Image: Bentley Mulsanne 2011 Model
Handout  /  Getty Images
Bentley's Mulsanne, the 2011 model is shown here, is the first complete remake of its top-line sedan in a decade. Bentley and Rolls-Royce, once siblings, are now competing in the ultrapremium car market.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 10/14/2009 7:39:30 AM ET 2009-10-14T11:39:30

Think of it as one-time siblings rivalry.

For roughly seven decades, Rolls-Royce and Bentley were two faces of the same platinum coin. Separated as part of a bitter bidding war between two of Germany’s most powerful automakers, Rolls and Bentley have lately been carving out separate and unique niches within the ultrapremium automotive market.

But with the upcoming launch of a pair of new products, the one-time partners are about to face off in a direct battle for the car market’s most prestigious and affluent buyers.

The warning shots were fired earlier this month at the Frankfurt Motor Show, where Bentley staged the formal public roll-out of its big Mulsanne, the first complete remake of its top-line sedan, in a decade. At the other end of the big Frankfurt Messe convention center, Rolls lifted the covers on the production version of its new Ghost, a sedan designed to take the brand a bit down-market.

“They’ve been competing in different segments, until now,” explains Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends consulting. “Now, they’re going to go head-to-head.”

In their early years, in the so-called Golden Era of luxury motoring, Rolls-Royce and Bentley were fierce competitors. The latter marque was chronically underfunded and, in 1931, reluctantly agreed to sell itself to Rolls which, over the decades, became the dominant brand.

A change in brands’ influence
By the late 1980s, Bentley models accounted for barely 5 percent of the company’s total sales, but then it received a reprieve. Hoping to win over younger, more performance-oriented buyers, Bentley was relaunched as the sportier nameplate, with models like the Turbo R which could, despite weighing in at nearly three tons, launch from 0 to 60 in barely five seconds. By the mid-‘90s, the situation had flip-flopped and Bentley was the better-selling brand.

Image: Rolls Royce Ghost
Mike Clarke  /  AFP - Getty Images
Models stand next to a Rolls Royce Ghost, a sedan that can take the brand down-market.

Then, in 1998, the British conglomerate, Vickers, decided to sell off its automotive holdings. The subsequent sales process took some unexpected detours. German maker BMW made a strong bid and thought it was the new owner, but then came a counteroffer from Volkswagen, which BMW declined to match. In a series of twists and turns, VW eventually wound up with Bentley, while its German rival gained control of Rolls.

Initially, the severed brands took aim at different niches of the ultrapremium market. With the massive and formal $400,000 Phantom, Rolls-Royce targeted the most affluent of old money buyers, those preferring to be chauffeur-driven. Bentley aimed for a more nouveau riche audience that enjoyed the performance of the smaller, more nimble Continental, barely half the price of the Phantom.

It took Rolls time to gain momentum. Sales of the Phantom and its big derivatives climbed from just 300 in 2002, to 1,212 last year. With the launch of the Continental line, Bentley took off, hitting a worldwide peak of 10,014, in 2007. Both makers have been hit hard by the global economic downturn, however. Rolls sales stood at just 411 for the first eight months of 2009, a more than one-third decline. Bentley, with sales of 2,881, is down nearly 50 percent.

“It’s difficult to be seen driving up to your office” in a car like a Phantom “when you’re laying people off,” suggests Jim O’Donnell, CEO of BMW North America, in way of explanation for the decline.

‘Timing is good’
Bentley’s global CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen echoes that argument, but contends “the timing is good” for the launch of the new Mulsanne, which could hit market, “just as the economy starts to recover.

Mulsanne is a completely new sedan, he notes, and not just a re-skinning of the old Arnage. “I could fit all the carryover parts into a suitcase,” says Paefgen.

The new car will be powered by a 6.75-liter, 505 horsepower V-8, and reach a top speed of nearly 200 mph. As expected of a car in its class, the cabin will be lavished in wood and leather, with an array of high-tech features including a 2,200-watt sound system from British specialty maker NAIM Audio. While pricing has yet to be announced, company insiders suggest it will come in somewhere in the $300,000 range, giving Bentley a price advantage over Rolls’ Phantom.

Rolls-Royce doesn’t mind being the high-priced automotive spread. The BMW subsidiary’s new Ghost will target a similar buyer to Continental, but the Rolls sedan will come in at around $250,000.

Rolls’ sales and marketing director, Graeme Grieve, earlier this year predicted Ghost could help it increase sales in 2010 by as much as 100 percent.

‘We seem to mint’ the superwealthy
For his part, Christopher Georges, CEO of Bentley’s U.S. operations, is predicting things will be “a little better” next year. Global boss Paefgen insists he’ll be happy to maintain total sales in the 8,000-range, and notes that Bentley operations are so lean it is still in the black despite the current year’s sales crunch.

While analyst Phillippi believes Bentley “has a head start” in the coming battle, he cautions that the weak global market may make things difficult for both British marques — especially since there are other players vying for ultrapremium buyers, such as Mercedes-Benz, which has both its own Maybach line, and the new, Mercedes-branded, $300,000 SLS sports car.

On the other hand, says Phillippi, “We seem to mint millionaires and billionaires,” and once people feel comfortable again being seen in the most expensive automobiles, both Rolls and Bentley could benefit from the fact that new product traditionally spurs sales growth.

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