The 1970s were a strange time for Rolls-Royce. The company got into bad financial times and had to be nationalized in 1971 to avoid insolvency. In 1973 the British government allowed the automotive portion of Rolls-Royce to become an independent entity again, which would then spend seven years in a sort of existential pilgrimage until it was acquired by British engineering company Vickers in 1980.
Those seven years before acquisition have been something of a lost chapter in the company’s history. The company was autonomous once more and free to concentrate solely on automobiles, yet had had a rough couple of years. Thankfully, a new account of that time period has been published in a new book called, “Inside the Rolls-Royce & Bentley Styling Department, 1971 to 2001.”
Bentley, which had been acquired by Rolls-Royce in 1931, and Rolls shared a design team based in the English hamlet of Crewe in Chesire England. Rolls-Royce was trying to find its identity, and one way to do that is not being afraid of making mistakes. In that vein, Rolls-Royce contracted with Italian firm Pininfarina to completely oversee the design and creation of a new car, the Camargue.
The Camargue is a lovely stretch of European country that lies between a sea and river. It also happens to be in France. Why an Italian company would give an English car a French name seems unfathomable to us now, but it was a time of bold decisions. The situation worsened when it became apparent that the Camargue bore a striking resemblance to another Italian car in development—the Fiat 130—that was slated to hit the market before the Camargue. It was a sad affair, but we did it, it happened, and Rolls-Royce determined to move on by never contracting another company to build one of its cars ever again.
Meanwhile, the somewhat forgotten design team in Crewe lost no time in exploring new frontiers. They made plans for a strangely small saloon that could compete with the BMW 5 series. They designed a two-seat supercar for Bentley that was rejected and didn’t accomplish much at the time, but would one day be dusted to serve as a mold for one of the most celebrated supercars of all time: the Bugatti Veyron. And they even made a sporty, very 1980s coupe for Bentley that looks like something appropriate for Knight Rider.
There weren’t as many designs for Rolls-Royce at the time because let’s face it: Rolls-Royce’s dignity doesn’t allow for off-the-wall ideas. It was a time of soul-searching for the firm, and oftentimes soul-searching results in very minor changes on the surface. The lessons being learned, however, would eventually bring the company into the full glory that we know today, a new chapter of excellent Rolls-Royce motoring.