Rolls Royce’s Cullinan SUV has landed. Is this the price of luxury?
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?
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 far from inspired 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 wanted his personal stamp upon it. Instead, he 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?
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 design 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.
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.
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.
With special thanks to CB