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Split pangs for Rolls, Bentley

Crewe, (England), Sept. 8: Like any couple in the midst of divorce, Rolls-Royce and Bentley are planning their separate futures. In this break-up, it is Rolls that is packing its bags and moving out of the house.

That house is a decidedly unglamorous red-brick factory here in industrial north-west England; the plant produced its last Rolls-Royce on August 30. Next January 1, when control passes to BMW from Volkswagen, Rolls will formally take up residence in surroundings more appropriate to its status: Its new factory is on the estate of the Earl of March at Goodwood, about 200 miles south, in an area of honey-coloured stone houses and gently rolling downs. A prominent architect, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, designed the plant to blend into the countryside.

The factory will continue to be the main production site for Bentley, the other party to the disintegrating 71-year marriage. Bentley will remain a subsidiary of Volkswagen AG.

Next year, the Crewe plant will begin turning out a series of smaller—though still substantial—Bentleys. The first of these, the GT Coupe, will make its public debut at the Paris auto show this month. The all-wheel-drive car will be powered by a 12-cylinder engine. The new car, which company officials have called an “entry level” Bentley, will start around $ 150,000. A sedan and convertible are planned, plus a replacement for the Arnage sedan, which now shares the architecture of the Rolls Silver Seraph.

In contrast, the next Rolls-Royce, to go on sale in January, will be a huge sedan with advanced technology —and nothing in common with the current, anachronistic models except the Flying Lady atop the grille. BMW is reluctant to provide details until it takes over, but the sedan is said to be built largely of aluminium and will have an exclusive V-12 engine. It will compete directly with Maybach, a line of extravagant $ 350,000-plus limousines from Mercedes-Benz. BMW says it may eventually sell up to 1,000 Rollses a year.

The change is a fresh start for Rolls as it prepares for its 100th birthday in 2004. Vickers, an engineering group, sold the parent of Rolls-Royce and Bentley to VW in mid-1998. But BMW separately secured rights to the Rolls name from Rolls-Royce PLC, the jet-engine maker separated from the car company in 1971. Under a compromise, reached amid threats that BMW would stop supplying engines, VW agreed to give up Rolls after 2002.

Before VW and BMW entered the picture, both Rolls and Bentley—married in 1931—had been marginalised by decades of under-investment. Now both the British marques are under German control.

The Crewe factory was built months before World War II to produce Rolls-Royce Merlin engines for the Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes of the Royal Air Force. It converted to car production after the war, and has since turned out 70,997 Rolls-Royces. The last Rolls built there, a silver Corniche convertible, will be kept at the plant.

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