Valued by Vickers - its present owners - at pounds 150m, BMW bought Crewe's "Spirit of Ecstasy" for pounds 340m. Notable owners have included the Queen, Mao Tse-tung, John Lennon, Charlie Chaplin and Noel Gallagher.
BMW, which already owns Rover and Land Rover and the Mini and the MG marques, has long hankered after the silvery presence of Rolls-Royce. It beat off a number of other bidders, including Volkswagen. Such was the glamour of owning Rolls-Royce that many deep-pocketed tycoons, said to include Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and Mohamed Al Fayed, took out their calculators to see if they could afford it.
But none could match BMW's financial clout. At the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year Bernd Pischetsrieder, the chairman, promised to pump pounds 1bn into two new model lines in the next decade if BMW took over.
Industry experts say the first to emerge could be a baby Bentley based on the prototype Java, showcased in 1994. It was a marked departure from Rolls's image of the stuffy British style. The four-seater coupe came with a clip-on roof but what it lacked on top it made up for under the bonnet. Its 3.5-litre engine was designed to catapult the car to 60mph in five seconds and the Java could comfortably cruise at 170mph.
Rolls-Royce, founded by the engineer Henry Royce and the Hon Charles Stewart Rolls, has come a long way since the first "Roycer" trundled out in 1904. Two years later came "the best car in the world" - the Silver Ghost - and the Rolls-Royce that the rich know was born.
Last month the latest model - the Silver Seraph - was unveiled and modestly described as "the dawn of a new era".
Rolls-Royce remains indisputably British - its production line will stay at Crewe. But there can be little doubt that Germany's gain is Britain's loss. BMW hopes to match British engineering brilliance with Germanic business sense. Mr Pischetsrieder said it could make 30 per cent savings and aimed to treble sales to 6,000 a year.
For those on the shopfloor, the rising tide of globalism was welcomed. Rolls-Royce's chief executive, Graham Morris, said the company was looking forward to the millennium. "Everybody recognises this is a global economy. In some ways it's sad we've moved out of British hands, but there was no real British alternative."
Others were less sanguine. "The rape of British industry by BMW is systematically going ahead. People say we live in a global village. Every village has a chief and its poor man. Is Britain heading towards becoming the poor man of the global village?" said Donald Longmore, secretary of the Rolls- Royce Acquisition Consortium, a group of fans which tried to buy the business.
Business, page 19
NINE OF THE BEST
Rolls-Royce has only put out nine models. Its most famous was the 1906 Silver Ghost, promoted with the slogan "The Best Car in the World". Formed with pounds 60,000 of capital in 1906, by 1968 - its most successful year - Rolls-Royce made a profit of more than pounds 70m in today's prices.
Ownership of the bulk of Britain's motor industry has long since been handed to foreign concerns. Jaguar, Aston Martin and Rover are long gone - leaving only quirky specialists such as sportscar companies TVR, Morgan and Caterham in British ownership. Rolls-Royce can take some comfort from history - its German owners will remember that a Rolls carried Field Marshal Montgomery around Europe in the Second World War.
Perhaps the firm's most memorable accolade came when Lawrence of Arabia drove into Damascus in a Rolls in the First World War and said: "A Rolls in the desert is above rubies".Reuse content