A bulldog bred in Bavaria

Ignore the blimps, Rolls-Royce and BMW will be perfect partners, says J onathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
A Royce to the patrician down on his uppers, a Rolls to a Thatcherite brickie made good and a Roller to those who will never come remotely close to owning one, a Rolls-Royce is a car with a split personality. In every way. Yesterday Rolls-Royce an nounced a programme of long-term technical co-operation with BMW, the Bavarian executive car giant, that will in future give us German-powered Rolls-Royces.

So farewell then, to the venerable, hand-assembled V8 engine that has powered, in various capacities, every car from Crewe since 1959. The deal with BMW is a late recognition from the chaps at Rolls-Royce Motors that lovingly hand-tooled engines are no match for the smooth, reliable might of modish upstarts turned on computer-controlled lathes and built by robots.

With the demise of the pure-blooded Rolls-Royce engine, the British school of iron-fist-in-velvet-glove motor is all but dead. True, Aston Martin still makes a very limited number of hand-assembled V8s of its own design for its big and bulky grand tourers, but the success of its new slimline Jaguar-powered DB7 has done for the great, growling British bulldog car engine.

The link-up with BMW had been coming for some time. Four years ago, when Rolls-Royce was in a desperate financial plight, its parent company, Vickers, approached BMW with a view to the Germans buying the famous British marque outright. Rolls-Royce had over-extended itself during the late Eighties; when the crash came in 1989, Britain's most famous company was geared up to making 4,500 cars a year when all the market wanted worldwide was 1,500.

While BMW hung around hopefully, Vickers appointed new management, which has over the past five years brought Rolls-Royce back into profit. It has done so by concentrating on selling its blowsy Silver Spirits to self-made entrepreneurs in Britain, the mafia in Moscow and Shanghai and hotel chains in Singapore. The soft-top Corniche continued to sell to Hollywood housewives as a gloriously over-the-top shopping trolley. But this was small beer: the cars that saved the day for Rolls-Royce were those badge d "Bentley".

In 1980, 5percent of cars made at Crewe sported Bentley's flying B on their chromed radiator grilles; last year, production of Bentleys outnumbered Rolls-Royces by about 3 to 2. The tail was wagging the dog. When Rolls-Royce unveiled its "lightweight"

sporting Bentley Java show model last year, there was talk of the production car being powered by a new engine developed by Cosworth, the racing experts, in association with the boffins at Crewe. The Java might well be the car that will take Rolls-Royce profitably into the 21st century. It now seems very likely that the car will be powered by a super-smooth version of BMW's magnificent new V8.

This is unlikely to bother Bentley buyers. What they want is the best possible engine under the prognathous bonnets of their sporting status-symbols. In any case, many of the most memorable luxury British grand tourers have been powered by foreign engines. Bristol replaced its BMW-derived six cylinder engine with a Canadian-built 5.2-litre Chrysler V8 in the early Sixties. Jensen designed its flamboyant, muscle-bound C-V8 and Interceptor models of the Sixties around the same engine stretched out to 6.3 litres, while Gordon-Keeble bought in a crackling V8 from Chevrolet, otherwise found in the Corvette, the American E-type rival.

In fact the practice of shoehorning big, cast-iron American engines under elegant British coachwork dates back to the Thirties, when cars such as the Terraplane, Brough Superior and Railton all sported hunky, low-revving American V8s under suits of rakish sophistication. And, though Rolls-Royce fans may protest, the V8 engine Crewe unveiled in 1959 was based loosely on the Chrysler "Hemi" of the same configuration.

Most of those who bought Rolls-Royces in the Eighties and buy them today will probably never look under the bonnet: if they do, as long as the engine looks good and a plate on the camshaft-covers reads "Rolls-Royce Motors, Crewe", all will be well in theworld of the car as status symbol.

BMW is, in any case, no stranger to Rolls-Royce. It has for at least a decade been working in co-operation with the aviation wing of Rolls-Royce (long since separate from the motor manufacturer). When BMW bought Rover last year, it also inherited the oldPressed Steel bodywork plant outside Oxford. Pressed Steel has been making bodies for all Rolls-Royce and Bentley four-door saloons since the debut of the Silver Shadow (Rolls-Royce's first chassisless model) in 1965. For many months, then, Rolls -Roycecar bodies have been, de facto BMWs. Now, BMW can offer Rolls-Royce an engine tailored to suit.

The history of Rolls-Royce demonstrates that the most beautiful craftsmanship does not always produce the most efficient engineering. During the Battle of Britain, Spitfires propelled by Henry Royce's most famous engine, the Merlin, were hampered at highaltitude and in high-gravity manoeuvres by a sudden loss of power caused by fuel rushing out from old-fashioned carburettors. Rival Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters benefited enormously from their up-to-the-minute, fuel-injected engines which offered pilots full power at every climb, slip and roll. The Spitfire was undeniably beautiful and had the handling of some airborne Ferrari; what it needed was a touch of German thoroughness in the engine bay.

Any new BMW engine will anyway be specially adapted: thesuperb new modular-construction V8 may well be stretched out to a V10 configuration which the chaps from marketing can call a "unique selling point". By sorting out the mechanics, Rolls-Royce will be free to concentrate on styling, bodywork and marketing.

Over the past few years, the company's management team has been quietly re-evaluating the notion of the luxury car. The voluminous Silver Spirit, the current staple four-door saloon, is a hackneyed and outmoded expression of automotive luxury: all that heavy metal, lacquered wood, shiny leather and chrome makes the Spirit something of a Hollywood boudoir on wheels.

Rolls-Royce is exploring new materials for its interiors which may lead a generation of big cars from Crewe away from the vulgar aesthetic that has made the cars jokes in poor taste for those who do not own them. Now, with BMW's help, Rolls-Royce has an opportunity to move in a fresh direction. Of course, if it does, it might well lose the Moscow and Shanghai mafia and the Hollywood housewife, all of whom covet the marque precisely because of its carriage-clock looks, its cocktail-cabinet interior and softly sprung ride. If there was ever a "sod-you" car, the Silver Spirit was it, rivalled only by Mercedes-Benz's truly hideous top-line saloon, which comes complete with self-closing doors and - wait for it - double-glazing. If the Rolls-Royce is a mobil e country house, the Mercedes-Benz is a corporate headquarters on the march.

Today, the car business is truly international and Rolls-Royce, like other forward-looking companies, needs to think globally and act locally. And for those surviving blimps who think a Hun engine inside a John Bull car is just not British, remember thatRolls-Royce aviation engineers were visiting and sharing information with their German counterparts right up until the summer of 1939. Engineering is international; bodywork can be as British as Rolls-Royce choose, as long as they can sell cars and survive.