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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

(continued from page 1)

This was an unlikely pairing in class-conscious Britain. Rolls was an aristocrat who had taken to selling hand-built luxury automobiles. Royce, the son of a failed miller, had an extraordinary skill for things mechanical and had become a machinist. The two men may have been born in different worlds, but their shared love of machines forged a passionate bond. They began collaborating in 1904 and, three years later, unveiled their first car, the Silver Ghost. It quickly earned a reputation as the best car in the world.

"It deserves that sobriquet in the same way you deserve your belief in your God," asserts Lt. (read: "Leff-tenant") Col. Eric Barrass (retired), the unapologetic president of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club. He is busy directing traffic at the annual British gathering of Rolls owners (and the smattering of odd Bentley enthusiasts, who have been allowed to enter the grounds in the interest of diversity). Nearly one out of every 100 cars ever to roll out of Crewe will gather on the castle's grand lawn on this day. Even as the sheep greet the warm dawn with casual indifference, the colonel is already hard at work as the cars arrive, in ones and twos. "No," he shouts, ever the military man expecting precision drill. "This row is for Silver Shadows. For God's sake, man, you're driving a Corniche!"

A special place is reserved for the rarest of the breed, a Silver Ghost dubbed Mystery. It's a fitting name, for the archives are silent on how it was selected. It was christened by Claude Johnson--often described as the "hyphen in Rolls-Royce"--who gave individual names to some 45 of the company's first automobiles. As was the norm for most ultraluxury cars produced during the first half of the century, the Silver Ghost's chassis and mechanicals were produced at the factory but its body was designed and constructed by a coach builder. In Mystery's case, the latter task was assigned to one of Britain's finest coach builders, Holmes of Darby. The car featured cantilever springs and acetylene lighting. Forget chrome--Holmes had the headlights and pipes silver-plated.

A gathering like this really tells only half the story of Rolls-Royce, though. Charles Rolls's other passion was the airplane. Indeed, he was killed in a crash in 1910 at the age of 33. But his partner continued to tinker, and in 1916 the company's first aircraft engine, dubbed the Eagle, made its maiden flight. In 1919, nearly a decade before Lindbergh made his solo crossing, a team of pilots made the first nonstop transatlantic flight in a Vickers plane powered by Eagle engines.

Britain owes its continued existence to the Eagle's successor. The Merlin-powered Spitfire proved to be the last line of defense in the Battle of Britain. It overwhelmed a seemingly superior force and compelled Hitler to call off his planned invasion of the island.

But Rolls aeronautics couldn't withstand an assault from the economic recession of the early 1970s. The carmaker was deep in debt when the ill-fated development of the RB211 aircraft engine nearly drove it into bankruptcy in 1971. Perhaps as payoff for Rolls-Royce's role in the war, the British government stepped in, nationalizing the aircraft operation, while the automobile division was split off and floated on the stock market. In 1980, Vickers acquired Rolls-Royce Motor Cars for a paltry £38 million (about $89 million).

It was never a happy marriage, according to Graham Morris, who served as Rolls's chief executive from March 1997 until this past December: "They were the wrong owners." Vickers' accountants found it hard to place the value of a brand on their books. The conglomerate doled out cash with an eyedropper, leaving Rolls starving for the kind of capital it takes to keep "the best car in the world" truly the best. As a result, Rolls and Bentley began to be eclipsed on a technical level by their German rivals, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Yet the image persisted. In the go-go years of the mid-1980s, when image was everything, Crewe was stretched to capacity. Despite waiting periods of up to four months, sales posted double-digit gains one year after the next. The company seemed unstoppable, even by the American gas-guzzler and luxury taxes, which, former Rolls spokesman Reg Abbiss declared, would cause a potential customer to think twice "only if it came down to a choice between a Rolls-Royce and a second swimming pool for the horses."

Then the bubble burst. As the Reagan era ended, the social theorists pronounced a new age, one of constrained consumption. Almost overnight, the luxury market collapsed. In 1991 alone, Rolls's volume slumped 48 percent, from 3,333 to 1,731 vehicles. The blue-blooded automaker was hemorrhaging red. Vickers started slashing. It halved the workforce at Crewe, then closed the ancient Mulliner Park Ward factory in London where its most expensive models were hand-tooled for clients such as Queen Elizabeth.

Each time rumors surfaced that Vickers would put its troubled subsidiary up for sale, company officials swatted them down. With the economy--and sales--starting to revive, the conglomerate invested £40 million ($64 million) in the mid-'90s. Vickers gave the go-ahead to a wave of new products and shelled out for a new assembly line--the first true assembly line to operate at Crewe. But the rumors were on the mark: Vickers was setting Rolls up to be sold.

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