British symbol won by BMW Purchase: In pursuit of Rolls-Royce, the German firm submits a winning bid of $571 million to buy Britain's prestigious carmaker.

March 31, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Guten Morgen.

That was a greeting among some workers at the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars factory in Crewe in central England yesterday after the announcement that the maker of the luxury car that's as British as royalty and Big Ben will be taken over by Germany's BMW.

"People are expressing a sense of regret, and that's understandable," said Steve Taylor, a union leader at the factory where the luxury cars for the rich and powerful are still handcrafted.

"At the end of the day, we need the investment," Taylor added. "The car will still be built in Britain. It just will be owned by someone else."

Bayerische Motoren Werke AG won the battle for Rolls-Royce and its sister-brand Bentley by submitting a $571 million bid to the firm's corporate parent, the defense group Vickers PLC. Shareholders must still approve the deal. The transaction does not involve Rolls-Royce PLC, a company that produces gas-turbine engines for aero, industrial and marine applications.

A group of Rolls-Royce enthusiasts vowed to carry on the fight for the automaker, claiming they would raise bids to keep the company British-owned.

Most analysts expect BMW to beat that competition since the firm already makes engines for Rolls-Royce cars.

BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder has vowed to double the Rolls-Royce work force of 2,600 and triple its annual output of 2,000 cars.

"Everybody recognizes this is a global economy," Rolls-Royce chief executive Graham Morris told Britain's Press Association. "In some ways it's sad we've moved out of British hands, but there was no real alternative."

Morris said BMW's "men in Munich" understand what the "Spirit of Ecstasy," the flying mascot on the car's radiator grill, is all about.

"A Rolls-Royce will always be a Rolls-Royce," he added.

For much of this century, the splendid cars have defined British motoring style and standards. They're grand and elegant, mirroring another age when the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Rudyard Kipling all tooled around in their Rolls-Royces.

In later years, rock stars like Elvis Presley and John Lennon went the Rolls route. So did The Who's Keith Moon, who reportedly dunked his car in a pool.

Other Rolls-Royce owners included Lenin, Franco and Mao Tse-tung. Lawrence of Arabia drove a Rolls into Damascus, Syria, during World War I, observing: "A Rolls in the desert is above rubies."

The firm got its start after a 1904 meeting when Charles Rolls, the son of a millionaire, met Henry Royce, a self-taught engineer. Rolls wanted Royce to build a series of cars. The company was formed in 1906, selling "the best six-cylinder car in the world."

From their stitched leather seats to their painstakingly applied coats of paint, Rolls-Royces were built to precise standards. While Henry Ford's assembly line produced cars for the masses, Rolls-Royce created four-wheeled, gas-guzzling chariots for the aristocracy.

Rolls-Royce continues to boast about its handcrafted elegance, turning out 42 cars a week, even numbering each dashboard so it can be matched to the same walnut log if damaged.

The firm's newest model, its first in nearly two decades, is the Silver Seraph, which retails for $216,400.

No matter the price, the firm continues to attract car worshipers who are accustomed to the finer things in life.

The most famous fan of this luxury brand is Queen Elizabeth II. Her fleet of cars includes five Rolls-Royces.

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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