BMW must convince us Rollers are still British

Over the past few months, Volkswagen has revealed plans for Bentley’s return to Le Mans next year including a special Bentley for the royals.

The hard sell has started at Crewe.

Over the past few months, Volkswagen has revealed plans for Bentley’s return to Le Mans next year; a special Bentley for the royals; a new medium-sized Bentley and future annual output of 10,000. It must be costingVW a lot more than the revenues from the sale of 2,000 cars a year.

What we have not heard about are plans for Rolls-Royce, temporarily in the hands of VW, but which passes to BMW in 2003.

Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, BMW’s man in charge of Rolls-Royce, will not talk about future models because Mercedes-Benz plans to launch its Maybach luxury car the same year and VW has a secret scheme to re-launch its Bugatti marque. Both will be serious Rolls-Royce rivals.

BMW is busy behind the scenes, though. A small project team to plan the new Rolls-Royces has been established.

Six two-fifth scale clays were made in order to select the first model, a four-door saloon. One designed by Ian Cameron, a Scots-West Indian, was chosen a year ago. Interior designs are due for approval any time now. The new car begins winter testing in Finland in January.

Aluminium alloy will be used for the space frame and bodywork. The engineering work and initial construction will be at Dingolfing, Germany, but BMW insiders insist the work will be transferred to the UK shortly afterwards.

What is now being decided is whether chassis/body production will be done in-house at Goodwood, the West Sussex location for the new Rolls-Royce factory, or outsourced to a company like Mayflower. BMW maintains that Goodwood will become a proper car factory but on a small scale.

In true Rolls-Royce tradition, the engine will have ‘adequate’ power — enough to out-accelerate a Porsche as far as the first corner. The engine will be a suitably adapted Rolls-Royce version of a BMW unit (probably a V8) to provide a very high, flat torque curve at low engine speeds. The plan calls for 350 employees at Goodwood to produce a thousand cars a year on a single shift.

Technically, few doubt that BMW can do a brilliant job. There is a major reservation, though. Customers have to be convinced that a BMW-owned Rolls-Royce is British. The brand is the quirky epitome of ‘Britishness’ — any hint of Bavarian engineering zeal and Bauhaus design will be spotted instantly by Rolls-Royce buyers.

What the company also needs is the symbolism of a British chairman. Step forward Sir Ralph Robins, chairman of aeroengine maker Rolls-Royce plc. Sir Ralph is the guardian of the Rolls-Royce marque and the man who ensured BMW acquired the carmaker for a paltry £40m.

His company already has a successful aeroengine joint venture with BMW in the BR700 series. Chairmanship of the car maker would be a suitable thank you to Sir Ralph, 68, when he retires from the aeroengine company.

Richard Feast is editor-at-large for Automotive World