Allow that to settle upon your minds for a moment before reflecting upon what that means both for the industry itself and society in general.

In 1998 Rolls Royce was purchased by BMW following a rancorous bidding war with VW. The Wolfsburg concern went away with the bulk of the prize, gaining the Crewe plant, the rights to all previous RR / Bentley models and the ‘Flying B’ itself. At first glance, BMW got the worst of the deal, the largely discredited Rolls Royce brand and little else, apart from the under-developed and uninspired Seraph. (The decrepit Phantom VI had been discontinued in 1990, to everyone’s blessed relief.)

But with immense care, BMW pieced together a new Rolls Royce (2.0) from the shattered entity it was. Petuelring appointees, Tony Gott, Ian Cameron, and Karl-Heinz Kalbfell applied the founding principles of Henry Royce, crafting a vehicle of the highest standards of engineering craft, build, good taste and respect for heritage. As marque reanimations went, it was a masterclass.

Earlier this year, Aston Martin design chief, Marek Reichman ruffled feathers at Goodwood, telling Autocar,  “Rolls-Royce and Bentley are Ancient Greece today. I worked on the original Phantom. The brief was Buckingham Palace on wheels. It was important to do that to establish it. But the world has changed.” And while he could have been a little more tactful as to how he put it, Reichman had a point.

Because the 2003 Phantom was a statement car. As such it should not have been replaced, there being simply nothing left to add. But Rolls Royce’s current design director, Giles Taylor has reversed the Spirit of Ecstasy into a cul-de-sac. While the previous Phantom was majestic, its replacement is simply large. There is little nuance or richness to its form, just scale. And furthermore, does the Phantom even have a purpose in light of Cullinan’s arrival?

Taylor’s moodboard. Image credit: (c) Marqueart

Rolls Royce describes its newcomer, not as an SUV, but a ‘high-sided vehicle’ and now that Cullinan is revealed, we see just how literal a statement that is. Imposing, yes. Self important, most certainly. But also spiritually bereft. It categorically confirms how little substance there is within the current leadership at Goodwood.

We’re going to do this by the book

A shopworn old saw frequently heard by apologists is that SUVs are now a matter of commercial necessity, fondly citing how Porsche funds its sportscar lines from the Cayenne’s profits. Yet Porsche was not in financial difficulty when they launched their luxury SUV pathfinder in 2003, even if they did get seriously intoxicated on its dividends.

Nor, it would seem, is Rolls Royce, as Automotive News pointed out last week:  “BMW doesn’t break out Rolls Royce in its financials, but the company boasts it is ‘highly’ profitable”. So if stabilising one’s balance sheet isn’t at issue, what is? The motor industry’s current leaders are not fools by any stretch, but visionaries they are not. Therefore, a combination of default thinking and the maximisation of shareholder value seems the most likely answer.

Because we can. Image credit: (c) Autocar

Whores will have their trinkets

Which brings us to the second compelling reason this vehicle exists, which is that of the protracted game of one-upmanship playing out between BMW and Mercedes. While brand-Benz can boast a broader reach upmarket than the Petuelring propeller, with Rolls Royce, BMW holds the crown jewels, surely a matter of some needle at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim.

We can be certain however that in Gorden Wagener’s Sindelfingen dream factory, there is a suitably bejazzled Maybach-branded rival nearing completion. Allow yourself a mental picture of that for a moment – and a moment only. Now think of something else, really quickly.

The size of a small dictatorship. Image credit: (c) Forbes

Fin de Siècle

Rolls Royce’s positioning is putatively at the pinnacle of the automotive ziggurat and leaders have a duty to lead. But if Torsten Müller-Ötvös wished to display leadership, the last thing he would be making is another bloated, ostentatious all-terrain oligarchic conveyance. After all, BMW have both the carbon fibre and electric vehicle technology to produce a truly progressive template for a new generation of trailblazing Spirit of Ecstasy vehicles. Instead, we are offered a giant rock.

In 2018, the unthinkable happened. The once impregnable Rolls Royce launched a four-wheel drive ‘high-sided’ hatchback. Many will view it as a watershed, but there’s no going back now. The Rolls Royce (2.0) project is lost.

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved

With special thanks to KK

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “Iceberg Right Ahead”

  1. A better move would have been a vanguard hybrid, saying “I’m rich as Croesus, but I CARE.”

  2. RR’s Torsten Müller-Ötvös describes Cullinan as the “most family-oriented, fun-to-drive, superluxury SUV imaginable. It will be perfectly at home taking kids to school as it is arriving at an opera house at the opening night.”.

    Meanwhile, RR’s design director, Giles Taylor, told journalists that Cullinan came about through strident customer demand. “They told us: ‘Don’t be shy. Don’t do crossovers, don’t do shooting brakes, don’t get all nice and elegant with your pencil,’ go big!” He then went on to describe how they went back to the 1920s for inspiration, citing Laurence of Arabia’s use of RR vehicles in his Arabian campaigns and the use of RR’s by “Indian maharajahs on tiger hunts. They took their lifestyle to these inhospitable places, and that’s the story we in the design studio set ourselves to follow,”

    How lovely.

  3. Looks murderous, and it’s designed to take money from rich people that should know better. Should have named it “Cunanan”

  4. I was skeptic, but seeing pictures of it yesterday it has grown on me. Exactly no one will use this in any terrain worse than that of the muddy unpaved road up to the manor house. This is just the form cars have these days, while the longer-lower-wider mantra of the babyboom years is just a foot note in history. The Silver Shadow to Seraph was just a parenthesis, this is back to how it was before.

    This is a limousine just a little bit higher off the ground, something you step up in instead of sitting down. The passenger compartment extends to where the window line ends, rear passengers will look out the rear side window and not through the window in the door. This is like the traditional British limousines of yore, from the Phantom to the Princess and the Daimler DS.

    The side profile reminds me of the Silver Dawn from the early fifties, with just about enough of a ledge at the rear to be seen more of a as a sedan than a wagon. Think of it as a Silver Dawn with a Harold Radford hatchback Countryman Conversion. Seen as a Countryman addition to the line up, the landed gentry will by these in droves and perhaps never even have to change from the Landie in Scotland and can take the Cullinan directly from the shoot to Buckingham palace.

  5. Overall, it’s not as bad as I feared, and certainly less ugly than the Bentayga, which is an abomination, IMHO. The RR design language works quite well on this form. For me, the one aspect of the design that is poorly resolved is the C/D-pillar: they clearly didn’t want to have a long third light exposing rear seat occupants to the gawping proletariat, but the two-box form necessitates a wide D-pillar aft of the rear door. The rather awkward compromise is a wide blacked out section in the third light and an overly wide bright strip, in an effort to make the D-pillar look less heavy. There’s also a rather weak looking thin strip of bodywork in board of the rear lights (between the light and tailgate) which is exacerbated by an unsatisfactory joint at the upper inboard corner of the light:

    Sorry for the fuzzy photo:

    1. Fuzzy photo but sharp observations.

      ‘Less ugly than the Bentayga’ is feint praise indeed!

    1. Indeed. The russian Aurus car could qualify as an SUV as it has, from the data that has been made public (source:
      – 200mm ground clearance
      – A rather high seating position
      – 4wd
      They also seem to have developed an indigenous 9 speed automatic without torque converter, by a company named KATE and an hybrid module.

  6. “Indian maharajahs on tiger hunts. They took their lifestyle to these inhospitable places, and that’s the story we in the design studio set ourselves to follow,”

    Perhaps the thread linking the Rolls Royce design team to reality will sever soon and consign the lot of them to exquisitely detailed and reassuringly expensive oblivion.
    The first Phantom of the Goodwood era looks more and more like a soul was sold in exchange for the exquisite object that was wrought.

    The only thing glittering here despite the moniker is the sequins in which it was rolled when polishing was discovered not to be an option.

    Post Bangle, BMW has turned Mini into the ultimate pantomime dame, has ushered in a new visual language throughout the core range that puts me in mind of so many shar pei puppies and now lets Giles commit the Cullinan.. I had hoped after the latest Phantom that the Wraiths would come for him, but alas, the need to compete with Stuttgart seems to know no frontier.

    The Clown Prince did the marque no favours either.

    « Car » will no doubt wax lyrical on the merits of the Cullinan, maybe putting Big Georg behind the wheel to pulverise the Autobahn into submission once more, or take it on a jaunt to one of the Baltic states where it will seem right at home. Or not.

    Such ostentatiousness might be enough to create the inhospitable environment cited by Taylor. Wherever you drive it.

  7. Except for the piggy face, I like it. Big, imposing but not over the top. I was expecting gold-plated dross, but this is handsome compared to BMW’s own strange looking large SAV offerings, anything from Lexus, or humpbacked Mercedes. It looks like money and I’d wager it drives like it. Aston Martin low-slung go-karts need not apply. Finally, something for Range Rover Autobiography owners to covet, V12 power and infotainment that actually works one day to the next.

    What I don’t get is Gernan ground-pounders of the Maybach-Mercedes type. If an S Class isn’t luxurious enough for you, apparently ladling on extra goop makes all the difference. Is a first class ribeye steak bettered by smothering it in onions, mushrooms, chef’s very own special sauce and a bracing dash of peppercorns? You keep that stuff for the cheap cuts to disguise the ordinariness.

    The RB211 is/was a turbofan, not a turbojet. The problem – carbon fibre fan blades. 50 years on, we’re still fooling around with rhe stuff trying to make it truly commercially viable. The common cold is still at large as well. Some things just cannot be resolved.

    1. Sorry, Bill, but the RB211-524 is one of the world’s most successful engines, even defeating US attempts at protecting their own engine makers.

  8. But will it be allowed to cross the Humber bridge when the weathers bad? I think not…

  9. Nobody’s mentioned “The Architecture of Luxury”, which is the generic name given to the aluminum spaceframe shared with the new Phantom and future R-Rs, and nothing else from the BMW group. (Except possibly the 2021 MINI Clubman…) It’s a rather poncy title, of the sort you might find in expensive wristwatch or yacht promotions, but makes some sort of sense in the BMW platform hierarchy.

    “The Architecture of Luxury” frame is produced at Dingolfing, so the Cullinan is really just a jumped-up Glas.

    Eóin is rather harsh on the Silver Sherpa, which seemed to more of an advance on the SZ series than the SZ was on the Shadow. It has its failings, but had too short a life to overcome them. I have in my archive a masterly essay by former R-R Motors Chief Engineer Mike Dunn. in which he regrets that he could not defeat the tendency of his designers to over-complicate everything needlessly.

    When VAG took over, they re-worked the Arnage into something rather better, but at a cost considerably greater than the development and tooling costs for the original Arnage / Sherpa.

  10. A very well written piece, I enjoyed it.

    If RR 2.0 is truly a hollowed out shell, what is today’s equivalent to what RR was in it’s time?

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