What you’re looking at here is the Rolls Royce Camargue, very much the Rolls Royce that time forgot. What can you even say about it? It’s one of the most iconic automotive failures in history, and certainly a car that Rolls Royce fans are always very quick to wince at when I mention it at RREC conventions.
So where did this curious car come from? To truly understand this mighty machine you need to go back to 1969, where a massive change in the image and style of the world was starting to hold sway. In the world of autos, the curvature of the 1950’s and early 60’s was giving way to the angles of the 1970’s, the decade that gave us the ‘Wedge’ sportsers and boxy saloon cars.
Rolls Royce, who at this point were building three cars, the Phantom VI, the Silver Shadow, and the Silver Shadow Two-Door Saloon (later to be known as the Corniche), were looking for a new design that would drastically alter its image from that of the Shadow. Originally, the intention was to use their new brainchild to replace the Two-Door Saloon, but due to financial difficulty within the Rolls Royce company, later followed by bankruptcy after the RB211 Jet Engine project, the company chose instead to save costs and rebrand it as the Corniche instead.
For their new car, Rolls Royce chose not to have it designed in-house like previous models, but went for the first time to Pininfarina of Italy. Throughout the remainder of 1969 the company toyed with many sketches, until in 1970 a final design was chosen and given the go by the Rolls Royce management, with the intention for a launch in either late 1972 or early 1973. Within the company, the project was dubbed "Delta", but was later changed to DY20, with ‘D’ signifying Delta, ‘Y’ signifying it was based on the SY (Silver Shadow) platform, and ’20’ shortened from 120 which was the car’s wheelbase of 120 inches.
But as mentioned, following the amount of money poured into the new Rolls Royce RB211 Jet Engine Project for the Lockheed Tristar, the company was bankrupt as of the 4th February 1971. The result was that the Motor Car Division, whose future now rested in the hands of the Official Receiver, had to look closely at all aspects of the business. This led to the splitting of the Rolls Royce company, with Rolls Royce Motors Ltd. being founded and placed under the ownership of Vickers, whilst the bankrupt Rolls Royce Ltd. was nationalised.
During this turbulent period, the DY20 project was closely scrutinised and the Receiver gave the go-ahead to commence the project, but following a critical review of the engineering specification for the car, a decision was taken to delay the launch date until 1975.
With development continuing, HJ Mulliner Park Ward, who already built the bodies for the Corniche, were chosen to manufacture the bodies of the DY20 project. In the summer of 1972, the first prototype D1 was released and tested heavily to maintain the standard of reliable excellence that Rolls Royce had been known for. At first the car’s initial reception was warm, with people noting that it looked far more futuristic than the Shadow on which it was heavily based. Aside from sharing the same running gear, platform, Rolls Royce V8 engine and a majority of the internal features as the Shadow, the car was endearing in that it was fitted with a new and highly sophisticated bi-level automatic air conditioning system that at that time was the very first car in the world to have such a unit fitted. It was declared that this feature alone was more expensive than a British Leyland Mini! Another change was an instrument board, which many commented wouldn’t have looked out of place on the flight deck of a Boeing 747!
Throughout 1972 and 73 more prototypes continued to be released and tested, with Rolls Royce giving paramount assistance to HJ Mulliner Park Ward’s staff as they rigorously put these cars together. On the 18 January 1973 the body of the first production prototype, assigned D3, was attached to the front and rear sub frame assemblies on the normal Silver Shadow production line with maximum security in place and, following the production line assembly, the car was delivered to the experimental department to begin a period of intensive development work.
From May 1973 and all through 1974 production increased but still subject to extreme security. The production sequence was shared between MPW and Crewe. Once the body had been produced in the London factory and despatched to Crewe it was ‘finished painted’, attached to the front and rear sub frames and sent in a part built state back to MPW for all trim, general finishing and testing to take place at Hythe Road.
In January 1975, the car was officially launched in Catania, Sicily, and christened the name Camargue, an area situated in the delta of the River Rhône in France. Following a very successful press launch, the car was unveiled to the world on 5 March 1975 and the price quoted was £29,250, which made it the most expensive production car in the world ever at that time. Today, this figure translates out to £272,000. To put the price in perspective with other Rolls-Royce models at the time the Corniche saloon car cost £19,013 and the “Flagship of the Fleet” Phantom VI only cost £21,352!
The car was launched in the United States a year later after delays in fitting the cars with US Specification running gear meant that production didn’t begin until August 1975. The cost of these cars in the US was $147,000, which today is about $588,000.
So, after a turbulent development mired in bankruptcy, a complicated building strategy and a delayed launch in America, did Rolls Royce’s gamble with an audaciously designed car pay off?
Not in the slightest!
Purists recoiled at the sight of the angular corners and straight lines, with its big round headlights and chunky panels that made it look less like a Rolls Royce and more like a Lincoln Continental. They argued that for much, much less, owners could buy a Corniche or a Shadow which looked twice as good and performed just as well. This was then added to by the fuel crisis of the late 1970’s, upon which that 6.75L Rolls Royce V8 soaking up petrol at a gallon every 15 miles looked deeply undesirable.
In all, only 531 of these cars were ever produced during its 11 year lifetime, but with a few variations. In 1985 a specialist hunting car called the Sbarro was reengineered for an Arabian aristocrat, whilst in 1979 two Camargues were used as testbeds for developments that would later find their way into the Silver Spirit/Spur range, including headlights and other features. In 1985 a single Bentley Camargue was also built, identical except for the changed badge and Grille, although many aftermarket conversions are known to exist. The last two cars rolled off the production line on Christmas Eve 1986 bound for Japan, at a price of £83,000.
Today, the Rolls Royce Camargue is a very, very rare car, and you would be hard pressed to find them routinely. In the United States a few continue to roam the countryside, with around 200 of the cars being exported there. Reception of these cars sadly continues to be very critical, with the car often topping people’s lists for worst car ever made or ugliest car ever made. Although James May is one of a few people who defend this car, dubbing it "like that pug-faced but well-dressed bloke down the pub", for the most part all people can do is laugh at this car, laugh for the fact that it didn’t sell, didn’t look good and went through so much trouble to design and build that it was just a rushed embarrassment for the Rolls Royce company.
The reputation of these cars is so bad that in spite of its rarity, owners can’t even give these things away, with most that I’ve seen going for as little as £20,000. But a word of advice, stop laughing, and buy their car! £20,000 for a two-door luxury saloon, a pedigree Rolls Royce, and one that once held the distinction of being the world’s most expensive production car, you not only get this car for the cost of an equivalent Ford or Vauxhall, but you also make a saving on the original price tag of £252,000, that’s over a quarter of a million pounds!
Me personally, I absolutely adore these cars! Indeed they’re not as pretty as other Rollers, but I consider this a car that you not only have to feel sorry for, considering the background troubles that trailed its development from the start, but one that you have to admire as well. I feel that it’s a car that’s stood the test of time, a bit of automotive history from the 1970’s that shows how reckless and ambitious we were with our car construction, like the Aston Martin Lagonda, brash in the extreme, but lovable all the same.
In fact if I had £20,000 right now I’d gladly go out and buy one, not only because I’d be saving a fortune, but also because it’s a very personable little car, the kind of car you can’t take your eyes off of, the car you could really give a name and love forever.
I’d name mine Christie! 😀
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