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The British are Coming

English automakers created the standard for high-line vehicles. Now after wrestling turbulent economies, they introduce some of their best and most competitive cars.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

California’s Highway One is a meandering ribbon of tarmac that follows the state’s serpentine coastline from Mexico to the Oregon border. It’s a scenic route, but can also be a treacherous one, especially along the Central Coast, as it weaves through the high palisades of Big Sur. It’s a perfect place for a low-slung sports car, but this particular afternoon, we’re heading north to the Monterey Peninsula behind the wheel of a new Rolls-Royce Ghost.

Perhaps the most well-recognized marque in the automotive world, the very name Rolls is likely to bring to mind a lumbering mass of metal, a liveried chauffeur up front and a distracted matron in the rear. But the nimble new Ghost challenges such assumptions. Decidedly smaller and more subtle than the brand’s classic saloon cars—such as the ostentatious Phantom—it is surprisingly lithe and sure-footed as we charge through the tightest corners at well above the posted speed limit.

If the new Ghost lends a sporty air to the brand’s staid persona, that’s precisely what the planners at Rolls-Royce had in mind. The new sedan is expected to double, perhaps even triple, the British marque’s sales in the coming years by appealing to a younger, hipper, but still quite affluent buyer.

And though Rolls executives tend to downplay the comparison, the Ghost takes aim at another exclusive U.K. nameplate: Bentley, whose Continental models—a sleek mix of sedans, coupes and convertibles—have, over the past decade, become the best-selling entries ever in the ultra-premium luxury car market.

For nearly three-quarters of a century, the two carmakers operated as one. The struggling Bentley was acquired by its more successful rival in 1931 and, in the decades that followed, little difference, beyond their hood ornaments, separated the brands. But as the second millennium drew to a close, the Rolls-Royce Motor Co., aware that it didn’t have the resources to retain its position at the pinnacle of automotive excellence, put itself on the auction block. An unexpected turn of events—documented in Cigar Aficionado [April 1999 issue]—split the two divisions, and Rolls wound up in the hands of German luxury maker BMW, while Bentley became one of a growing corral of luxury franchises acquired by the aspiring Volkswagen AG.

In the dozen years since, they have been cordial but nevertheless aggressive rivals. And if Rolls is taking aim at the low end of its former partner’s lineup, Bentley is striking out at the prestigious pinnacle of the Rolls brand with its all-new Mulsanne.

The massive machine is decidedly more modern than the outgoing Arnage, and is being positioned as a sporty alternative to Rolls’s big Phantom. But it is nonetheless aimed at the exospheric elite, with a forest full of wood trim and a pasture’s worth of leather. Simply sewing all that cowhide together, the maker boasts, takes Bentley craftsmen nearly three weeks.

The challenge that both manufacturers face is that the global luxury market is in the doldrums. While there are still plenty of potential customers with ready cash in hand, “they’re not necessarily willing to flaunt that wealth when they may be closing plants and cutting jobs,” concedes Ian Robertson, the BMW marketing executive who oversees Rolls-Royce.

The good news is that both of the high-line marques now have the luxury of waiting out the recession without fear of economic disaster, as might have been the case when they lacked substantial backing.

Financial problems have taken a heavy toll on the once-mighty British auto industry, as a whole, over the last few decades. Some of the best-known brands—Triumph and MG—have vanished from the market. With rare exception, the survivors have sought shelter in the arms—and treasuries—of erstwhile foreign rivals. In a surprising twist, two British brands, Jaguar and Land Rover, are now the prized possessions of Indian automaker, Tata.

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