Rolls-Royce’s first SUV offers a very particular take on utility

Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV
Tapping influences from Lawrence of Arabia to staff cars, the Cullinan presents a suitably combative-looking exterior, with recessed front and rear lights
(Image credit: John Short)

The spirit of being able to go anywhere and do anything still hovers over the auto industry. Until now, Rolls-Royce had been happy to let its history do the talking and not engage in the SUV one-upmanship that everyone from Porsche to Lamborghini has indulged in. But behind the scenes, the UK company had another idea.

‘We kept it a secret for a while,’ admits Giles Taylor, Rolls-Royce’s design director. But in early 2015, the marque acknowledged the existence of a ‘high-sided vehicle’, dubbed ‘Project Cullinan’ – after the Cullinan diamond, 3,106.75 carats of rough gem discovered in South Africa in 1905 and the source of at least nine major stones. The industry waited to see how ultimate luxury could be applied to utility design.

Rolls-Royce cullinan

Bells and whistles: the signature in-door Rolls-Royce umbrella is a standard feature

(Image credit: John Short)

Along the line, Project Cullinan became simply ‘Cullinan’, a departure from over a century of spectral monikers. ‘We didn’t want this to be another two-box SUV. It had to have utility, but in a Rolls-Royce way,’ Taylor says. Admittedly, in Rolls-Royce’s world, ‘utility’ only goes so far. ‘Metal and sober greys hint at simplicity, but ultimately luxury prevails,’ Taylor adds.

It’s not snobbish affectation, but a simple acknowledgement that while some rivals are all-wheel-drive all-rounders, the Cullinan is all that but with extra refinements. The optional ‘Viewing Suite’, an integral rear platform that swings out of the boot at the push of a button with leather-covered event seating for two, is a better indication of where this car will go.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV

Viewing suite: a rear platform swings out of the boot to offer leather seats with a small table in-between

(Image credit: John Short)

It’s certainly an imposing machine. ‘It retains a sense of authority, with the long bonnet and high nose,’ Taylor says, adding – only slightly tongue-in-cheek – that the recessed headlights and sculptural, faceted front end give a certain ‘battle-hardened’ look, like an ancient Saxon mask. ‘We were keen to have a raked screen that gives the car elegance,’ he says.

At the rear, there’s an equally prominent ‘bustle’, a raised boot-lid that juts out from beneath the slope of the rear screen, with the rear headlights set into equally impressive flanks. Inspired by 1920s bolt-on luggage trunks, it’s paired with an internal glass screen to shield occupants from inclement weather when the boot is opened.

Rolls-Royce has a historical ace up its sleeve in the form of TE Lawrence, who famously ran a fleet of nine Silver Ghost armoured cars in the Arabian desert to battle with the Ottoman Turks. ‘For a design team that needed an anchor, it was an incredibly resonant story,’ Taylor says. It also directed him to another influence. ‘For proportion and character, we looked at staff cars,’ he says, adding that these stately officer transport vehicles were the perfect mix of grandeur and ability to tackle ‘challenging environments’.

Legend also has Lawrence commandeering a privately owned Rolls-Royce in Cairo for his personal use and naming it ‘Blue Mist’. The company’s history is rich with tales of eccentricity and wealth, mechanical superiority and engineering acumen. High, mighty and bold, the Cullinan should inspire some contemporary equivalents.

As originally featured in the July 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*232)

Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV

The long bonnet and raked screen are balanced by a jutting boot that nods to bolt-on luggage trunks

(Image credit: John Short)


For more information, visit the Rolls-Royce website

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.