Rolls-Royce bespoke designer Alex Innes tells us about his driving ambition to produce the brand's first ever luxury 4x4

By Georgia Peck | 16 Apr 2019 | Speed

Innes reveals to Tempus how he took the road less travelled to blend the majesty of the Phantom with the power of an SUV

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Last year was the time of the luxury SUV, with Lamborghini, Maserati and Porsche all unveiling highly rated models. And so, entering an already saturated market, Rolls-Royce needed to do something different to introduce its first-ever SUV. Enter the Cullinan. Weighing in at 2.6 tonnes and boasting a 6.75 ltr twin-turbo V12 engine delivering 850Nm of torque and a wading depth of 540mm, the Cullinan is the most rugged vehicle the manufacturer has created to date. Highly anticipated by the luxury brand’s long-standing patrons, many of whom own both a Phantom and a Range Rover, the Cullinan is, essentially, a convergence of the two.

Much like its namesake, the 3,106-carat Cullinan diamond, this luxe SUV has an exclusive feel. But unlike the diamond, which sits protected in the Crown Jewels collection, Rolls-Royce has made this vehicle as inclusive to city drivers as it is to off-road retreats. In previous years, Rolls-Royce had a ‘gentleman’s club’ feel about it – picture businessmen in smoking jackets discussing politics in the drawing room at White’s while their chauffeur waits outside in the Phantom. The introduction of the Cullinan warmly extends an invitation to all driving enthusiasts.

The all-terrain Cullinan is designed to be enjoyed from behind its enhanced steering wheel, rather than from the rear seat. Just one press of the new ‘Everywhere’ button and you’ll be fully prepped to confront anything from mud, sand, snow, rivers, hitting the slopes, or simply picking your children up from school. As well as having the automotive capabilities to transport you anywhere in the world, the Cullinan has all the comfort and luxury expected of Rolls-Royce. Interiors, for instance, are fully customisable and can be fitted with all the amenities you desire – champagne chiller complete with Rolls-Royce crystal flutes, a decanter that keeps your Scotch at an optimum 15C (59F). Outside, meanwhile, are custom-made features such as viewing seats that appear from the rear boot at the touch of a button, complete with cocktail table – perfect for a day watching the polo or putting your feet up after a day on the shooting field. All make for an SUV like no other.

Tempus was invited to test drive the vehicle on the mountainous roads of Courchevel, where we caught up with Alex Innes, bespoke designer at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, about how the Cullinan has become a prodigy within the luxury travel and design infinity. >> 

Read on for the interview

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Why did Rolls-Royce choose to make an SUV?
Alex Innes:
It was a convergence of a number of different things. There was a strong demand from the marketplace and we really took our time about it. As our PR director said: “a Rolls-Royce doesn’t come to a party when it starts, it comes to the party when it’s in full swing. And it’s not about being first, it’s about being the best, and about leadership.” So therefore, when we knew we wanted to do it, we wanted to ensure that it was absolutely right. We will always be a manufacturer of beautiful limousines and elegant coupés and dropheads, but the Cullinan affords us the opportunity to push the bookend in a slightly different direction.

What are the key design features that set the Cullinan apart from other luxury SUVs on the market?

Did you design it to be driven or to be driven in?
There was a definite bias towards being driver-centric. But there are regions in the world, Asia for one, where owners still very much like to be driven. As a design team, we spent a lot of time experimenting with the fundamental architecture of how the cabin is appointed. When designing the Phantom, we spent nearly all of our time sitting in the back trying to understand what the owner experience was. But with the Cullinan, we did a bit of both. It’s fair to say it was probably centric to the driver. That’s not to say the rear occupant experience isn’t equally fabulous.

What aspect of the car are you are most proud of?

In an objective sense, you’re designing a thing; it’s an architecture, it’s surfaces, it’s lines, it’s materials. What you don’t get is the experience side of it – that only comes when the car exists. If I were to put my finger on my favourite aspect, I’d have to say that what I enjoy the most is the off-road driving experience. I always described our cars before Cullinan as being un-automotive, and that was the thing I enjoyed about them, but with the Cullinan, the feeling you get when you do go off-road on really rugged terrain is just phenomenal. I think that whole experience, and what it leaves you with is, for me, the most powerful element of this design. >>

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How is Rolls-Royce design and evolution led?
When I first joined the company, I remember the Wraith was the first project I worked on at the time. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I would never have expected Rolls-Royce to do a striking fastback, two-door coupé and to be so emotionally led both in terms of the design and the development of those cars. So, the Cullinan does fit a pattern of modernisation. But the interesting thing is that I actually reckon the Black Badge represented more of a departure for us, in terms of the hallmarks of the brand, than the Cullinan did, because we were creating a very different accent for the cars. And they were heading in a slightly more performance-orientated, dynamic direction, which was something we struggled to get our heads around. So, the Black Badge was probably the biggest shift for me. I think once you’re on that trajectory, suddenly something like Cullinan, an SUV, just kind of seems to fall into place quite naturally. It is part of a movement towards modernisation.

Do you believe the new designs are attracting the younger generations?
Rolls-Royce is doing very well at the moment. But it was all by way of design. People still have this preconception that Rolls-Royce is a brand that builds cars in a red brick factory for men in smoking jackets; they don’t expect to meet someone like me. It’s a credit to our management, who empower youth to make very bold decisions related to product development and the future direction of the company.

The million-pound question: if you could take the Cullinan anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Somewhat predictably, it would be Scotland. It’s just a stunning place. And that car, in that environment, it’s the perfect fit. It’s almost like magic.

Read this interview in full in the new Tempus Style Edition, out now