Rolls-Royce has once again spoken positively about the idea of making the world’s most luxurious high-riding off-road machine a few years down the track. Just don’t, whatever you do, use the term ‘SUV’.
It has even, admits Rolls-Royce global corporate communications manager Andrew Ball, tasked its design team at Goodwood in the UK to do some sketches illustrating how to incorporate signature Rolls-Royce design into a tall wagon body-style.
But leaping into such a booming market would also pose some challenges for the BMW-owned, but largely autonomous, company. Namely, where it would build it, and how it could swing such a proposition when the terms ‘sports’ and ‘utility’ are not a part of the company vernacular.
“The SUV story is really interesting, because it’s a great market. I was presenting to the Institute of the Motor Industry the other day and that was the first question asked there too,” Ball told CarAdvice at the Goodwood plant this week.
“I said to them, ‘who would have imagined, if you were an enthusiast 20-years ago, Porsche would be building more 4x4 than sportscars?’ So what we’re doing here is, we’re interested, and our designers have been tasked with doing some sketches.
Bentley's now-changed concept SUV
“They’re nothing like some of the renderings I’ve seen out there in some of the mags, which are fantastic and fun.
“The reality for us is that it’s a great market, and something we are interested in, but Rolls-Royce isn’t sport, and it’s not utility, so if we go into that market, and we don’t know yet, genuinely, it’s got to be authentic, because that’s our brand reputation.
"I don’t know, I genuinely don’t know, but it’s definitely something we’ve said we’re interested in, I haven’t seen what the design team are up to, but it is literally early design ideas and thoughts, so maybe.”
The catalyst for the question, and the most obvious precedent for Rolls-Royce, is fellow uber-luxury marque Bentley, which revealed the polarising EXP 9 F concept at the 2012 Geneva motor show to harsh criticism of its design. A re-jigged version is subsequently near launch.
“(With) the EXP, what was interesting was there was an overwhelming response to the design, but at the same time an overwhelming response to the business case,” Ball said.
“One was probably not as positive, and one was probably more positive, and I found that really interesting, that people didn’t get the design but they got the idea behind it. But again, if we went down that route we wouldn’t take on Bentley, we’d do something different.”
We proceeded to ask Rolls-Royce manager of bespoke design Gavin Hartley to explain how the company could potentially — hypothetically — incorporate signature design into such a vehicle.
“From my point of view, a Rolls-Royce, if you look at the early years, the early 1900s, the roads were not so good, some of the endeavours that the original Silver Ghost did in terms of the longest non-stop run in 1907 (it did the longest nn-stop run of just under 15,000 miles at the time), and that was on some really bad bad roads.
“So you think actually, at the time, that was going on what we would consider to be off-road, in terms of a tarmac surface. So from that point-of-view, there’s a heritage there… there’s actually no problem for us opening up, if we choose to do it, the portfolio in terms of making a car that can cope with poor surfaces," Hartley said.
“If you stop to call a car an SUV, it brings to mind other connotations that have been captured by certain key cars within the marketplace, and whether Rolls-Royce would ever do a car to compete with that, not quite sure, because I think it would always have to be the something that was befitting the expectations of a Rolls-Royce customers.
“Utility, that kind of has the wrong connotations for me, it’s all about luxury, so from that point-of-view you actually can’t do a sport utility, because that’s not what Rolls-Royce is about but, could you do a four-wheel-drive? Could you do a car that’s capable of going on rough surfaces? Then yes, we’ve clearly done it in the past," he said.
“So I guess you’d have to be careful about how you describe where you’re going, and that’s what we’d have to do with any vehicles we do in the future… there’s no reason why we have to keep doing things the same, but we have to be mindful of the customers expectations while demonstrating that things don’t have to be predictable either.
“Sometimes that’s where customers can be a little more cautious than we are, because as designers we see the potential in things and we need to kind of lead the customers in that direction, because sometimes we’re listening to them, other times we’re offering them something that perhaps they hadn’t though of themselves — (perhaps) the Wraith fastback, for example.
“I think it’s a matter of trying to recognise what are those key elements that you can’t do without. I suppose any time we do a new car, we’ve got to consider those things but you can’t hold onto everything, otherwise you’re going to end up with the next car looking like the current, you end up trying to shoehorn something different into something that’s the same.
“I think that’s just an ongoing design balancing act really, so whatever you think is what we might do in the future, there’s no particularly recent ways that we can look at doing a fastback, for example, because we have’t done that style of car for a long time… so you haven’t got so many references to go on beyond some really historic ones.
“What you have to do is don’t do the shoe-horning, you have to consider what are the things you can’t do without and then build around that and try and keep it as elegant as possible.”
However, even if such a vehicle got the production green light, logistical issues would also have to be considered. It currently makes all its cars in Goodwood, but the 'SUV' would likely need either a whole new line or be built on a new site.
In properly British fashion, the Earl of March owns the Goodwood property and is the landlord. He insists that he must not see the factory from his bedroom window. As such, factory is camouflaged among trees, with 412,000 plants laid down when it was built 10 years ago.
The manufacturing plant has grown over that time from five cars per day to 20. There are now two lines, one for the Ghost and Wraith and a smaller one at the back for the Phantom that comprises 25 per cent of Rolls-Royce sales.
So, in other words, the factory is already stretched — it could add a third shift to make existing product, with aims to grow beyond 2014’s projected record of 4000 cars produced — but a designated SUV line is an issue.
It would probably be impossible to build up, and restricted space limits its ability to build out. Of course, all of this is speculation. Let’s wait and see…
What do you think about the mooted idea of a Rolls-Royce — ahem — SUV? Tell us below…