My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history
Showing posts with label Bentley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bentley. Show all posts

Friday, August 18, 2023

Winners and losers since 1951 - Rolls-Royce and Bentley

Reviewing the draft of my next book, working title 'Vehicles to Vaccines', some companies jump out as conspicuous success stories, and some less so. Beneath the surface there are many hundreds of smaller British manufacturing concerns which form the backbone of this sector.

In a sequence of forthcoming posts, I plan to tell some of the stories.

Sales of British companies is a recurring theme and there are a number of ways of viewing this. It creates shareholder value. It offers a way for overseas companies to benefit from UK manufacturing expertise. Yet, it saddens me. Am I being too emotional? More seriously, should I be concerned?

In the case of four of our top motor companies, I believe the answer to both is yes. Let's take the example of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. I shall look at Jaguar and Land Rover in a subsequent post.

The story is well known, but can be clouded by the mists of time. Henry Royce was a superbly talented engineer and, following the untimely death of his partner Charles Rolls, formed a team around him to complement his skills by adding imaginative marketing. Claude Johnson and Ernest Hives are names that stand out. Johnson’s view was that the company should build on its reputation of serving the aristocracy whose cars were nearly always driven by chauffeurs. Thus, if a customer wished to test drive a car, he would be driven by a Rolls-Royce chauffeur who had been schooled in the etiquette of service. Royce demanded the highest possible standards in engineering, as Johnson did in customer service.

W.O. Bentley was probably as great an engineer. At the start of the First World War, he worked for engine builder Gwynne who were not convinced by Bentley’s suggestion of aluminium pistons. Humber harboured no such doubts and, with him, built many engines this way. In 1920 W.O, as he was known, formed Bentley Motors. The Autocar magazine reported that he was working on a model ‘intended to appeal to those enthusiastic motorists who desire a car which, practically speaking, was a true racing car with touring accessories’. Only three years later, the car finished fourth in the Le Mans. It was the Wall Street crash that robbed Bentley of his company, and Rolls-Royce pipped at the post Napier & Sons to buy the valuable marque.

Rolls-Royce built both cars from their factory at Sinfin Lane in Derby alongside aeroengines.

When I say they built cars, I do mean that they produced the chassis with engine ready for a specialist coach builder to add the coachwork to meet the customers’ requirements.

During the Second World War, the production of aeroengines was vast and critical to the war effort. Cars were also produced as witnessed by the Rolls-Royce used by Field Marshall Montgomery (in the photograph).

Following the war, Rolls-Royce moved the production of cars to the shadow factory they had managed in Crewe, leaving aeroengines at Derby.

W.O. found he could no longer work with Rolls-Royce and so joined Lagonda which later teamed up with Aston-Martin under the ownership of David Brown. As I will tell in a later posts, they too enjoyed success at Le Mans.

In the fifties and sixties, Rolls-Royce produced some truly iconic cars, not least the Phantom IV, available only to royalty and heads of state.

Rolls-Royce underwent a dramatic change when the development costs of the RB211 aeroengine ran out of control, leading to the placing of the aeroengine company into public ownership. Rolls-Royce Motors was separately floated in 1973, which coincided with the launch of the Corniche, the fastest Rolls-Royce ever.

Rolls-Royce Motors was  bought by Vickers plc in 1980. They had been faced with the capital cost of tooling for new models; Vickers, on the other hand, expected a windfall from the nationalisation of their aircraft and shipbuilding businesses. Vickers worked hard to make the combination work, producing motor cars that the wealthy of the world wanted to buy, under both the Rolls-Royce and Bentley marques. In time, Vickers had to seek partners for Rolls-Royce to develop the next new model. The seeking evolved into a potential sale with BMW as front runners. BMW were already supplying engines for both Rolls-Royce and Bentley models; they also enjoyed success with joint ventures with the aeroengine company, Rolls-Royce plc, which had been privatised in 1987.

In the event, VW outbid BMW. As was widely reported at the time, VW found that they had bought the company without the right to use the brand which still belonged to Rolls-Royce plc. Undaunted, they set about building Bentleys at Crewe. BMW acquired the licence to use  the Rolls-Royce brand and set up a new factory on the Goodwood Estate in Sussex. 

The net result of all this is a duo of fully financed and commercially supported companies building distinct Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars in England. So, possibly not a cause for sadness.

Is it a cause for concern? Has this been an isolated incident the answer may well be no. As it is, these were just two of a long line of sales which neither the government nor the city did a thing to stop.

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...