Slump for Rolls as the old bow out

SALES of Rolls-Royce and Bentley luxury cars almost halved in the first quarter of the year as production of old four-door models was wound down and a new model introduced.

Vickers, the parent company which is in the process of selling Rolls- Royce Motor Cars, said retail sales fell to 251 cars from 446 cars in the first quarter of 1997. In Japan they fell by 81 per cent to six units. Rolls-Royce launched the Silver Seraph in March, its first new model in almost two decades.

"We have been overwhelmed by the positive reception the new Rolls-Royce Seraph has received from customers and orders are coming in every day," Graham Morris, the chief executive of the car unit, said.

Vickers said quarterly sales were down as expected because of the phase- out of previous four-door models at the end of 1997 and the ramp-up of production of replacement models.

Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars, which have traditionally occupied the uppermost rung in car price ladder, have always had a limited market.

The group's average capacity has been less than 2,000 cars a year, with prices of each car starting from a minimum of pounds 150,000.

Another reason for lower sales in the first quarter was the gradual roll- out of its new model, the Silver Seraph, which was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March.

Vickers said orders have been received ahead of introduction of the pounds 155,000 car as it was progressively launched around the world during the month. Retail deliveries have just started.

The Seraph, which is powered by an engine made by BMW, took its inspiration from another old Rolls favourite, the Silver Cloud.

Rolls' first car was the Silver Ghost, which was built in 1906 and described at the time as "best car in the world".

Sales of Rolls and Bentley cars, considered the ultimate status symbol, fell in most of their markets in the quarter. Only 151 cars were sold in Britain in the first quarter, against 236 previously.

In the Americas, quarterly sales fell to 51 from 92, while in continental Europe they fell to 19 from 35. In Japan, only six cars were sold during the quarter against 32 in the first quarter of 1997.

Mr Morris, said sales of its existing Bentley two-door range were progressing well, with the Bentley Azure seeing a "very strong demand".

Vickers is in exclusive talks to sell Rolls-Royce to BMW for pounds 340m. Volkswagen has increased an earlier offer and is believed to have bid between pounds 360m and pounds 380m and hopes to negotiate with Vickers once a period giving BMW exclusive negotiating rights ends. Daimler has ruled itself out of the running.

Bernd Pischetscrieder, the BMW chairman, has so far remained confident of winning the battle despite a higher bid from Volkswagen. Any offer has to be approved by Vickers' shareholders.

- Agencies

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