No one struggled with the concept of a Rolls-Royce SUV more than Rolls-Royce. In 2015, after 100 years of producing opulent sedans and coupes, the brand announced that an SUV would be joining the fleet. You know how it is, they murmured. Extensive customer requests. Luxury is evolving. You always wanted a brother.
It felt blasphemous. Coarse. Luxury SUVs were for people who made bank selling illegal substances, or people who replaced the Ss in their names with dollar bill signs or, at the very least, for convoys of villains approaching desert lairs in a certain brand of action movies. They were not for the whispered ancient luxury of Rolls-Royce.
Nevertheless, the prophecy has come to fruition in the form of the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, a 5864-pound all-wheel-drive leviathan powered by a turbo V12 and appareled in rich history.
Early in October, I traveled to Wyoming to watch Rolls-Royce roll the stone away from the cave and show us what emerged. For two days, a handful of other journalists and I would live the high life with Rolls in Jackson Hole, home to the highest per capita income in the country. Later, they promised to give us the opportunity to see if we believed the Cullinan was an accomplished off-road vehicle.
One doesn’t have to speak to the small, proud Rolls-Royce team for long to understand that the relationship they have with their customers is not a typical car company-customer dynamic. They don’t make decisions to grow their sales numbers—the market for those who buy Rolls-Royce is those who already have a Rolls-Royce. Michael Fux, the inventor of memory foam, collects a new custom car every Pebble Beach. He’s up to seven, I think. The latest one is a white Phantom with an interior in an exclusive shade of fuchsia named “Fuxia.”
It is impossible to understand the dynamic between Rolls-Royce and its buyers unless you understand it as an artist-patron model. Rolls is making beautiful things, and wealthy customers enable it to continue making beautiful things, at its pleasure.
But this patron-artist relationship meant that Rolls-Royce had to take the requests for an SUV seriously, no matter how deep a challenge it represented to construct an SUV within the constraints of Rolls-Royce tradition. How to incorporate a vehicle defined by work into a brand defined by art? Richard Carter, Director of Global Communications, laughed with light disbelief as he introduced us to the Cullinan. Would you believe, he wondered aloud, that we’d ever be using the words utilitarian and Rolls-Royce in the same sentence?
Alex Innes, designer, described the struggle of designing an SUV that looked like a Rolls. Rolls-Royces are known for their long hoods, deep front overhangs, and a 2:1 ratio of the height of the roofline to the height of the wheels. Passengers are ordinarily hidden from the unseemly world, reclining deep behind the C pillar. He said, “We all know the silhouette of the Rolls-Royce is sacred.”