(Bloomberg) -- This year, Rolls-Royce is celebrating the 110th anniversary of the inception of its goddess-like muse, the Spirit of Ecstasy.
The bronze sculpture of a woman in a gown that flows behind her like wings first officially adorned the front of a Rolls-Royce coach on Feb. 6, 1911. Subsequently molded in everything from 24-karat gold to frosted crystal, the figure has withstood more than a century beautifying Britain’s most prestigious luxury cars—even the more obscure ones such as the Rolls-Royce Camargue. More than anything, this car requires her to act as a badge to alerts the onlooker that this, too, is a Rolls-Royce, even if it isn’t quite as handsome as one might expect.
If you’ve not heard of the Camargue, don’t feel bad. I hadn’t heard of it until a friend recently started texting me photos of one he wanted to buy. (We each own Silver Shadows, so he knew he was in friendly company.) Heck, I didn’t even know how to pronounce Camargue.
“It is Kar-Marg—hard G,” a Rolls-Royce spokesperson told me when I asked. And re-asked. I am glad I did. Pronouncing it as “ca-MARJ” (or, even worse, “car-mo-GUE”) in a circle of discerning enthusiasts would be a humiliation I am unprepared to bear.
It’s important to note that my friend felt safe texting me these photos because, well, the Camargue is not regarded as the best-looking Rolls-Royce ever. “Worst. Car. Ever,” I recently overhead one gentleman declare to another on considering its merits.
Many have said that, at the very least, it is the worst-looking Rolls-Royce ever. Which is unexpected, considering it was designed by Pininfarina’s Paolo Martin. It has long, flat body lines across its sides, like a Volvo wagon from the 1990s, an over-elongated hood, and a roofline tilted at the rear at what can only be described as a neck-twisting angle chiropractors must love.
“It looks rather as though Farina has tried to bend the very handsome lines of his Fiat 130 Coupe design around an over-large Rolls-Royce radiator—and failed,” the editors of MotorSport Magazine wrote in a scathing review in 1975. “From the front, the overhang of the bodywork beyond the wheels reminds us of a rude photograph in the South African Grand Prix programme of the derriere of a very fat man astride a very small motorbike.”
Time hasn’t lessened the bile of the attacks. One 1981 Camargue listed for sale on Bring a Trailer as a “tweaked Pininfarina” earned comments describing it as “ghastly” and urging potential buyers to “bring a mallet.”
“This is a monument to wretched excess and belongs in the back of a RR museum in the section marked ‘Freaks and Mistakes,’” one commenter called Anscahuer opined—and got 310 likes in agreement. “Not usually vituperative, but this brings it out in me. Goes to show you no amount of makeup can make a pig look good.”
Johnathan Klinger, Hagerty’s vice president of car culture, put it rather more diplomatically: “Overall, we don’t receive many inquiries on the Camargue.”
But despite its untraditional Rolls-Royce aesthetic, the Camargue presents a unique chance to own a rare Rolls-Royce that costs less than its better-known kin. While a decent Corniche from the 1980s can cost $85,000, and a top-notch Corniche from the early 1990s costs $175,000, you can find a Camargue in daily driving condition for closer to $30,000.
Overlooked, but First Among Many
Famously overpriced and underpowered, the Camargue was named after an idyllic lake region near the French Riviera. It was Rolls-Royce’s flagship sedan at the time of its launch in 1975 and, with a base price of £30,000 (roughly $65,500, or $316,000 in today’s money), the most expensive production car in the world.
“We’re still not sure whether the price of the two-door Camargue represents the biggest rip-off in the motoring world or the best and most profitable sales gimmick ever,” the MotorSport editors wrote in another zinger. During the Camargue’s 11-year production run, its price rose to $171,231—equal to $410,000 today and without many discernible upgrades.
Purchased by wealthy drivers, from a Chicago physician to a Long Island artist to a Kuwaiti sheikh, the Camargue shared a platform with the aforementioned Rolls-Royce Corniche and Silver Shadow. It was powered by the same 6.75-liter V-8 engine and three-speed transmission as the Shadow, although the Camargue was more powerful.
The Camargue offered many industry firsts: It was the first postwar Rolls-Royce designed by Italy’s Pininfarina and the first of the marque designed in metric dimensions. It was the first Rolls-Royce to feature a slanted grille, inclined at an angle of seven degrees. It was the first vehicle ever to offer dual-zone air conditioning.
A Secret Steal
As other odd-duck vehicles from the late 1970s and ‘80s gather steam among the under-40 car-buying set (see Lancia Delta, Foxbody Mustang, microvans), the Camargue seems to be following that trend. Insurance quotes for the vehicle on Hagerty’s website more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, while the average price of one in excellent condition is $47,440, up 2.3% in the past 12 months.
“Their values are as good—or even slightly better—than money in the bank,” says Klinger.
What’s more, the average sale price for the best examples at public auction has crept up from $54,000 in 2015 to $64,350 in 2020.
The sole example of a folding-hardtop Camargue sold for $252,000 at a RM Sotheby’s sale in 2019. (That one is a big outlier; the second-highest price ever paid for a Camargue at auction was substantially less: $85,800 at a RM Sotheby’s auction last year.)
In fact, the “drophead” Camargues (aka convertibles) look better than their coupe siblings; their lack of a top elongates those boat-like flat sides and angular hood and trunk even more in the mind’s eye. The more-is-more aesthetic works with that snip.
The challenge is finding a decent one. During its entire production run, only 531 Camargues were made, including the single retractible-roof example that Sotheby’s auctioned in 2019. The ones now being sold as convertibles were converted by after-market shops once they left the factory.
“Perhaps five to seven [Carmargue] coupes have been cut by owners and turned into convertibles,” John Wiley, Hagerty’s manager of valuation analytic, said in an emailed note about the car. That’s a sure sign they’re on the rise: Four of them sold last fall.
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