Curbside Classic: 1981 Rolls Royce Camargue – Much Ado About Nothing?

Sometimes you see a car parked on the side of the road that you simply have to stop and photograph*, such as this Rolls Royce Camargue.  Looking at it from a distance of 40 years, it is hard to see why it caused the controversy that is seemingly forever associated with it.  Let’s have a look at the story.

 

I don’t think there is anything mysterious about the Camargue back-story.  In 1969 Rolls Royce decided that they wanted more differentiation in their coupe (or two-door saloon as they referred to them), to succeed the 1966 Silver Shadow-based coupe by long-time coachbuilder Mulliner Park Ward.  Note that the famous Corniche name was not introduced until 1971.

This time the coachbuilder was Pininfarina, an interesting move as most people would associate them with Ferrari.  Perhaps this was because Pininfarina had done a similar machine in 1968 with the commissioned Bentley T-Series Coupe Speziale, which was judged to have successfully captured that marque’s sporting spirit.  No doubt the seminal Florida concept car was a factor too.

 

Initial designs were submitted and development work was commenced in early 1970, with a plan to put the car into production in 1972 for a launch in early 1973.  However this plan was interrupted by the entire Rolls Royce group being declared bankrupt on 4 February 1971!  Thanks in part to a stock of Corniche being ready to go, the car manufacturing business was reformed as Rolls Royce Motors Ltd.  Assessing the Camargue project during this process saw the launch target delayed to 1975.

Apart from the new body, the Camargue shared virtually everything with the Silver Shadow platform on the same 120” (3,048 mm) wheelbase, with self-levelling, 4-wheel independent suspension.  The big new announcement was the first automotive split-level automatic air conditioning system, which apparently added more than entire BL Mini’s worth of cost to each car!  I’m sure this was of much more value to customers though than the other publicised ‘innovation’ that the Camargue was the first RR to be designed in metric measurements!

The instruments and controls were styled to look like those from an aircraft.  This was an interesting concept, but I don’t know that the 1970’s production execution did it justice – typically there is some distortion of plastic parts.  Replacing these with CNC’d aluminium as Jonathon Ward’s ICON cars & 4x4s feature would be more fitting, in both senses of the term.

January 1975 saw the car introduced to the press before its world launch in March.  While nobody expects a Rolls Royce to be cheap, the price of the Camargue could be termed colossal at over 50% more than a Corniche or over 1/3 more than a Phantom VI limousine!

Inevitably comparison must be made with the 1971 Fiat 130 Coupe, which was also designed by Pininfarina and shared many of the same stylistic themes as the Camargue.

It could be argued that having to accommodate the traditional upright Rolls Royce grille and bulky 6.75 litre V8 meant that designer Paolo Martin was not able to achieve the same purity of line and sleek slenderness of the 130.

There were some tricks such as a strong highlight line below the doors to minimise the visual depth of the body, and a feature line below the greenhouse for similar effect.  Overall the silhouette was relatively sleek.  The Camargue was 3.5″ wider than other Rolls Royces but only the front track width was increased to suit, leaving the rear wheels a bit lost in the wheel wells.

Interestingly there is a fair resemblance in the shape of the 1977-on GM B-body coupes, such as the Buick LeSabre.

That grille of course was perhaps the biggest point of controversy, because it was not upright as was right and proper on a Rolls Royce, but angled forward at a rakish, or even raffish, seven degrees.  It may not sound like much, but was apparently enough to properly upset the purists.

In light of current Rolls Royce models where the grilles all lean back and there are things such as the inset multi-piece Ghost grille, a mere tilt seems a trifle!

In an era where Rolls Royce and Bentley were effectively badge-engineered, only one customer demanded to have a Bentley version of the Camargue.  Others have been converted, but don’t usually achieve as neat an appearance as the factory.

More extensive conversions have been done too, such as this quite impressive folding hardtop conversion.

Not everything will be to everyone’s taste, such as this rig, presumably set up for falconry.  I suppose you could say it is a case of function over form, and that Pininfarina was not consulted on the conversion?

Another interesting one is an update by Robert Jankel, who installed headlights and tail lights from the Silver Spirit – not entirely suitable to my eye.

There were a couple of prototypes used to test turbocharged versions of the 6.75L V8, presaging the later Turbo R saloon.  One of the prototypes (DZ5) was destroyed in a crash, but the remaining one (DZ6) was retained in the Engineering Department until it was sold years later by an Australian enthusiast (on display in the Fox Collection museum in the Melbourne Docklands).

The Corniche picked up the same mechanical upgrades as the sedan range as the years passed, and there were other changes such as repositioning the fuel tank behind the rear seats and transferring the bodyshell build from MPW to Park Sheet Metal near Coventry.

The total production run was only 530 cars over 11 years.  I had expected that there would have been an initial flurry before demand tailed away, but surprisingly it seems that the sales rate was comparatively regular across the years.

*  Sometimes there are cars you can’t stop for too.  I saw another Camarge parked in a small residential street by pure chance late last year, around the time I took a break from writing due to taking on a new role at work which took up a lot more time, and I couldn’t stop or go back for it.  As it happened though, I’d seen the same car before – the photo above is from the Philip Island Classic race meeting 10 years ago.  All Camargue photos are of cars I’ve seen except for the interior shots (don’t have any decent photos) and the cars that have been modified ex-factory, so that represents a decent portion of total production to have seen in one city I think.

 

Further Reading:

Both street-parked Camargues were also spotted by Don Andreina: Cohort Sighting: Rolls Royce Camargue – A Gorgeous Flop

The Camargue also features in Paul’s article on: Pininfarina’s Revolutionary Florida: The Most Influential Design Since 1955