A review of the new Bentley Continental by Alan Judd in the Spectator at the weekend (surely required reading for the up-and-coming brand consultant), got me thinking about the problems inherent in the takeover of one brand by another.
The demise of Rolls-Royce as a UK company in 1998 led to the breakup of an enduring alliance between two of Britain’s most famous marques, but also to a period of confusion as to who, exactly, had bought what. VW bought the plant in Crewe, and the rights to the spirit of ecstasy, but not to the name. As the name was owned by aero engines division of the company, which was not being sold, VW were left in a bit of a quandary (sharpened when Aero Engines decided to license the name to BMW, with whom they had pre-existing relationships).
After protracted negotiations, the current picture emerged – VW building Bentleys in Crewe, and BMW building Rolls-Royces in a new plant at Goodwood. Two of the most famous names in British motoring owned by two of the major German giants – it was going to need careful handling.
Rolls-Royce has since been pretty quiet; with a couple of new models and a new factory, they’ve bedded down solidly under their new owners. Arguably, it’s VW that has handled Bentley with a bit more flair. Why? People. Bentley was incredibly lucky with the people that VW chose to bring in a real car fan as UK chairman.
Dr Franz-Josef Paefgen was an enthusiast who really got Bentley, as well as having the engineering background to ensure that the new models would make a real statement. His specialist niche allowed him to develop the Bugatti Veyron alongside Bentley’s own Continental and Mulsanne ranges. He was also instrumental in Bentley’s return to the race track after over 70 years away – culminating in a 1-2 at Le Mans in 2003.
Paefgen stepped down in February 2011 when he hit the German retirement age, and the new team is still finding its feet. The key roles are filled by ex-Porsche people, and they’ve definitely got a good track record in two seater sports cars, but what next for the “fastest lorries on earth?” In some ways the future looks ok; Porsche’s current best selling model is the totally atypical Cayenne; but do they really understand a top level British luxury marque – and can they continue stretching it in the way that VW has in the past decade? Maybe Bentley was just lucky to have a real car man who understood the product at the top for so long… Can Bentley sustain its recent success, or will it now sink back to current Rolls-Royce levels – lovely (and very expensive) cars, but something ever-so-slightly missing?