“More valuable than rubies in the desert,” wrote T.E. Lawrence of his fleet of nine armoured Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts. He used them to great effect in World War I, conducting fast hit-and-run raids in the desert against on the Ottoman supply lines. Prior to the war, Silver Ghosts did well in Alpine Trials, an early form of rally racing. More recently, a pair of intrepid Frenchman campaigned a heavily modified Rolls-Royce Corniche in the 1981 Paris-Dakar Rally. They’d end each day of long-distance driving across the sand dunes in true Rolls-Royce style with a picnic of oysters and champagne.
Despite the fact people have been driving Rolls-Royces far off the beaten path for over a century, a Rolls-Royce Sport Utility Vehicle still feels like a bit of an oxymoron. Ten years ago, the company never imagined it would ever make one of these. No sir; the Spirit of Ecstasy would never adorn a 4×4. Rolls-Royce makes stately limousines for heads of state, magnates, moguls and tycoons — not trucks.
And yet, here we are, behind the wheel of the Cullinan, traversing the wide-open expanse of Wyoming frontier. The Teton mountains loom large in the background. Horses graze in a nearby dude ranch. Kanye West recorded his latest album just down the road.
“We are seeing a younger demographic,” said Jonathan Jonathan Shears, product manager for the Cullinan. “It means people aren’t empty nesters; they have families and need family cars.” At preview events for the Cullinan, whole families showed up. Kids were playing with the entertainment screens in the back seats. That never happened before. “That’s the thing that stuck with me,” he said. “It’s encouraging.”
“Here, finally, is a Rolls-Royce customers can drive all year round.”
The average Rolls-Royce customer was 55 years old in 2003. Today, they are in their mid-30s. With new machines like the Wraith 2+2 coupe and the sportier-looking Black Badge model range, Rolls has been steadily attracting a new generation of drivers. “These are people who had never thought about a Rolls-Royce before,” said Shears.
“The acceptability and desirability of our products to new age demographics and new geographies is huge for us.” It’s not just the Chinese market, but also Japan, Australia and Canada that are booming. These new customers are using their cars more too. Instead of doing 4,000 km per year, they’re driving their Rolls-Royces 10,000 kilometres a year, or more.
Today, a Rolls-Royce SUV makes perfect sense. It almost feels inevitable. Bentley already built one, and so did Lamborghini. For the Cullinan, demand has vastly outpaced supply so far. The Toronto dealership took 20 orders for the Cullinan before anyone had even driven it. It will very likely be the fastest-selling model in the 100-year history of the brand.
The average Rolls-Royce customer owns four or five cars, Shears explained. They’ve always had an SUV, just never one from Rolls. It’s also the first model created with families firmly in mind. For example, the designers payed attention to the ease of installing a child seat. You’ll find the anchor points are hidden neatly behind zippered leather covers. The Cullinan is also the first Rolls-Royce with all-wheel drive. As a result, this is also the first Rolls-Royce that customers in Canada are likely to use all-year round. That alone is worth the price of admission; here, finally, is a Rolls you don’t need to garage when the weather turns foul.
The Cullinan’s designer, Alex Innes, wanted the vehicle to have an almost foreboding presence. “We wanted it to dominate in the most hostile environments in the world,” he said. But not at the expense of luxury.
The Cullinan can be ordered with a champagne cooler in the rear seats, and a picnic set that extends from the trunk. Two “event seats” that fold out from the trunk make for an exceptionally comfortable tailgating experience out on a ranch in Wyoming. It’s a wonderful perch from which to take in nature’s rugged beauty without actually getting mired in nature’s dirt.
As the Cullinan’s long hood points straight down a steep mountain path in the foothills of the Teton Mountains — the Spirit of Ecstasy guiding the way — barely any noise enters the cabin. There’s a feint crackle from the gravel as it crunches under two tonnes of British-built metal. The colossal V12 engine is silent. The Power Reserve gauge on the dashboard shows the motor never breaks a sweat, not even when driving straight up a nearby ski hill. The Cullinan is invincible, unstoppable.
The driver is more like a commander here, directing the action from afar. The massive scale of the Cullinan means the steering wheel is more like a tiller. It’s so light though you can pilot this beast with just your fingertips. Like an ocean liner slicing across a choppy sea, the minor undulations of the road surface don’t disturb occupants. So good is the air suspension, you can drive the Rolls faster across bad roads than you would in just about any other off-roader. It soaks it all up. There’s a strange serenity to blasting across the landscape but not really feeling any of it.
The real beauty of Rolls-Royce’s first ever SUV is that it is luxury you can enjoy more often. You can drive it all winter and all summer. Take it to the cottage, take it on a ski weekend, and roll up the valet of any great hotel in it. It will stand out, but no matter where you take the Cullinan it will always fit in. There’s really nothing it can’t do.
Luxury without boundaries. Imagine that.