The 1975 Camargue proved conclusively that more is not necessarily better.
The rules of automotive design that apply to Rolls-Royce motor cars are quite different to those that apply to other, less rarefied marques. Because of their low production volumes and the longevity of their model cycles, they eschewed the fashionable and ephemeral in favour of timeless elegance, understatement and peerless quality. The 1965 Silver Shadow exemplified these qualities perfectly, and Rolls-Royce was rewarded by it becoming the company’s best-selling model in history.
Despite the success of the Silver Shadow and the closely related Corniche coupé and convertible models, the early 1970s was a tumultuous time for Rolls-Royce Motors. The British government had been forced to rescue its parent company, the eponymous aero engine manufacturer, from bankruptcy(1) in 1971 and had insisted that the motor manufacturer be floated off as a condition of the rescue. The floatation was completed in 1973(2). This left Rolls-Royce Motors dangerously exposed, with very limited resources available for the development of new models.
The company needed a new flagship model, not only as a generator of income, but as a mark of self-confidence in its future. A plan had been formulated to develop a new super-luxury coupé on the platform and mechanical package that underpinned the existing models, but pitched at a much higher price point, 50% above that of the Corniche.
Rolls-Royce commissioned Pininfarina to design the new model. The reputation of the carrozzeria’s stylist, Paolo Martin, was riding high on the back of his Fiat 130 Coupé, which had been unveiled in 1971 to a rapturous reception, so he seemed to have been an ideal choice. According to reports, the design, which Martin completed at the same time as the 130, evolved with remarkable speed, going from first draft to final prototype in under three months.
Unfortunately, Martin’s design was then allegedly handed over to Rolls-Royce. The automaker was hamstrung by the need to make the new coupé significantly more imposing looking than the Corniche, not least to justify the intended large price differential between the two, while retaining the latter’s platform and mechanical package. The production car was also considerably delayed, first by the parent company’s bankruptcy in 1971, then by the 1973 petrol crisis.
The new coupé was finally launched in March 1975. It shared the Corniche’s wheelbase and overall length of 3,048mm (120”) and 5,169mm (203½”) respectively, but was a substantial 89mm (3½”) wider. Moreover, the sheer unadorned bodysides and lack of any significant instep at waist level below the DLO made the car look unbalanced and top-heavy, a problem exacerbated by the narrow front and rear track widths.
Other aspects of the design were also unnecessarily detrimental to its stance, however. The radiator grille was canted forward at an angle of 7°, matching the rearward cant of the tail. This exacerbated the impression that the car was widest at waist level, giving the lower body the look of a (geometric) bathtub. The outboard edges of the tail lights sloped inward, making it appear that the bodysides sloped outward. They seemed to bear no relationship to the shape of the rear of the car, as though they had been repurposed from another vehicle rather than custom-made.
The front end was rather blunt, and the grille looked overly wide for its height and oddly lacking in depth to be authentic. One rather strange detail was an indentation in the bodysides immediately below the DLO. This was highlighted with brightwork on early cars and seemed to be intended as a reflection of the shape of the side DLO. The odd, centrally sited reversing lamp(3) was covered with a strange ribbed grille for no apparent reason.
The single issue that was most destructive to the car’s stance, however, was the wheel treatment. At launch, the car was fitted with bright metal wheel covers over black painted wheels. Even though there were also bright metal rings around the wheel rims, the effect was to make the wheels look even smaller and further inboard than the reality, exacerbating the over-bodied and under-wheeled stance. The new model looked big and heavy and it was, weighing 2,329kg (5,135lbs), a substantial 144kg (317lbs) more than the Corniche coupé.
Perhaps surprisingly, Paolo Martin allegedly expressed satisfaction with the production car in a later interview, although he may simply have been polite and diplomatic in doing so. (He did, however, let slip that HM Queen Elizabeth II was said not to be a fan.)
The new car, named Camargue after a coastal region in southern France, was greeted with incredulity by many commentators who found its appearance underwhelming and its £29,250(4) list price almost unbelievable. This made it by some margin the most expensive production car in the world at that time.
Even the upmarket and normally anglophile British MotorSport magazine found it difficult to cheer the new Rolls-Royce. The magazine’s review opened by listing some of the things one could buy with its list price, including “an attractive detached house standing in its own grounds within the London commuter belt” or “a Corniche Convertible plus a Porsche 911 plus, (for the gardener, of course) the VW Golf 1500L”. With regard to the Camargue’s design, the reviewer was damning, stating that “the elegance and dignity must have fallen off the drawing board” and its stance reminded him of “a very fat man astride a very small motorbike”.
The mechanical package was entirely familiar, although the 6.75 litre V8 engine had its compression ratio lowered from 9.5:1 to 8:1, allowing it to run on four-star rather than five-star(5) petrol, but the (unspecified) power output was claimed to have been increased by 10% to 15% with the adoption of Lucas electronic ignition and a single four-choke Solex carburettor in place of the Corniche’s twin SU units(6). Because of the Camargue’s increased weight and frontal area, however, performance was merely on a par with the Corniche.
If the exterior style was disappointing, the Camargue’s spacious interior was as impressive as one would expect in Rolls-Royce’s flagship model, trimmed with 450ft2 (41.8m2) of the finest Connolly Nuela hide. The reviewer noted that occupant safety requirements dictated that the burr walnut veneer was now overlaid onto deformable aluminium rather than solid wood. The most significant technical innovation in the Camargue was a new bespoke split-level air conditioning system that took Rolls-Royce over eight years to develop.
On the move, the self-levelling suspension had to work hard over the bumpy minor roads of the Sicilian test route but settled down well on the long coastal motorway. Apart from that generated by the mirrors, wind and mechanical noise was commendably subdued, but no better than on a Jaguar XJ12 “at less than a fifth the price” of the Camargue. Handling came in for high praise: “For a car which looks so huge and unwieldy, the handling of the Camargue proved remarkable, making driving the car smoothly at speed intensely satisfying.”
Series production of the Camargue started slowly at one per week, increasing to two per week after a year. Despite its steep price, the first year’s production was sold out prior to the Camargue’s launch. Mechanical upgrades during the car’s eleven-year lifespan were modest. Rack-and-pinion power steering from the updated Silver Shadow II was fitted from early 1977, while Bosch fuel injection and independent rear suspension from the Silver Spirit was fitted after that car was launched in 1980.
Aesthetic modifications were even more limited. The brightwork trim below the side DLO was deleted, although the pressing it highlighted remained. The reversing light lost the grille that covered it. By far the most significant visual change, however, was achieved by fitting alloy wheels in place of the steel originals(7). This improved the car’s stance considerably, mitigating its under-wheeled appearance, even if the tracks still seemed rather narrow.
The Camargue’s price, which had risen to £83,122 by the time production ended, certainly ensured exclusivity for its owners. Over its lifetime a total of just 531 were produced. It is a moot point as to whether it would have found more owners if the styling had been better resolved and not compromised by needing to offer more than the Corniche to justify its price.
(1) To avoid assuming responsibility for all of Rolls-Royce’s liabilities, the UK government allowed the company to go into receivership and bought the assets from the receivers. This controversial technique, now known as ‘pre-pack administration’, is widely used and often criticised today.
(2) It was a conspicuously unsuccessful floatation: investors had little appetite for the new company and more than 80% of its shares were left in the hands of the underwriters.
(3) Reversing lamps were virtually a standard fitment by 1975, certainly on upmarket cars, so it is a puzzle as to why these were not incorporated into the rear light clusters.
(4) This represented a premium of £10,200 (54%) over the current list price of the Corniche.
(5) Five-star (101 octane) petrol was phased out in the UK in 1978.
(6) The twin SU carburettors were retained on US and Japanese export market Camargue models.
(7) It is unclear as to whether or not alloy wheels became a standard fitment or were specified by owners.