IF NEWS OF IMMINENT SUV entries from Bentley, Maserati and Lamborghini was the wave that knocked me down, late-breaking word from Rolls-Royce that they’ll build a ute of their own for 2017 was the amphibious landing craft that drove on to the beach and backed repeatedly over my waterlogged person to make sure I was a goner. And
still, I fear, I’ve not been put out of my misery yet as all the world is on a king-sized SUV tear that promises to put all the tailfin and petrol-guzzling chromium excess of the 1950s and 1960s that which our forefathers once righteously decried to shame. For excessive modesty.
I read about the long-bruited Rolls SUV’s receiving the dread green light, a travesty of brand management yet no doubt a unique temptation for product planners, while perusing CAR on a speeding train through rural England on a recent visit. It added special poignancy to fleeting visions of what I, a visiting American, imagined to be ye olde England flashing by.
It also helped remind me: long before the 24-hour news cycle came along like some nitro-burning funny car to supercharge mankind’s most glaring neuroses and ever since, there’ve always been seemingly minor items which pop up to stop even the most grizzled veterans of the Fourth Estate in their tracks. Moments when you’ve realised, times you just knew, something had changed, ever so slightly perhaps, but somehow importantly just the same. That’s your Rolls-Royce SUV, for you.
I’d always figured Rolls, in not entering the sport utility fray, was taking a principled stand in service of a brand whose name was synonymous with the old ways and blue-blooded British reserve. I was wrong; in truth, they were just waiting for BMW to get the cash and the giant platform technology that might help justify some jacked-up fright-mare with a £350,000+ pricetag. (I made that number up, but who fails to raise their prices along with their ride height when they bring their SUVs to market?)
Like the ‘Parking’ detent pin on an old automatic transmission quietly snapping to send the unpiloted, detent-less car rolling down the hill, the arrival of Rolls into the crowded SUV field is the sound of something snapping. It encapsulates the moment when greed, cost accountancy and the utter vulgarity of the popular culture collided with a hyper- concentration of wealth and the too often crushing lack of imagination of giant automobile combines, especially German ones. In the resultant wreck the casualty is not just good taste but also whatever worthwhile thing the company’s best engineers would have been working on were they not busying themselves readying another ridiculous high-riding conveyance for sale to the world’s most tasteless ultra-rich.
No one doubts they’ll sell Roller SUVs by the gross load, however expensive or painful to look at they may be. And that, I suppose, is a strong argument for Rolls- Royce SUVs. Or the Aston SUVs that are surely headed our way. But one must ask, at what price? Far from leading the market, which Rolls did only yesterday, by tomorrow they’ll be following, albeit from a higher than ever perch.
Remember when new money wanted nothing more than to be understated and stylish, just like old money? Me, neither.
With gusto, Giles Taylor, Rolls-Royce design chief, credits the Chinese for his company’s decision to go where it had once mercifully feared to tread, a not unfamiliar plaint with a positive spin.
‘Many customers are now Chinese entrepreneurs savvy and self-made with a young spirit,’ he has been quoted as saying. ‘They are interested in authenticity, Chinese heritage and prestige.’ You might ask what authenticity and Chinese heritage have to do with Rolls-Royce SUVs. But Taylor’s larger point the Chinese made us do it is plain. I’ll stake him Chinese demand, yet references to authenticity are inapposite.
Perhaps it is presumptuous to suggest that Rolls parent BMW should school the Chinese in the western art of automotive good taste. They can’t even control outbreaks of appalling taste among their customers at home.
I’m not against upscale SUVs per se. Range Rovers, when they debuted, were actually intended to venture off road, and were still fairly spartan vehicles which made sense for use on farms. But we’re not talking about old Range Rovers. Once you’re never going off-road because who in his right mind would take a £350,000 car off-road the whole exercise becomes slightly embarrassing. It’s the automotive equivalent of false-bottomed shoes to make you appear taller. An ultra-hyper- luxury SUV can’t be authentic because it’s inauthentic, at its core. To paraphrase a famous old Rolls ad, at 55mph the loudest thing you can hear is credibility going out the window.