Expensive Failures

Expensive Failures: Rolls-Royce Camargue

If you're going to build the most expensive car in the world, it should at least be pretty.

Today, the Rolls-Royce Phantom is the absolute ruler of its segment, surveying the failings of lesser cars (like the Maybach) from atop its lofty and regal perch. Meanwhile, the Ghost has powered the company to its highest sales figures of all time, and it seems difficult to imagine a time when something from Rolls wouldn’t be a massive hit. But in the late Seventies, despite a period of similar prosperity, there was one model that was a definite dud.

At the launch of the Camargue in 1975, Rolls-Royce made a big deal about the air conditioning system. It was two-tier system, the first of its kind in the world, and quite advanced. Nevertheless, the car was the most expensive production vehicle in the world at the time, and as such, one would hope that there would be more to brag about than the air conditioning. But this giant coupe displeased many of the RR faithful from the beginning, and for more than just its tongue-twisting French name. The Camargue was essentially a coupe version of the Silver Shadow, although the conversion was slightly more complicated than simply shortening it.

The new body was built by Mulliner Park Ward and designed by Pininfarina. Weirdly, the Pininfarina design lacked much of the grace of the designs of the rest of the cars in the lineup, including the Silver Shadow. This lack of grace meant the Camargue’s looks were sliding closer to resembling a Lincoln, but for about eight times the price. The connection to American cars doesn’t end there either. The car borrowed the 6.75-liter V8 from the Silver Shadow, and with this came the shared transmission, a three-speed GM Turbo-Hydramatic. This was a fine transmission, at the time, but it was another thing which the purists could grumble had no place in the most expensive car in the world.

The Camargue has made countless lists of the worst or ugliest cars in the world, and this is maybe slightly unfair. The Mark I Silver Spirit which came a few years later was pretty much on the same level of attractiveness, and apart from the looks, there wasn’t exactly anything wrong with the Camargue. But although there wasn’t anything wrong, there wasn’t anything special either, apart from the aforementioned air conditioning, and when coupled with the less than spectacular looks, it very much could not justify its price. After all, a Corniche was mechanically identical, better looking, cheaper and had a roof that could be taken down; so why buy a Camargue?

It seems that a lot of people had a difficult time thinking of a reason to do so, and Rolls-Royce only managed to sell 530 units of the car by the time its 11-year production run came to an end in 1986. By the end, the price had reached about $200,000, which in today’s money is north of $400,000. The thing is, that’s around the same price as a Phantom, and Rolls manages to sell over 1000 of those every year. Even the classic car market has been unkind to the Camargue. One owned by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone with gold-plated door handles sold for a measly $33,600 a few years ago, despite the rarity.

James May once said it was a car which had presence, comparing it to a "pug-faced but well-dressed" man. This is really a more or less accurate statement, and if it had been the only luxury coupe in the world, that would have been enough. But of course it wasn’t the only such car in the world, and although failure and slow sales were not something Rolls was much accustomed to at the time, it would soon be a regular thing. Rolls would recover, but the Camargue shows that not even the venerable old marque was immune to the kind of complacent thinking that affected so much of the automotive industry at the time.

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