Curbside Classics: Two Out Of Three Camargues

My musical tastes match my taste in car shapes, insofar as sitting primarily between 1950 and 1980. But there’s an essential difference between these two life-affirming art forms for me. If I hear something on the radio from my favourite period that I don’t like, say Meatloaf, I switch it off. For me, hearing music I hate is like fingernails down a chalkboard. Can’t stand it.

With cars, I’m more inclined to sustain my gaze on a shape that doesn’t appeal to me. Like the Camargue for example.

In 1975, the Pininfarina-shaped Rolls-Royce Camargue was released to the market. It was 25% more expensive than the Rolls-Royce Corniche two-door and almost twice that of the Silver Shadow four-door.

Why anyone would pay that premium for this lump of meatloaf is beyond me.

Word was, the Camargue was the unhappy result of the switch from metric to imperial. Italian body shape prepared for English carmaker. But that was just the classic car mags having a dig.

It has a DNA inextricably linked to the Fiat 130 Coupe, having been conceived mere moments before that ageless classic. You couldn’t get more varied results from the same principles.

The Fiat 130 Coupe was born on my drawing board at that moment, and not to waste time I used the Rolls-Royce frame. So from a standing position I was drawing the 130 and sitting down I started the difficult Camargue.

This distended and twice-translated-but-never-nailed quote from Paolo Martin has always vexed me. I found it online and it needs its preceding sentences.

My impression is that he didn’t come to the Fiat shape – a brief he had been working on for a while – until he had received the Rolls-Royce brief. Up till then his Fiat had been something more cokebottle, so the Camargue brief must have prompted him to think of squarer lines for the large coupe.

I’d posit the above drawings sit at two moments of time. The top set Martin’s first thoughts, done in concert with the Fiat versions (which I can’t find).

The renderings under the white line might have come just after the first set, or a little while later. They show the car already moving away from its original and breathtaking thing.

The major difference between these two sets appears to be the placement of the front wheel.

In order to appreciate my point of view, you have to ascribe to the theory that the Fiat 130 is one of the highlights of automotive styling from any period. I’ve tried to express that in more depth here.

If you don’t hold that opinion, it’s hard to appreciate what Paolo Martin was staring at when he first put this shape to paper. I think he knew from that second he had conceived a masterpiece. In his mind he had imagined a low and wide coupe with flat surfacing and razor-sharp edges.

Nothing new there, but more significantly he had figured out a magic proportion for the volumes.

Paolo Martin was a rising talent within Pininfarina. he had joined a few years earlier, and had been involved with bringing Leonardo Fioravanti’s aerodynamica saloons to fruition. When the Rolls-Royce brief landed, he was also on the cusp of another masterpiece – the Modulo, which has his attention above (centre).

Just after he had been given the Camargue, Martin’s Mercedes-Benz 6.3 was displayed at the London Motor Show. I wonder whether anyone at Rolls-Royce started to have misgivings

His Bentley T was built by Pininfarina in 1968 for an individual hoping to convince Rolls-Royce to do a new Continental. It is nicer than the Camargue and should have been followed more closely. That might have been just a bit too indiscreet given Rolls-Royce decided to take this individual’s idea of a bespoke Pininfarina coupe and do it for themselves.

With the second set of drawings we can see Martin moving away from the original conception. It’s as if he consulted his brief after his initial moment of inspiration, and then started to refine it along those difficult parameters (the cowl had to be so high, etc.)

The front wheels have been sent forward, with axle-to-grille now shorter than axle-to-windscreen. And that makes a lot of the difference for the dynamism of the profile.

While the profile drawing has less frontal overhang than the 3/4s, it still has more than the final product.

But that magic proportional relationship is lost.

In the flesh, the production Camargue profile is one of the its most disappointing features. For some reason it reminds me of the Zephyr Mk3 in the rear flanks.

The front that really gets me. It looks like a mouth-breather.

Two fatal decisions – fattening, then deepening the grille; and setting the headlights outboard. The Silver Shadow had so perfectly continued the S3 Cloud’s quadlamp face, Crucial to this was that the twinset cluster hug the grille, with outboard turning signals setting the flank.

The Camargue got a fat grille from day one. Deepening it just made it worse. But the headlights are even more fatal. You can’t bring them closer to the grille because then they leave the bland outer corner exposed. The body spacing between grille and lights just makes the face look simple; wide-eyed.

The Camargue came to Rolls-Royce in a bit of a vacuum.

In 1969, chief stylist John Blatchley retired after 24 years as the primary hand on Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor car shapes. For much of that time, he’d worked in concert with Managing Director Dr Frederick Llewellyn-Smith and Chief Engineer Harry Grylls for the company’s vision and execution. He was the last of the three to leave.

That same year the Camargue was commissioned from Pininfarina; the reason for his leaving or the result of his absence?

Pininfarina had not worked with Rolls-Royce on a series production car before. They had done a number of private commissions on a Crewe chassis – one of which was seriously considered as the body for the 1952 Continental – and had also designed and built the prototypes for Jean Daninos’ Cresta series out of France.

Now in the hands of Renzo Carli and Sergio Pininfarina, the business continued to be the premier carrozzeria in the world. Bertone may have eclipsed them at the cutting edge lately, but the firm started by Battista Pinin Farina was still the benchmark across the industry for their capacity to manufacture as well as style.

They built the first Camargue prototype themselves to their own expectations.

The Pininfarina Catalogue states this in its Camargue entry;

Pininfarina was given utmost freedom of expression, provided the traditional characteristics of the Rolls-Royce products were maintained.

Derek Meddings had been given carte blanche to shape the Thunderbird’s Rolls-Royce; FAB 1. He needed to submit drawings for approval, and their only requirement was that the car never be referred to as a ‘Rolls’; always ‘Rolls-Royce’. Rolls-Royce even created a full-sized version of the FAB 1 grille so the production company could use it for closeups.

Sometime between the Fiat’s 1971 launch and the Camargue’s in 1975, the Rolls-Royce Board of Directors assembled at the helipad located within the company’s sporting fields. They were there to compare the Fiat 130 Coupe with their upcoming model.

If anyone there was seeing the emperor’s nipples, no-one did anything about it. They had more pressing issues at hand, such as an aircraft division with a whopping financial liability.

Rolls-Royce longtimer Fritz Feller eventually replaced John Blatchley. Curiously, he was an accomplished engineer worthy of mention in New Scientist magazine but he had not held a styling job before he took over the department at Rolls-Royce.

Feller considered the Bentley version’s face for his upcoming Silver Spirit generation, but that came to naught.

On the Camargue, it came to one – a single customer who requested a Bentley grille instead of a Rolls-Royce one.

Feller also tried showing Pininfarina how to improve one of their shapes. Not the sort of thing they were used to.

His suggestion to go rectangular with the headlights was met with much operatic hair-pulling. Sergio exclaimed he would ‘travel through rain and fog to be with his child’ if there was anything wrong with it.

Coachbuilder Hooper tried body-colour behind the headlights, and made the face look even more vacant.

On the other hand, the rear light strip from their Beau Rivage – a marked improvement.

What it should have sounded like.

William Towns’ 1976 Lagonda is as derided as the Camargue, but unfairly so. Here is a far more melodic symphony of prestige origami, a four-door sedan that exudes everything the two-door Camargue aspires to.

Not perfect; but exotic, dynamic, razor sharp and very finely crafted.

I’ve been seeing both the black and white Camargues for years now.

But in writing this piece, I discovered I’ve been looking at two different white ones. I’ve captured these with overlapping dates so I know its not just the refurbed same car. The one at the top has the chromework underneath the door glass, and it also has the side markers at the rear of the car.

You can see on the lower car that the body was actually contoured to meet the chrome, and the indent is still visible. This chrome was removed from post 1979 cars, and the front headlights earned wipers at the same time.

Thing is, neither the lower white car or the black one have the wiper washers, which leads me to believe these are earlier mdoels with the chrome removed.

John H managed to capture another local example in the same vein. No wipers, and no chrome trim.

He too has captured the black one, and writes up an excellent account of the car here including its numerous variants.

I wonder if my response to this car is merely the jealous mutterings of a churl, drowning amidst its abundance of prestige and pulchritude.

Nope. You can make this car more dynamic, but only through the lens. My eyes and brain and heart just don’t see it like this, no matter how much I want it to be.

If you want a masterclass in how to treat a Rolls-Royce in the 1970s, look no further than the Frua Phantoms.

First the elephant in the room. The car is an elephant. Constructed over the leviathan Phantom limousine chassis, the two examples built were oversized in every dimension. But their scale obscures their styling supremacy.

As Paolo Martin had also considered, the headlights are rectangular units. Crucially they hug the grille, and also define the outer edge. The grille itself – narrow but deep. Killer move.

Don’t believe me?

This is a Rolls-Royce mockup for a 1980s budget model.

That face is pure Frua Phantom, except for the addition of the 72 Galaxie bar through the grille. And it is a very pleasing facade – much, much nicer than the car that replaced the Shadow let alone the Camargue.

Perhaps when you see a 7/8 of the Frua’s profile you’ll get my picture.

That’s the sort of Rolls-Royce shape worth the 25% markup over a Corniche.

But still. I know how to enjoy a Camargue. Its most pleasing aspect is rear three-quarters from above. The angles, surfaces and volumes work here; nothing is awkward as it is up front.

So I am fortunate enough to capture a glimpse of this ungainly beast every now and then.

And occasionally I might get a sense of what could have been.

But what I really want to be hearing is this.

The Camargues of Melbourne on Curbside Classic

CC by John H

Capsule by Perry Shoar