Rolls-Royce Cullinan: It’s The Latest, But Really Not The First, SUV By The British Icon
by Martin Green
While it’s easy to imagine that the new Cullinan is Rolls-Royce’s very first SUV, the brand was already making stupendously luxurious cars capable of driving through incredibly difficult terrain over a hundred years ago.
With World War I (1914-1918) raging throughout Europe, Rolls-Royce used the chassis of its Silver Ghost to make an armored car, complete with a machine gun turret that could swivel 360 degrees. Even though four and a half tons of armor plating was also added, the distinct shape of the luxurious Rolls-Royce was still recognizable.
This is in itself already quite remarkable, becoming even more so when you realize where these cars where deployed: in desert warfare, where compact squadrons of a couple of cars, each fitted with a crew of two or three men, drove at top speed over mountains and through the sand dominating northern and western Africa.
Dominating was what the Rolls-Royce did: under the command of people like the Duke of Westminster and Colonel T.E. Lawrence, better known by his nickname Lawrence of Arabia, they wreaked havoc among the German troops, which were still on horseback.
Even when driving at speeds up to 120 kilometers per hour under the most difficult of circumstances, the Rolls-Royces performed admirably. Under fire the driver could even close two armored, hinged doors in front of the radiator to protect the engine, but simultaneously shutting off nearly all cooling – which didn’t seem to bother the Rolls-Royces at all as they simply kept on going, and going hard!
After the war, Lawrence generously praised the performance of the Rolls-Royces in the desert, and that is also, of course, a region in which we can expect a lot of Cullinans to be sold.
Another example of Rolls-Royce “offroad” capability came forward from of a 1912 incident. James Radley was the proud owner of a Rolls-Royce London-Edinburgh model, one with which he competed in road races. He did so very successfully until the 1912 Austrian Alpine Trails, where the car couldn’t make it to the top of the Katschberg Pass. When word of this came back to the Rolls-Royce factory, Henry Rolls immediately went to work to make sure that such an embarrassment would never happen again.
The result was the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Continental, a car featuring improved suspension, more horsepower, more cooling capacity, and a new four-speed gearbox with a low gear especially useful for climbing mountains.
Four of these new Rolls-Royces competed in the 1913 Austrian Alpine Trails: three made up a factory team and the fourth one was entered by Radley. They took the first three places, but again this is only half the story.
The Loibl Pass was one of the most difficult of the race. The previous record was eight and a half minutes, which Radley demolished in five. Because of its outstanding performance, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Continental was renamed “Alpine Eagle.”
While this sounds all quite exciting, it is good to also place it in perspective. Cars were still quite exotic in 1913, and many roads in the mountains hardly deserved to be called such. It wasn’t a snake of smooth asphalt that slithered to the top, but often rough tracks more suitable for a horse and carriage than a motor car. What they called a road race back then we would probably describe as an offroad race today.
Those who say that Rolls-Royce has never made an SUV are correct because the term SUV had yet to be invented. I’m surprised Rolls-Royce didn’t use this century-old heritage far more prominently in the launch of the Cullinan.
The press release extoling Rolls-Royce’s exciting offroad history was boiled down into one rather anonymous paragraph that really doesn’t tell you much, only to be discussed in a slightly more elaborate way later on in the press release as an afterthought: “A century-long pedigree of adventurous quests and campaigns successfully carried out across all terrains thanks to the luxury offered by a stout vehicle that was swift, stealthy and dependable. A Rolls in the desert is above rubies – T.E. Lawrence.”
However, today Rolls-Royce focuses on a younger clientele less interested in historical accomplishments than the future. And it will not be disappointed in that matter by Rolls-Royce’s newest creation!
Fit for royalty?
This Rolls-Royce is named after the Cullinan diamond: weighing 3,106 carats (about 1.5 pounds), it is the largest ever found. That diamond is in turn named after the owner of the Premier Mine, where it was found.
Sir Thomas Cullinan sold the rough diamond to the Transvaal government (now South Africa), who gave it to King Edward VII to commemorate his 66th birthday. The diamond was cut by Asscher in Amsterdam, who created nine major stones and 96 smaller ones from it. The largest of them became part of the British Crown Jewels and can be seen in the Tower of London.
Rolls-Royce could have hardly picked a better name as it ties the world’s largest, most desirable diamonds together with the royal family of Great Britain. The Cullinan also lives up to this, as it is by any comparison an enormous car and you can of course still order it in dark green or blue, although the demand for more extroverted colors has greatly increased due to the brand’s evolving client base.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that a Rolls-Royce, including the Cullinan, is still one of the most imposing, luxurious, and best-engineered cars you can buy.
Taking the Rolls-Royce Cullinan off road
There was a time when Rolls-Royce didn’t talk about horsepower and torque, but simply stated that both were “sufficient.” That also has changed as Rolls-Royce now happily shares that the 6.75-liter twin-turbo V12 engine of the Cullinan produces 563 bhp, but more importantly (and impressively) 850 Nm of torque.
This is already available at 1,600 rpm – all serious numbers that will indeed get offroad enthusiasts excited. This power is needed because the car is not exactly a feather-light creation, bringing 2,660 kilograms to the scale.
The Cullinan has four-wheel drive – a first for Rolls-Royce – and combines this with its “Magic Carpet Ride,” which must make it one of the most comfortable cars to take off road, its self-leveling air suspension making it feel like you are still driving on paved roads.
An impressive achievement, but it does make one wonder if there is enough feedback for the driver when the car enters more hardcore offroad conditions. But what am I saying here? The Cullinan is to the car world what a diver’s watch is to the watch world: most of them never see deep water, yet still every owner insists on ridiculous water resistance.
Rolls-Royce is also embracing technology, and that trend is evident in the Cullinan. As well as advanced navigation and an extensive entertainment system, it features night vision and vision assist including daytime and nighttime wildlife and pedestrian warning and a four-camera system with panoramic view, all-around visibility, and helicopter view.
If your driver has worked too much overtime, an alertness assistant will ensure that he doesn’t doze off behind the wheel while you enjoy the WiFi hotspot.
You can do this from a regular bench-style back seat, but a setup with two individual seats is also available. Needless to say that everything about the seats can be electrically adjusted, and Rolls-Royce also placed the back seat slightly higher so the passengers still command a great view.
And this is not only around them but also above them as the Cullinan comes with a panoramic glass roof.
When you are late to the table, all the seats are taken
One of the biggest issues I see for the Cullinan is: where does it fit in?
Rolls-Royce is rather late with the introduction of its SUV, but then again the brand also probably wouldn’t have made one in the first place if other brands hadn’t gone before it and highlighted the incredible market there is for such a car.
In this segment of the market Porsche, Lamborghini, and Mercedes-AMG have already made SUVs combining offroad capabilities with blistering performance good enough to make you look great at any track day.
Range Rover has a whole collection of very serious offroad vehicles that get you nearly anywhere on the planet in an interior that easily rivals that of most private jets.
And then there is, of course, the real mountain that the Cullinan must climb: the Bentley Bentayga!
The real question is: do people who would buy a Cullinan compare what else there is available in the market or are they simply already set in what they want to get?
Is it a conscious, or even practical, decision? Or more of a lifestyle choice?
For the vast majority of potential clients, this will be neither their only car nor quite possibly their only high-end SUV. They might just get it because they wanted an SUV and it is a Rolls-Royce – and many customers might not have owned a Rolls-Royce before.
There is a different kind of logic at work in this segment of the market. Bentley reported that a significant portion of Bentayga buyers were first-time clients. That is why it might not make such a difference that Rolls-Royce is a bit late to the party as the people that want it will get it anyway.
Seen in that light, I think that Rolls-Royce also created the right car. If you don’t look too closely, its interior could come from any of the other cars in the brand’s lineup, and the exterior is rather conservative.
The Cullinan fits right in between the Bentley Bentayga and the Range Rover Autobiography with enough styling elements to set it apart as a Rolls-Royce.
While in the past this conservatism nearly killed the brand, I think that it will serve it well now as Rolls-Royce currently offers exactly what its clients, current and new, want: the best, everywhere and anywhere in a recognizable package. Sometimes it can be that simple.
For more information, please visit www.rolls-roycemotorcars.com/en-GB/cullinan.
Quick Facts Rolls-Royce Cullinan
Engine: 6.75-litre twin-turbo V12
Power: 563bhp @ 5,000 rpm
Torque: 850 Nm of torque @ 1,600 rpm, four-wheel drive
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Acceleration: N/A but given the weight and available torque somewhere just below 5 seconds should be feasible
Top speed: 250 kmh (governed)
Base price: $325,000
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Also published on Medium.