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Marque of Excellence

Can Rolls-Royce, Britain's Name of Distinction, Weather Separation from Its Kid Brother, the Bentley, and Adoption by the Germans?
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

It is an ancient land, the homes cut into solid outcroppings of weathered limestone. Wisps of smoke curl from chimneys that emerge from the hillsides 100 feet above. A soft morning light gently caresses the Loire Valley, giving one the sense of having awakened inside a Monet canvas. Only the roar of old motors coming from a convoy of cars nearly as primitive as the landscape itself disturbs the tranquillity.

The Blower has taken the lead as the procession sweeps through a small French town, curious villagers pointing and waving. The driver's eyes are shielded from the cold air by yellowed goggles, his hair by a cracked leather helmet, perhaps the very one used when the old Bentley naviga- ted the circuit at Le Mans nearly 70 years earlier. The Blower Bentley, its massive supercharger hanging from the front bumper, never took the checkered flag. Ironic, perhaps, that it's become the best-remembered example of its breed. But in those early years, when one could claim some small victory by simply enduring the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans, W. O. Bentley and his boys achieved the type of dominance that forever enshrined the British marque's place in racing lore.

A privately owned, three-liter Bentley was the first car to cross the finish line in 1924, and the factory team repeated the feat in '27, '28 and '29--when Bentleys came in first through fourth--and again in 1930. So, if any automaker can claim Le Mans as its spiritual home, it's certainly Bentley.

The Bentley's early racing successes were not matched on the corporate ledger, however, and sales were devastated by the Depression. The exclusive marque would have vanished had it not been bought by its British competitor, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd., in 1931. Over the years, the Bentley brand lay fallow, like an old work of art languishing in a forgotten wing of a seldom-visited mu-seum. But a decade ago, it began a return to glory founded on that spiritual kinship, the comeback ignited by an ultraluxury performance sedan, the Turbo R. Despite weighing in at 2.3 tons, the Turbo R accelerated faster than many sports cars and peaked out at a breathless 140 miles an hour. "I tend to look at [the Turbo R] as the car for the guy whose granny won't fit in the backseat of the Porsche and Ferrari anymore, but who still wants to enjoy that driving experience," says former Rolls chief executive Peter Ward, who began the process of reviving the Bentley brand.

Appropriately, the latest step in the revival process played out at Le Mans, where the automaker staged the introduction of its newest sedan last spring. The Arnage takes its name from the tight, right-hand corner where far too many racers have prematurely ended their runs at Le Mans. With a lineup of classic Bentleys providing the backdrop, the Arnage made a formidable, if implausible, entrance, performing a series of aggressive burnouts down pit row. Even with a 350-horsepower, 4.5-liter supercharged V-8 to power its 2.5 tons of metal, glass, burlwood and Connolly leather, a $200,000 automobile isn't what one might think of as a muscle car.

But if the past is a prelude to the future, the Arnage wasn't the only thing weighing on the minds of those gathered at Le Mans last spring. For the moment the future of both Bentley and Rolls-Royce seemed decidedly uncertain. The staid world of the British luxury car industry is rarely stirred and seldom shaken. Yet that's precisely what happened when, in late 1997, the British conglomerate Vickers PLC announced that it was putting Rolls-Royce Motor Cars up for sale. Hopes that somehow the legendary brands would remain in British hands were quickly dashed. The only serious bidders, it soon became apparent, did their accounting in deutsche marks. For some, the thought of moving Rolls-Royce across the channel was akin to asking the queen to clear her things out of Buckingham Palace to make room for the Bavarian tourist trade.

To the British, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars is perhaps among the last vestiges of a once-great empire. Though India, Australia and those pesky American colonists all bolted the Commonwealth, the sun continued to shine on the Rolls-Royce dominion. The very name constitutes one of the world's best-known brands, second only, perhaps, to Coca-Cola. It is an unquestionable symbol of status attained, a mark of distinction and a marque of aspiration.

Curiously, Rolls-Royce had come under German assault once before. During the Second World War, its plant in Crewe, in northwestern England, was a prime target for the Luftwaffe, which was propelled by BMW- and Volkswagen-built aircraft engines. But the Royal Air Force, depending upon British Spitfires powered by Rolls's Merlin engines, turned the tide of war in the Battle of Britain. Fifty-seven years later, the two German companies were back, this time seeking to claim the automaker intact. Yet, in this industrial battle, Rolls aeronautics would again determine the outcome.

The intensity with which the bidding war was waged, indeed the very fame that surrounds Rolls itself, was in inverse proportion to its production numbers. In its 94-year history, the company has adorned barely 130,000 automobiles with either the Rolls Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament or the Bentley "B" badge. For a carmaker the size of Volkswagen, that's little more than a week's total output.

In the world of Rolls-Royce, where automobiles serve as jewelry rather than as appliances, there is no such thing as planned obsolescence. Fully half the "Rollers" and Bentleys ever built are still on the road. In a small annex of the plant at Crewe, you'll find logbooks on the cars that were assembled in the past decade. These are hand-built and custom-crafted automobiles, so the precise pattern of each car's leather and the cut of its wood is recorded in meticulous detail should replacements ever be needed. The records for another 100,000 vehicles fill files at the Rolls-Royce museum, a few hours away in the town of Paulerspury Northants. The records are not so much an archive of technical documents as a history in minutiae, a legacy of a company that was created with a handshake when Henry Royce and Charles Rolls agreed to build cars together.

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