Goodwood, West Sussex - The cars built by the Honourable CS Rolls and his partner, railway engineer Henry Royce, were not only the most elegant and technically advanced of their time, they were also among the most durable.
Rolls-Royce’s first six-cylinder model, the Silver Ghost, earned its stripes over rough roads on the 1907 Scottish Reliability Trials and the Alpine Trials of 1913, and British businessman Frank Norbury’s 1907 drive over the India Ghat mountain passes, 990 kilometres from Mumbai to Kolhapur without missing a beat, created so much hype that every maharajah from Jaipur to Jalalabad wanted one - which is why there are still so many early Roll-Royces in India.
During the First World War, Silver Ghost chassis, completely standard except for heavy-duty springs and shorter final-drive ratios, were fitted with four tons of armoured body and Vickers machine-gun turret to create the world’s first successful armoured fighting vehicles.
They looked like gunboats on wheels but they were practically unbreakable - even on a 1921 drive from Jerusalem to Baghdad over terrain so rough that the convoy speed was reduced at one point to eight kilometres a day.
So, although the brand new Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV, revealed to the world yesterday, doesn’t have a machine-gun turret, it is heir to a fine heritage of toughness and off-road ability.
The Cullinan wasn’t built in a vacuum, says Rolls Royce; there had been requests from customers around the world to build “the Rolls-Royce of SUVs”, mostly from wealthy young entrepreneurs, heavily into the “experience economy” who want to be able to take the road less travelled, to the places that more conventional Rolls-Royce owners never see, in the old-school luxury that is the brand’s trademark.
First, the designers looked at what is wrong with the ‘conventional’ SUV, which is essentially a beefed-up station wagon. This two-box layout is noisy (because your luggage is rattling around in the extended cabin) has poor acoustics, and is difficult to air condition effectively.
Rolls-Royce customers, whether seated in the rear or driving themselves (some do, you know) expect to be insulated from the noise and bustle of the outside world in a luxurious cocoon. Which is why the designers created just such an environment by interposing a retractable glass partition between the rear seats and the 560-litre (600 with the parcel shelf removed) luggage compartment.
It also means that when you arrive at Gstaad for the skiing, the cabin stays toasty warm, even with the tailgate standing open while the ski-lodge porter unloads your Louis Vuittons.
Then they extended the rear of the body below the window line and gave the rear window a dramatic rake, creating a two-level rear end reminiscent of the Phantom VI, rather than a van-like tailgate.
With the partition retracted, however, the 60:40 split rear seat backs fold flat individually or together at the press of a button in the cargo bay or rear door pocket (with the head restraints moving automatically upwards to prevent creasing the fine leather of the seats), creating a 1930 litre cargo bay, 2245mm long - longer than that of the biggested extended-wheelbase Range Rover!
But the seat backs are still higher than the floor of the luggage compartment, preventing parcels and playtoys from sliding forward under braking and banging up against the backs of the front seats. Until the day comes when you need to carry a large artwork or bespoke guncase - then you press another button and the floor of the boot rises until it’s level with the seat backs, creating a perfectly flat, carpeted floor.
Alternatively, you can specify the ultimate in luxury seating - two power-adjustable, individual rear seats, with a fixed centre armrest and drinks cabinet between them, complete with Rolls-Royce whisky glasses and decanter, champagne flutes and refrigerator.
Even getting into the Cullinan is different; hit the ‘Unlock’ button on the key fob or reach out to the stainless-steel door handle and the car switches itself on, lowers itself by 40mm and opens the rear-hung rear door to welcome you.
Step onto the completely flat floor and settle into your seat - then either you press the ‘Close’ button or your doorman brushes his white-gloved hand across the sensor in the door handle and the door gently closes itself.
As on a Land Rover Discovery, the rear seats are higher than the front, so rear-seat passengers get a grandstand view. The seats themselves have a horseshoe graphic with the entire backrest panel crafted from a single piece of leather; the front door armrests, front centre console lid, lower C Pillar, rear side armrests and rear centre armrest are all heated..
Start the engine, and the suspension lifts 40mm to its standard ride height, ready to go anywhere, effortlessly.
The flight deck features a smaller, thicker-rimmed steering wheel than you’ll find on Rolls-Royce cars, while the virtual instrument panel is laid out with beautifully defined needles, jewel-like Rolls-Royce chaplets and clear lettering.
The centre stack boasts Rolls-Royce’s first ever touchscreen, so you can tap and swipe for functions, map views and vehicle set-up ‘on the fly’ - or you can use the Spirit of Ecstasy controller on the centre console alongside the ‘Off-Road’ button, hill descent control switch and air-suspension height adjustment.
Standard equipment includes night vision assist with wildlife and pedestrian warning, active cruise control, collision warning, cross-traffic warning, lane change warning, satellite navigation with a second touchscreen display for the rear passengers, a four-camera system with panoramic view, all-round visibility and helicopter view, five USB ports, a wireless charging compartment, a WiFi hotspot and a 19cm high-resolution head-up display.
And finally, the doors wrap around under the sills, so no matter how muddy the Cullinan gets on the way there, you can always get out without dirtying your trouser legs.
The Cullinan was designed from the outset as a serious off-roader; its 6.75-litre twin-turbo V12 has been re-tuned to deliver 420kW at 5000 revs and peak torque (850Nm) at just 1600rpm, and it drives all four wheels (a first for Rolls-Royce) via uprated propshafts and all-wheel steering.
The active air-suspension (double-wishbone in front, five-link at the rear) has new struts with more volume to cope with more (and more sudden) deflection. It makes millions of calculations every second as it continuously varies the electronically controlled damping, reacting to body and wheel acceleration, steering inputs and camera information.
Going off-road? Forget about terrain control switches, high and low ranges, and all that tiresome technical stuff - just press the ‘’Off-road” button on the centre console and the Cullinan will seamlessly deliver torque to all four wheels without interruption.
On any other SUV, when one wheel loses traction the system automatically brakes that wheel or transfers the torque to the other three wheels; on the Cullinan, the suspension actively pushes down on any wheel that’s beginning to lose traction, making sure it’s firmly in contact with the ground, reducing pitching and rolling over rough terrain to a minimum.
Elegantly simple in principle, technically superb in execution, it’s a traction control system that the dashing CS Rolls would have loved; even dour Sir Henry Royce would have cracked a smile, we reckon.