The battle of the Rollers has begun. Representing Britain is the hand-built 1973 Silver Shadow with a walnut veneer dashboard and a 6.7-litre engine. Flying the flag for Japan is the 1996 Mitsuoka Galue, a 2-litre dead ringer for the English classic, minus the Spirit of Ecstasy statuette. The brand new Japanese version, which translates literally as "doing it my way", costs slightly less than the second-hand original.
Rolls-Royce, due to launch three new models at next week's Geneva Motor Show, is unruffled by the competition. The car, the ultimate choice for Lady Penelope in the Seventies television show Thunderbirds, is just as popular in the Nineties with young celebrity owners ranging from Noel Gallagher of Oasis to the boys in Take That.
"All we would be concerned about was if someone was using our trademarks," said a spokeswoman for Rolls-Royce. "Bodywork is not a trademark and they have not used the Spirit of Ecstasy as far as we are aware, so although we are looking into the matter we are not too worried."
The company's cool confidence is borne out by the loyalty of its customers. The novelist Dame Barbara Cartland, who owned the very first white Silver Shadow, built especially for her in the 1960s, was horrified to hear the Japanese had dared launch a rival. "This is very worrying," she said yesterday. "I am very concerned about British cars - you just don't see them on the roads nowadays. I would never buy a Japanese car and certainly not a cheap imitation of a Rolls-Royce. It's disgraceful."
Jim Bowen, the comedian, found there was nothing funny about a foreign imitation of his beloved Silver Shadow. "You've only got to sit in a Rolls- Royce to know it can't be copied cheaply. It must be made of tin, with an MFI interior.
"It's a ludicrous idea. You can buy an original from 1975 for less than the price of the imitation, so what's the point?"