Bentley v Rolls: Battle of the luxury brands

VW is gearing up for a challenge from BMW in the luxury 'British' car market. So who will come out on top? Lauren Veevers reports
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When Wayne Rooney decided to give his girlfriend Colleen a new car last week there was only one choice: not a Rolls-Royce, but a Bentley Continental GT, prestige shopmobile to the rich and ostentatious from Bayswater to Beverly Hills.

Once the premier marque for the rich and regal, Rolls-Royce has been reduced to a niche car-making rump of the all-conquering German manufacturer BMW. But now it plans to fight back with the cheapest Rolls-Royce cars ever produced in a bid to grab a new market.

Rollers still have kudos - The Spirit of Ecstasy, the winged flying lady on every bonnet, heralds the leather and walnut cosseted movement of owners ranging from plutocrats like Sir Alan Sugar and Roman Abramovich to hardcore rappers and movie stars like 50 Cent and Ben Affleck. And they can have their Roller in, literally, any colour they like - there are 44,000 to chose from. The problem is, as with the Model T Ford, they can only have one model - the Phantom.

But Bentley, once the poor cousin when it and Rolls were parts of the same company, has, since they parted ways in the late 1990s, left Rolls-Royce trailing in its dust.

Volkswagen wasted no time in its scramble for the luxury market after it took over Bentley in 1998, developing the Arnage and Azure. Its masterstroke was to launch the £105,000 Continental GT in 2003 to an audience of well-heeled buyers, including Rio Ferdinand and David Beckham, just as BMW finally secured the rights to the Rolls-Royce name. Now, while Bentley sells nearly 7,000 GTs a year, Rolls struggles to sell more than a 10th of that number.

Phantom owner 50 cent summed up the problem, when he expressed his desire for a convertible: "The roof is gonna be gone. I want something sportier. I'm not an old man. That's why I want to chop the roof off it - turn it into a 'vertible." Rolls-Royce politely rejected his request. But the firm appears to have absorbed the point. It plans to develop a smaller and cheaper "family" of cars expected to include a limousine, a convertible and a sports coupé and hopes the new series will increase sales from its current 800 to 2,000.

"BMW and Rolls-Royce felt the brand was dented slightly and so have thought hard about what makes a Rolls-Royce a Rolls-Royce," the company said yesterday. "The new series had to be British, individual and super luxury but still an authentic Rolls."

There are signs that Bentley is starting to suffer from a clientele that includes too many Essex building contractors and C-list celebrities.

"Bentleys have been lauded by all sorts of critics and journalists," marketing analyst Brandsmiths said yesterday. "But an association with footballers has emerged and this is something Rolls-Royce and their super-premium customers may want to avoid."

Simon Cowell, the TV and music impresario, just returned his Bentley in favour of a Rolls-Royce: "I had a Continental GT on order, but hated it the moment I saw it. I cancelled that. I needed a new car, but didn't know what to buy." He was loaned a Phantom as a courtesy car, and promptly bought two - one for Beverly Hills and one for London.

Who wants these German-made luxury tanks? The international junior rich and ambitious plumbers, says Stephen Bayley

Exactly what sort of person would buy a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley?

Right now these two German companies make the world's two most imposing, not to say confrontational, cars. So there's part of the answer. Since even the sight of them excites deep pools of prejudice, robust egos are required of owners. The Phantom, a gargantuan architectural exercise inspired partly by the Parthenon and dim recollections of Lady Penelope crushing molecules of air, says, among several other things, "Me first. Get out of the way."

The Bentley Azure, a boat-sized convertible designed to achieve stand-out even in the car park of a seven-star Gulf hotel, says, "I am a shameless Lothario and hedonist." Each car very clearly tells the world its owner has a quarter of a million to blow on a diminishing asset, and doesn't care who knows it.

But for nearly three years Bentley has had a successful diffusion line, the prêt-à-porter Continental GT, modestly priced at somewhat over £100,000. Soon Rolls-Royce will have a rival at a similar price-point: smaller and, if not exactly democratic, certainly more accessible. The existence of each car is vivid evidence of the increasingly ambitious, not to say surreal, branding strategies of BMW and Volkswagen, owners, respectively, of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. It is also evidence of fast-evolving markets for hyper-luxury and the weird consumer psychology that drives it.

Bentley, in Ettore Bugatti's mots justes, used to make "the fastest lorries on earth". Volkswagen also owns Bugatti, whose £850,000 Veyron is now the fastest car on earth. Bentley's reputation is founded in the raffish world of the Thirties when "The Bentley Boys" caroused in Berkeley Square and Woolf Barnato raced Le Train Bleu to the South of France. The car he drove is now owned by Ralph Lauren, an individual who knows very well the near erotic power of status detail. Volkswagen wanted this same mystique, so bought not merely the car, but the entire factory. The commercial reality of the Continental is that it gives Volkswagen an amusing opportunity to sell an unloved Phaeton (which donates the technology) for an additional $50,000.

Experts in the voodoo of branding speculate how long Bentley's image can out-run its reality. Can it retain its intoxicatingly English allure when, contentwise, it is German ? Never mind that its handsome body was designed by a Belgian, Dirk von Braekl (whose previous job had been at Skoda, VW's discount brand). Now there is the possibility that production may move to Volkswagen's showcase vanity factory in Dresden.

A new Rolls-Royce would appeal to this same new class of classless, international junior rich who have risen above Mercedes-Benz, but not yet taken to jets. Under BMW, Rolls-Royce is beginning to escape from the sort of reputation acquired as a product used for social promotion by scrap dealers and dodgy sheikhs. Rolls-Royces probably never were "the best cars in the world", but now they are built in the best car factory in the world. This is the calm, beautiful low-rise designed by Sir Nick Grimshaw on the Goodwood estate in West Sussex.

From the same site many years ago, Rolls-Royce-powered Spitfires fought BMW-powered Focke-Wulfs. That was the first Battle of Britain. This is the second; it's not about politics, it's about brand values.


Bentley drivers

Rio Ferdinand, Bentley Arnage

Ryan Giggs, Bentley Continental GT

Roman Abramovich, Bentley Brookland

David Beckham, Bentley Arnage

The Queen Keeps two Bentley limousines for official business


Rolls-Royce drivers

Simon Cowell, Owns two Phantoms and has a 100EX on order

Victoria Beckham, Silver Phantom

Christina Aguilera, White Phantom

50 Cent, Phantom - but wanted a convertible

Alan Sugar, Phantom - as seen in 'The Apprentice' credits