For 110 years, Rolls-Royce has built some of the most opulent and impressive cars in the world. They convey wealth and power better than anything else on the road, and with their trademark upright, polished grille and Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament, they’ve become a universal symbol of royalty and wealth. Despite all that, you can’t say the company has always taken to change well, at least not on the surface.
This is discounting the current era, of course, when the company has embraced the 21st century as well as any other ultra-luxury manufacturer. It’s in the process of incorporating high-strength lightweight aluminum into its big, powerful cars, and is working on the Cullinan, a Bentley Bentayga-fighting SUV that could very well turn out to be the world’s best. We’re talking about 20th Century Rolls-Royce, the company that updated its flagship Phantom just six times in 79 years, still relied on coachbuilders for many of its body designs, and offered the Corniche and Silver Spirit — the archetypal midcentury Rolls models — for 30 years.
But despite its traditional exterior, the Corniche/Silver Spirit was a radical leap forward for the company. It had a unibody construction and an independent rear suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, a self-leveling suspension licensed from Citroën, and an understated yet radical (for the company) single-bow body design. The Corniche and Silver Spirit were incredibly popular, with over 30,000 Silver Spirit sedans sold between 1965 and ’80, and over 10,000 Corniche coupes and convertibles between 1966 and 1995.
But the auto world was changing quickly, and Rolls’s signature old-world elegance was beginning to look tired next to new, hard-edged European modernism of the 1970s. The Rolls’s parthenon grille and club room interior made it feel like an antique in the rarefied garage space next to outrageous wedged-shaped supercars like the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari 512 BB, and sporty and luxurious German competitors like the Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL 6.9. Rolls-Royce wanted a thoroughly modern flagship, and turned to Ferrari’s most famous partner to make it happen.
Pininfarina is known for designing some of the most beautiful cars the world has ever seen. With icons like the Cisitalia 202GT and Ferrari 250 GT under its belt, the Italian design house had recently wowed the European press with the 1971 Fiat 130 Coupé, a gorgeous but tragically underpowered grand tourer. Despite the shortcomings of the 130 making it a relative failure, it seemed that the company was on a roll, and could deliver rolling sculpture regardless.
So Rolls trusted Pininfarina with designing the first Rolls-Royce not penned in England. After all, the design house had perfectly captured Bentley’s once and future sporting pretensions with the 1968 Bentley T-Series Coupe Speziale concept, and proved that it could design something other than a sports car with the 124. The company seemed like a natural partner to help usher in a bold new era for the company.
But there were conditions. The car needed to have the traditional Parthenon grille and Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament. It needed to ride on the Silver Shadow’s long 120-inch wheelbase, share the bulk of its mechanicals with the sedan, and have enough space up front to house the massive V8. It could convey speed, but with its 6.75-liter emissions-choked mill saddled with 5,100 pounds, it certainly wouldn’t be a sports car.
The Paolo Martin-penned design was delivered to Rolls quickly, but the company had fallen on hard times (the company’s auto division was in the process of separating from the aircraft division) pushing the car’s release back until 1975. It would be called Camargue, after a picturesque region in the South of France. And it was a complete disaster.
The Camargue was met with a vitriol rarely seen in the automotive world. The British press — no stranger to stirring up scandals — attacked the car like it was mixed up in the Profumo Affair. It lacked grace and charm. It was awkwardly proportioned and bloated. It was underpowered, and its overworked GM three-speed automatic couldn’t deliver on the car’s grand tourer pretensions. It wasn’t… a Rolls-Royce!
Bad press aside, the car seemingly managed to alienate anyone who could afford anything like it. At 29,250 pounds in 1975, it was the most expensive car in the world. And despite having high hopes for the American market, Rolls priced the car $15,000 higher across the pond because management wanted to give the Camargue even more of an air of exclusivity. Throughout its 10-year production run, it would remain the most expensive car in the world, with its final price hovering around $150,000 in 1985 — or about $600,000 today. It cost nearly twice as much as a Corniche, and was mechanically identical to it in every way except for one: It was the first car to offer dual-zone climate control.
To Rolls’s loyal customers, the car was the antithesis of nearly every design hallmark that made the car a Rolls-Royce. Yes, it kept the grille, but it wasn’t upright — it was canted forward a scandalous seven degrees! To add insult to injury, the bastards had the audacity to give it a French name. No one mourned the loss of the Camargue when it disappeared in 1985 after just 531 cars had been built. In fact, in the three decades since, it’s become a mainstay on “Greatest Failures,” “Biggest Disappointments,” and “Worst Cars of All-Time” lists. And that’s a shame, because it really isn’t any of those things.
With the benefit of hindsight, the Camargue story isn’t that different than the plight of the 2002-2013 Maybach. Yes, Mercedes’s ultra-luxury spinoff brand failed in part because it didn’t have any marketable prestige (other than the price tag), but like the Rolls, it was big, ostentatious, more expensive than its competitors, and likely died an early death because it was seemingly hated by anybody who never did a guest verse on a Lil Wayne record.
But unlike the 21st century German flop — which was built on an aging platform — the Camargue’s underpinnings were still fairly advanced for the era, and proved to be incredibly robust. The car’s interior may be its high point, where it maintains the classic Rolls-Royce club room atmosphere while still feeling contemporary for the late ‘70s. The car even had its angles; viewed from the front, side, or back, Martin’s design does look like an upscale, upsized 130 Coupé. It’s when you view the car from any other angle that you start to get in trouble.
Today, as collector car prices skyrocket, the infamous Camargue remains virtually unloved. This car had just 25,496 miles on the clock and was sold by Bonhams in 2014 for just $41,800 — $12K less than the 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum we just tested. The cars haven’t climbed much in value since.
James May has proven to be one of the car’s few champions, noting that the Camargue “is not ugly, either. It has presence, like that pug-faced but well-dressed bloke down the pub (sic).” We tend to agree. The “Worst” and “Biggest” lists tend to snowball over time, turning the zeitgeist of any era into fact — and we would know, we work to make sure our lists avoid these trappings. Was the Camargue polarizing, excessive, and overpriced? Undoubtedly. Is it one of the worst cars of all-time? Absolutely not.
Over 40 years later, the Camargue is an intriguing bit of hubris on the part of Rolls-Royce. It was fearlessly contemporary, but it proved to be so far out of the company’s comfort zone that it strayed into uncharted territory, and couldn’t be saved. If its proportions were tidied up and built by Aston Martin or Jaguar, we doubt that it would be as reviled as it is today.
If there’s any positive legacy left by the Camargue, it’s that it got Rolls-Royce thinking more about the present and future with each passing year. The 1980s brought the Silver Spur and Silver Spirit — they still had polarizing designs, but they fully embraced the technology and creature comforts of the era. Today, with the Rolls-Royce lineup as contemporary and cutting-edge as its ever been, we can’t help but see a trend that started over 40 years ago and first appeared in a reviled curiosity that’s still waiting for its due. Sooner or later, we hope the Camargue gets it.