Rolls-Royce’s Cul­li­nan rolls in

Is the Cul­li­nan just an­other big, lux­u­ri­ous SUV – or is it a be­trayal of the spirit of Rolls-Royce?

CAR (UK) - - Contents - By Stephen Bay­ley


The ar­chi­tects of the Parthenon, whose ped­i­ment in­spired Rolls-Royce’s most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture, used a sys­tem of ‘re­fine­ments’ to make the build­ing’s com­po­si­tion and pro­por­tions ap­pear per­fect. These in­cluded sub­tle cur­va­tures to ac­count for nat­u­ral op­ti­cal il­lu­sions: a true straight line will ap­pear de­pressed, un­less it is bent out a lit­tle.

We must al­low for the pos­si­bil­ity that de­sign di­rec­tor Giles Tay­lor has em­ployed re­fine­ments so that this en­gorged pile of pharaonic de luxe gross­ness ap­pears an ex­er­cise in del­i­cacy and tact if only its real size were known. But I don’t think so. The ex­cel­lent Ian Cameron, de­signer of the last Phan­tom, got cross with me when I said: ‘It’s all very well, but you’d have to have a se­vere psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lem to want to own one.’ Same ap­plies here, but you’d also need very poor eye­sight too.

There is not much sub­tle in this new Rolls-Royce, in­clud­ing the name Cul­li­nan. This rough di­a­mond was dis­cov­ered in the South African gold­fields in 1905. That it has now been ap­pro­pri­ated for di­a­mond geezers is elo­quent of as­ton­ish­ing in­sen­si­tiv­ity by Rolls’ mar­ke­teers. In 1905 South Africa was still a Bri­tish do­min­ion and the name evokes colo­nial ex­ploita­tion, beam­ing pic­canin­nies and no­tions of theft, largesse and servi­tude.

The orig­i­nal Cul­li­nan di­a­mond was shipped to Lon­don, cut in Amsterdam and be­came part of the Crown Jewels.

Still, they say if you want to know what

God thinks about money, just look at the peo­ple he gives it to.

Then there is the prob­lem of prod­uct se­man­tics. The grandeur and dig­nity which are the source of Rolls-Royce’s cred­i­bil­ity, the ba­sis of all its ‘brand val­ues’ – so ef­fort­fully ex­ploited here – are surely com­pro­mised when axle-deep in or­ganic slurry, or up to your belt­line in desert sand and dessi­cated camel poo. The ab­sur­dity does re­in­force the old truth that the sin­gle known fact about con­sumer be­hav­iour is that it’s ir­ra­tional.

And all this is com­pounded by the philo­soph­i­cal hor­rors of brand ex­ten­sion. Of course, it is easy to un­der­stand the com­mer­cial logic. There are enough cred­u­lous peo­ple who would buy a Bangkok tuk-tuk if a Spirit of Ec­stasy were at­tached to the han­dle­bars. But brand ex­ten­sion is ul­ti­mately ru­inous: Pierre Cardin briefly made a for­tune ap­ply­ing his name to fry­ing pans, but that si­mul­ta­ne­ously robbed his cou­ture busi­ness of pres­tige. What will Cul­li­nan do to Phan­tom?

Taste is the last thresh­old of shame. No one has ever said: ‘Do you know, I wish I had worse taste.’ It is in this con­text that the new Rolls-Royce SUV ex­cels so ef­fort­lessly. The prob­lem of dis­cov­er­ing new and toxic forms of vul­gar­ity has been taken away from ‘high net-worth in­di­vid­u­als’. How de­li­cious to drive some­thing which says, us­ing the artis­tic equiv­a­lent of a per­ma­nently de­ployed mid­dle fin­ger: ‘Get out of my way. I’m rich.’

They should have called it the Rolls-Royce Taboo. Or per­haps the Sil­ver Kitsch.


But most de­press­ing is that Rolls-Royce has ig­nored the op­tion of in­vent­ing fu­ture ex­cel­lence and cho­sen in­stead to join the hys­te­ria which has al­ready caused Porsche, Lam­borgh­ini, Bent­ley, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar and, soon, May­bach, As­ton Martin and Fer­rari to have psy­chotic delu­sions and make cars pro­foundly at odds with their orig­i­nal spirit. In the Premier­ship, only McLaren re­mains to be con­tam­i­nated.

They say Cul­li­nan’s a new def­i­ni­tion of lux­ury. Last word now to Coco Chanel: ‘Lux­ury is not the op­po­site of poverty, it’s the op­po­site of vul­gar­ity.’ M’elle Chanel would have found noth­ing lux­u­ri­ous here.

STEPHEN BAY­LEY The for­mer CAR colum­nist is a cu­ra­tor and au­thor. He shifts his gaze be­tween pol­i­tics, food, travel and ar­chi­tec­ture, but you can Šind high­lights of his au­to­mo­tive writ­ing at car­magazine. Next month in CAR: Gavin Green meets the...

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