Curbside Classic: 1983 Rolls-Royce Camargue – Turin’s Titanic Tailoring Tragedy

Even the best artisans have their off days. But when the chef overcooks the fish or the concert pianist hits the wrong key, the mistake is usually limited to a small audience. When the gaffe is committed by an architect, an engineer or an industrial designer though, the consequences are on a different scale.

Examples are plentiful, from the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge to the Tupolev 144. But maybe the folks who designed those two particular catastrophes were not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier. But when we’re talking about England’s most prestigious carmaker and Italy’s most talented styling house end up co-laying a massive egg (still in its box, apparently), the mind boggles.

For let us not put all of the blame on PininFarina. Rolls-Royce could always have refused the design and called upon someone else – or tried to do it in-house. And they did more than their fair share of missteps during the whole process.

My personal problem, which of course is on a completely different scale, is that this will be the fourth CC post on the Camargue, including a masterful design analysis penned by the incomparable Don “Il Dottore” Andreina and a very thorough piece by JohnH875. So attempting to write something novel on this car will be devilishly challenging.

PF’s pre-Camargues, clockwise from top left: 1948 Cresta, 1952 Mark IV, 1951 Silver Dawn; 1954 R Type


But let’s start with the Italian side of this tragi-comedia dell’arte. Turin and Crewe were not exactly strangers: the carrozzeria had designed a number of specials on Rolls-Royce and Bentley chassis back in the day. The four-seater Bentley Cresta even made enough of a splash to be produced in small quantities by Facel, in a complicated Anglo-Franco-Italian arrangement. But otherwise, these remained one-off oddities.

PininFarina’s appetite for Crewe-made chassis cooled somewhat – or perhaps it was just the times that were changing – when suddenly, out of the blue, a well-heeled individual approached the coachbuilder with a desire for a bespoke two-door on the new T-Series platform. Many sources attribute this car to Paolo Martin, who joined PF in 1967. It had been a well over a decade since anything so exotic had been seen bearing a Bentley grille. Crewe perked up.

The Bentley ’68 special (top left) had been designed in the dying days of privately-funded one-offs. Orders like it, or the 1970 Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3 coupé (top right), were now few and far between. But they foreshadowed what the PF designers were aiming at for their production cars, too. The Fiat 130 coupé (1971, bottom left) and the Ferrari 365 GT4 2+2 (1972, bottom right) blatantly share the Mercedes’ roofline / C-pillar and, with some detailing differences, all four of the cars above have similar rear ends. To be entirely fair, the jury is out on the true author of the Benz (at least, I’ve not been able to get 100% proof) and the Ferrari was signed PininFarina, but was designed by Fioravanti, not Martin. The late ‘60s / early ‘70s flavour was beyond the purview of any single designer, as was usually the case at PininFarina.

Paolo Martin designed the Camargue in 1970, so it’s only natural that the Rolls’ hind quarters bear a family resemblance. And I must agree with my esteemed CColleague and erstwhile biscuit aficionado Professore Andreina: the three-quarter rear is easily the Camargue’s best angle. Chiefly because from this end, you could think that the front might look like the Fiat 130 or the Bentley Special.

But of course it doesn’t. The front end of the Camargue, which was difficult to capture on the one I found so I’ll just put this pre-1980 UK-spec factory photo here instead, was a famously botched affair. And Paolo Martin tried his best, but there was just no way to square the circle – or integrate that massive chrome grille into a cohesive whole. There are a lot of things wrong with this end of the car, but I would rather direct you to Don’s aforementioned post, which expatiates upon these issues with unparalleled panache.

It is worth going back to the drawing board, literally. These initial sketches look much better-proportioned than the final result. Thinner bumpers are one thing, but the one detail that sticks out is that grille. It’s much less intrusive. Because it’s a Bentley – yes, the Camargue should have been born with a winged “B” and a toned down schnozz. And that would have helped, but the folks at Crewe probably never considered it.

So let’s look at the English element, a.k.a. the Dark Side of the Farce. Rolls-Royce felt that they could make a few bucks by re-bodying the Silver Shadow in a swanky new Italian-tailored suit and putting a price tag on it that would make Mercedes drool with envy. It just had to be a Rolls, too: the Bentley marque was barely alive by that point. Even though the Continental name and heritage were just sitting there, unused…

Never mind. The Rolls-Royce boys pulled the trigger and PininFarina delivered. In metric. How that was a problem exactly is somewhat unclear to me, as surely Rolls-Royce had known about the metric system beforehand and, presumably, were able to translate the Italian house’s centimeters in the blueprints into good old feet and inches for Mulliner-ParkWard to manufacture the bodies.

But whatever. The other issue was that Rolls-Royce went bust in 1971. That was a long time coming and did not really involve the automobile side, which was profitable. The aero-engine side was the problem, and had to be separated from the car business. That delayed the new car’s start, which had been penciled in for late 1972, by a couple years at least.

No biggie. As previously stated, the obvious “Bentley Continental” moniker having been thrown to the wayside, a novel name was now needed to impart how exceptionally endowed with culture and good taste the owner of the new R-R coupé is compared to those alphanumerically challenged Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari owners. So they went with Camargue, which is a marsh on the French Riviera. It’s much nicer than it sounds. But how does it sound, by the way? Most non-Francophones were left scratching their guttural “Rs” trying to make sense out of this name. It’s “Cam-Arrgh,” if you didn’t know. Trust me. I’ve actually been there.

Seventy-five. That’s the year when the Camargue finally can out and, in percentages, how much of the production went to the US. Apparently, the Japanese version was virtually identical to the US one, in that it kept the Silver Shadow’s engine specs and twin SUs. Other climes were provided with a single Solex that (according to period articles anyway) provided an extra 10-15% of power from the 6.75 litre V8. But given that the exact hp numbers were, famously, never communicated to the outside world, we’re just going to have to take their word for it.

And in return, they took your money. Quite a lot of it, in fact: the equivalent of eight Cadillac Coupes de Ville. Heck, even the Silver Shadow, which was the same contents wrapped in a more practical and prettier package, cost half as much as the Camargue. It’s surprising that they still managed to shift something between 525 and 534 units (no one seems to coalesce around a specific number) in eleven model years.

Did they try anything to turn this sow’s ear into something slightly more Vuittonesque? What didn’t they try! The unnecessary chrome trim under the greenhouse was disposed of circa 1980, but that’s one of the few noticeable production changes that were actually implemented. Other than that, Hooper and Jankel attempted to make specials but went nowhere; one client actually specified (and got) a Bentley grille and Mulliner-ParkWard (above) gave a car some square eyes just to see if that fixed anything (it didn’t). The only mod that caught on was chopping the roof off, which apparently was done to about ten cars over the years.

So who is more to blame in the Camargue’s fiasco? Well, some details, taken in isolation, actually look pretty good. But there is nothing that really prepares you for the sheer bulk of the Camargue. It’s massive. It’s too damn big for its own good. The same Silver Shadow floorpan was used by the same carrozzeria in the one-off ’68 Bentley and the result then was decent enough. And that’s on PininFarina. Rolls-Royce, for their part, should have seen the danger and protected their ass(ets) by designating the car a Bentley, which would have at least made the front end less hideous and the name more pronounceable. On balance, the gravest errors were perhaps more Italian than British, but only by a few metric measurements.


Related posts:


Curbside Classics: Two Out Of Three Camargues, by Don Andreina

Curbside Classic: 1981 Rolls Royce Camargue – Much Ado About Nothing?, by JohnH875

Cohort Capsule: Rolls Royce Camargue – A Gorgeous Flop, by Perry Shoar