The Rolls-Royce Camargue

All that glitters . . ?

A fortune of £29,250 will buy an attractive detached house standing in its own grounds within the London commuter belt. It could even buy you a real Jaguar D-type plus an XJ12, plus one of the all black, last fifty V12 E-types to leave Jaguar’s Allesley factory. Different tastes might select a fixed-head Rolls-Royce or Bentley Corniche plus a Jensen Interceptor Convertible for more temperate days, or a Corniche Convertible plus a Porsche 911, plus, (for the gardener, of course) the VW Golf 1500 L. tested in this issue. For an extra £400 you could even afford a matching pair of Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows. Or you could blow the lot on the most expensive production car in the World, the new Rolls-Royce Camargue . . .

We’re still not sure whether the price of the two-door Camargue represents the biggest rip-off in the motoring world or the best and most profitable sales gimmick ever. We’re not sure because our minds can’t condition themselves to the thought of having £30,000 to spend on a current production car. If we had, then we might be grateful for Rolls-Royce’s thoughtfulness in marking up the price to ensure exclusivity, rather than attacking them for charging an extra £10,200 for rebodying the Corniche.

For this is all the Camargue is: Corniche running gear endowed with a rather ugly Pininforinia body resembling the dummy Rolls used by Lady Penelope in the Thunderbirds television programme. It looks rather as though Farina has tried to bend the very handsome lines of his FIAT 130 Coupe design around an over-large Rolls-Royce radiator— and failed.

Rolls-Royce tell us that Continental styling was chosen to give this model a truly International appeal. Well, we’re sorry to be disillusioned by them; we always thought that foreign buyers selected Rolls-Royces as much for their classic English elegance as for the name and quality. There was uproar when the compact, modern design of the Shadow series replaced the classically elegant Silver Cloud, but the Silver Shadow and Corniche have an elegant bearing nevertheless. In the Camargue’s case the elegance and dignity must have fallen off the drawing board.

A smaller radiator grille and rectangular instead of twin round headlamps would have given the front end a more balanced look. From the front, the overhang of the bodywork beyond the wheels (the 5 ft. front track is the same as that of the Corniche, but the body is 3.5 in. wider) reminds us of a rude photograph in the South African Grand Prix programme of the derriere of a very fat man astride a very small motorbike. The impression might not he quite so bad when Rolls fit the fatter Dunlop Denovo tyres and wheels for which the wheel-arches have been designed. Oh, and to give the final turn in their graves to the Hon. C.S. Rolls and Sir Henry Royce, the present Rolls management have allowed that famous radiator grille to be tilted forwards at the top by no less than four degrees. What ignominy, enough to cause the Flying Lady to slide from her perch !

On the other hand, the sight of nine of these creatures lined up to greet us at Catania airport when we arrived in Sicily for the official introduction and test was impressive. A cool £263,000 worth, indeed. Why the apparent extravagance in a time of economic strife of a Sicilian launch by a company which only recently escaped from the clutches of the Receiver? David Plastow, the charming, unassuming and co-operative Group Managing Director of Rolls-Royce Motors explained: “We had to go somewhere where we could rely on good weather at this time of year, and by the time we’ve put you lot up in the air in a chartered aircraft, the distance we take you has little bearing on the cost.”

Closer examination of the assembled cars greatly disappointed us, for rumours of specification and price had led us to expect a totally new and advanced car. Instead we found that the monocoque shell of this two-door saloon is the only new thing about it, apart from a brilliant, automatic, two-level air-conditioning system, which in any case will eventually be fitted to the other models in the Rolls-Royce range. The basic platform is identical to that used for the Silver Shadow and Corniche and the Camargue shares the mechanical units of the Corniche, including the 6,750-c.c. aluminium alloy V8 engine, automatic transmission, fully independent suspension with automatic ride height control, power-assisted steering and four-wheel disc brakes actuated by three separate hydraulic systems.

The only mechanical changes appear to have been to the engine. Although the compression ratio has been lowered from 9.5:1 to 8:1 to enable the Camargue to run on reduced lead content fuels (four star instead of five star for the Corniche) there has been a 10 to 15 per cent increase in power, particularly in the mid-range, by the adoption of a four-choke Solex carburetter in place of the Corniche’s twin SUs (retained on US and Japanese market Carnargues). For the first time, Rolls-Royce have adopted Lucas Opus electronic ignition. Sadly these modifications only put the Camargue on an accelerative par with the identically-geared Corniche, for at 2 tons 6.2 cwt. kerb weight it is heavier than the Corniche, while that and increased frontal drag (how about that for efficient continental design!) has lowered the maximum speed. The mechanical changes were irrelevant to the Sicilian test cars, which were fitted with standard Corniche engines, though with the Camargue’s twin exhaust system.

So what is this grossly expensive motor car all about apart from the exclusivity which its price and low production rate will ensure? The advantages over and above the Corniche are quickly enumerated: that automatic air-conditioning (which, as we’ve said, will eventually be incorporated in all Rolls-Royces), more interior space, including an 8.5 in. increase in rear seat width compared with the Corniche and an extra 3 cu. ft. of luggage capacity to give an enormous 25 cu. ft. total.

We were also to find that its handling is improved by an accident of Pininfarina design giving better weight distribution. As this latest Rolls-Royce follows their trend towards owner/driver cars, the millionaire who has to park his own Camargue may be interested to know that the extra accommodation is contained within exactly the same 16 ft. 11.5 in. length as the Silver Shadow and Comiche. He might not be interested to know that the windscreen angle of the Camargue is 60 degrees, the Comiche 50 degrees and the Silver Shadow 46 degrees.

The Camargue is much more impressive from inside than out, though anybody who has just spent £30,000 on a motor car is likely to want perfection in all directions. No less than 450 square feet of pleated Nuela hide from our old friends Connollys are used in the trim, including all the side panels, the front seats are adjusted electrically by knobs on the cushion base, much more convenient than those on other Rolls-Royces, and there are electric controls for the seat squab release, the centralised door and boot locking system and the door windows. There is a gauge showing outside ambient temperature, comprehensive warning lights including an ice warning (operated by the ambient temperature sensor behind the rear bumper), and the column-mounted electric gear shift lever, a method of operation unique to Rolls-Royce, contains a switch for automatic speed control to enable the driver to relax on motorways. A stereo radio (which amazed us by picking up David Hamilton’s BBC radio programme while we were positioned between two Sicilian mountains) and quadraphonic tape-playing equipment are standard. But ageing dowagers will be furious to learn that the facia’s burr walnut is merely veneer stuck to impact-absorbing aluminium panels—a sop to current international safety standards, as are the side intrusion members in the aluminium panelled doors. The bonnet and boot too are aluminium panelled.

Putting three journalists and one Rolls-Royce employee (in our case, Derek Coulson, Chief Development Engineer—Chassis, and the man responsible for the new air-conditioning system) in each car had the disadvantage of reducing our individual mileages at the wheel, but allowed us to try the rear seat too, The Sicilian police had been well-primed to smooth our passage through the island and a police Alfa Romeo led the first Camargue away at breakneck speed, scattering women, children, chickens, donkeys and oranges in its wake through the villages. We settled for a more subdued, though far from leisurely, gait and concentrated on navigating ourselves away from the forbidden “bandito” areas, which even the mafiosi and police avoid. The Camargue might have commanded a healthy ransom from Rolls-Royce, but would we? Most of the Sicilian back roads around Mount Etna look deceptively well tarmacked but are very bumpy and the Camargue self-levelling suspension had to work hard for its living. In these extreme conditions the ride was less smooth than a searcher for perfection would have expected—coping less well than the Citroen CX did on the rough roads of Lapland, for example—and the rear seat occupants needed the inertia reel seat belts to prevent their heads hitting the low roof. We would have welcomed an old-style strap hanger as a steadying medium. The massive and thickly-padded front and rear seats were exquisitely comfortable, but setting the front seats to suit by means of the toggle electric control required patience.

The sheer comfort of seating, smoothness of the suspension and stability of the car became more apparent on the long, coastal motorway, more suited to its characteristics than some of the inland back-roads. Under acceleration the big V8 was much more obtrusive than the XJ12’s engine, but totally silent when cruising. We were disturbed by the amount of wind noise, which was explained away as being the result of a temporary hatch of windscreen seals, for the production ones had not arrived in time to be included in these pre-production cars. Unfortunately changing seals would not have eradicated the wind noise from the door mirror, which seemed to us to be the main offender. In fairness there was little more noise at an indicated 120 m.p.h. than at 70 m.p.h. In spite of these criticisms, by the standards of most other cars, excluding the XJ12 at less than a fifth of the price, the Camargue is incredibly easy on the ears, but not to the standard one might expect for £30,000.

There is not much one can do to test an air-conditioning system in static climatic conditions, but from what we could tell, this split level system, which relies on sensors under the facia, below the facia, on the cantrail above the front-seat passenger’s head and the ambient temperature sensors behind the bumper, has to be the ultimate. As it ought to be at the cost of a Mini. Once set to the face and foot level temperatures required by the occupants, it will automatically retain them ad infinitum. But the split-level facility seems to be the only advantage it holds over that excellent Delanair automatic system available in the latest Jaguars. 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. It seemed to shrink in size, could be placed to the millimetre when clipping kerbs, overhanging rock faces and donkey carts and was remarkably easy to acclimatise oneself to. Much of the credit must go to the beautifully smooth, positive and accurate power steering, which though light to suit the type of customer attracted by Rolls-Royce, has sensible gearing and a sensibly-sized, quite thick-rimmed, padded steering wheel. There is none of that tyre-scrubbing understeer which used to afflict such cars—indeed can even hang the tail out controllably. Such driving creates a fair amount of roll, but what else can you expect when a 2 1/2-ton motor car allows itself to be thrown around almost as nimbly as an Escort. The brakes were magnificent, smoothly progressive and very powerful.

One unexpected and unsatisfactory point was vibration and resonance from the rear suspension coupled with the tinny clanging of stone chips in the rear wheel-arches. Obviously Rolls-Royce engineering is still not perfect.

The doors on the Camargue are wide enough for rear seat passengers to climb out without disturbing the front seat occupants, but this has the disadvantage of making the inertia-reel front seat belts difficult to reach.

Back at the ranch—actually an old monastery—David Plastow explained that the Camargue venture started as a separate planning and design exercise over seven years ago, long before he took over the company, and that it had taken eight years to develop the sophisticated air-conditioning system. This is entirely of their own manufacture except for servos and other bought-out, standardised parts.

As for Rolls-Royce’s confidence in launching such an expensive car at this time: “During the last couple of years we have seen the second-hand prices of Corniche coachbuilt cars reach figures in excess of £20,000 and the clear indication was that the World’s motor market would accept an additional coachbuilt Rolls-Royce provided that it represented in shape and exclusivity a significant advance upon the present coachbuilt cars.” Exclusivity maybe…

“Our customers expect the best and they are prepared to pay for it. They are also paying for exclusivity and thus the Camargue will be coachbuilt in very limited numbers— one per week to start with, rising to two per week by next year.”

The Camargue’s body shell is built-up at the Mulliner Park Ward factory in Hythe Road, London, and when complete is shipped to Rolls-Royce in Crewe for mechanical assembly. It returns to Hythe Road for trimming and final finishing and is given a 100/150-mile road test before final rectification and polishing.

The entire first year’s production had been sold before the Camargue was announced, so however we might have criticised it, it is going to be a best-seller. No less than 70% export volume is anticipated, compared with 55% for the rest of the range and many of them will be finding homes in OPEC countries. A magnificent, if not perfect, export leader, even if it looks like a folly.—C.R.