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British car makers accelerate world sales despite strong pound

Britain's car makers shrugged off the effects of the strong pound last year to record big increases in world-wide sales.

Rover said yesterday that total sales in 1996 broke through the half- million mark for the first time in eight years. Rolls-Royce, meanwhile, announced a 12 per cent jump in sales thanks to the success of the Bentley range including its pounds 222,526 two-door convertible, the Azure.

Jaguar, which is owned by Ford, reported a marginal drop in sales to about 39,000 but said this was due to a six-month gap during the year when it had no sports car version on sale.

According to preliminary figures from Rover, world-wide sales last year reached 506,000 - the highest since 1988. The company, now a subsidiary of BMW, said that for the first time in its history exports had outstripped home demand, with 53 per cent of sales going overseas.

The growth in Rover's worldwide sales comes as a consolation to the company as it faces up to continuing losses and a declining UK presence. Rover's share of the domestic market fell to just under 11 per cent in 1996 with 221,658 cars sold against 240,007 the previous year.

Tom Purves, sales and marketing director, said that the world-wide increase had been driven by the success of the new Rover 200 and 400 series, particularly in European markets, and strong demand for the Range Rover and Discovery, both of which set sales records.

Sales in the US were 15 per cent ahead of 1995 while demand was up 50 per cent in Germany and 10 per cent across the Continent as a whole.

Vickers, Rolls-Royce's parent company, said sales rose from 1,556 in 1995 to 1,744 last year. The biggest increase was in the UK where sales rose 29 per cent to 638. Demand was 10 per cent higher from the Americas and 7 per cent up in Japan.

A spokesman said that growth had been due to the introduction of the Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn and the revamped turbo-charged Bentley Brooklands, which sells for pounds 118,557.

Jaguar said it was held back by the six-month wait between the end of XJS production in April and the launch of the new sports model, the XK8, in October.

Union leaders at Ford meanwhile voiced their "deep concerns" at warnings from senior executives that it was preparing to take imminent action to stem huge losses in its European operations. Tony Woodley, the Transport and General Workers' Union chief negotiator for the car industry, said it was clear the company was considering drastic cuts which could have "disastrous consequences".

Jac Nasser, chairman of Ford of Europe, warned at the Detroit motor show that it was preparing to take "tough steps" because its cost base was not competitive.