The wheels of good fortune turn ever faster

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The Independent Online
The rest of us may still need some convincing that the Tories' long-promised economic recovery is truly under way, but the very rich are apparently in little doubt. The sales of Rolls-Royce motor cars, a barometer of millionaires' confidence, are leaping ahead.

Figures for 1996 show that 404 Rolls-Royces and Bentleys were sold in the first six months of the year, against 266 for the same period in 1995 - a 52 per cent rise. The manufacturers are starting to take on extra workers at their Crewe factory.

At the offices of Jack Barclay Ltd Berkeley Square, London - official distributors for the cars - Graham Hawksworth, managing director, is confident that the surge in sales is highly significant. "It is self-evident," he says, "that in general the people who choose to buy these motor cars are among the most astute financial brains in the country.

"Many of them are successful entrepreneurs who have made a great deal of money and are well aware of the car's value. It just so happens that, at this point in the economic cycle, as we are moving towards a general election, a growing number have decided to buy now."

Nearly half this year's Rolls-Royce sales went to first-time buyers. The average new purchaser owns six other cars and enjoys declared personal wealth of pounds 1.5m. Average new buyers of Bentleys are in their mid-fifties, while buyers of Rolls-Royces tend to be older. Women buyers account for between five and seven per cent of the market, but their share is rising.

Certainly, buyers need to be rich. A Bentley Brooklands costs pounds 106,866 and 25p while a Rolls-Royce Super Spur sells at pounds 135,242. Even these prices look like the bargain basement against the pounds 222,526 cost of the top-of-the-range new Bentley Azure. And, in case you were wondering, there are still more expensive cars on the market - the Maclaren F1, for example, costs pounds 634,000.

It is impossible to apply ordinary concepts of value-for-money to these cars. They are as much a work of art as a feat of engineering - each car takes between eight and 10 weeks to assemble by hand.

But, whatever the explanation for the soaring sales, economists do not think that it is any reflection of the mood in the rest of the economy. High street sales are also up in the first six months of this year, but by less than 2 per cent. "I cannot accept that this indicates the start of a boom," David Kern, chief economist for the Nat West Group, said. "In the economy as a whole, the feel-bad factor has been replaced by the feel-flat factor. We are set for an acceleration in growth over the coming year, but it will be more in the nature of a 'boomlet' and would not explain such a surge in demand for expensive cars."