Today Rolls-Royce and Bentley are competitors, and that’s how they began, early in the 20th century. Rolls-Royce started out first, in 1904, as a builder of luxury motorcars. Bentley was founded fifteen years later in 1919. Both companies grew and prospered during the boom years after World War I. Rolls-Royce pursued a goal of engineering excellence quiet elegance. Bentley sought elegance too, but they focused more on technical innovation and success on the race track. Four years after their founding, Bentley won its first victory and Le Mans and they went on to win five times in that decade. Bentley’s sportier vision was more appealing to enthusiasts, but Rolls-Royce proved to be the winner commercially with its focus on quiet luxury. After the market crashed in 1931, both companies fell on hard times, and Bentley filed for bankruptcy. A short while later their former competitor bought the assets, and over the next decade Bentley was folded into Rolls-Royce. They became what car people call a “badge-engineered” second line, like Chevrolet and GMC in America. By 1955 both brands were built on the same assembly line at the factory in Crewe, England. The main distinguishing feature of the cars became the grille. Yet Bentley retained a distinct and loyal following.
The leadership at Crewe sensed that, and in the late 1970s they allowed their designers and engineers to develop a separate identity for Bentley. Their initial expression was the 1981 Mulsanne – a 4 door sedan that shared a platform with the new Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit. For the first time in decades a Bentley was distinguished from its sibling with stiffer and more responsive steering and suspension, and improved handling.
The changes were subtle and not visible to the naked eye. The next design change wasn’t; it turned the motoring world on its ear. For 1982 Bentley offered a turbocharged version of the Mulsanne, with almost 50% more horsepower and vastly increased performance. That car became the basis for their famous Turbo R – the most successful Bentley to date.
From that moment, Bentley’s identity was reclaimed. I serviced Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars at that time, and I observed something right away. As soon as it became widely known, Rolls-Royce owners asked us to retrofit their cars with the “better Bentley suspension.” Thirty years have passed, and I have yet to hear a Bentley driver ask us to “fit the Rolls-Royce suspension” in place of what made their Bentley unique.
Clearly the engineers who worked on Bentley had struck a chord.
Little improvements came along every year. By the mid-1990s Bentley had evolved into a very different car line. Sedans shared body shells with their Rolls-Royce counterparts, but the interiors were very different with center consoles and sportier seating. The Continental coupes were totally unique. With the introduction of the Azure in 1996 the convertibles went their own way as well.
Then, in 1998, the motorcar company was sold. At first it seemed like BMW was the new owner, but it turned out VW was in the picture too, and a battle ensued. When the dust settled, BMW took away the Rolls-Royce automobile name and logo. They designed a new car and built it in a new plant at Goodwood. VW got Bentley – including the legacy models - and the Crewe works that had been home to the company since the end of World War II. That plant now builds the new Continental and other models that have been designed since VW took over. The new owners retained the manufacturing traditions that made the earlier generation great, with the addition of the vast technical resources of VW.
BMW’s new Rolls-Royce plant builds a great car too, but there is little connection to the traditions from Rolls-Royce’s past. The factory and workers are all different. Most production processes changed, as did all the technology. There is no path back from a new Phantom to a Silver Spur. That said, the new 2003 Phantom was a magnificent car and the models that followed have raised the new company's bar even higher.
Bentley charted a different course. They continued the Arnage and Azure models with a series of technical improvements. Alongside that, they introduced a new Continental GT with higher performance than any previous Bentley. That car remains in production today, and it’s become even more successful than the Turbo R. Bentley technology has changed dramatically in the past decade, but many traditions of the old Crewe works remain, and are evident in the cars of today.
What about the cars of yesterday? Bentley affirmed their commitment to parts support, under the name Crewe Genuine Parts. They introduced a new division for owners of vintage cars. In doing so, they continue a long tradition of keeping the company’s earlier models on the road indefinitely.
That action speaks volumes to the classic car community. It also raises a question of brand loyalty for those of us who grew up with Crewe-built cars of the sixties, seventies, eighties, or nineties. When I started repairing and restoring cars from Crewe I did so in a shop where we referred to ourselves as “Rolls-Royce people” because Rolls was the main line; the name everyone knew. Through the 1970s and 80s American dealers sold ten to twenty Rolls-Royces for every one Bentley. Many of us liked the understated look of the Bentley, but we worked on what people bought, and at that time, those cars were Rolls-Royce.
By 1995 – after the arrival of sportier Bentleys - that situation was reversed. Bentley dominated the market and Rolls-Royce became the brand in danger of vanishing. Rolls-Royce had a timeless majesty, but Bentley made the changes that were in step with evolving tastes – more responsive engines, batter handling, and that conservative but elegant look.
So are we Rolls-Royce people today, or Bentley people? Or both? Those of us who keep vintage Crewe cars need Bentley to keep us on the road. Any of us who want to retain a link to the traditions of the past will find that in Bentley too. Those who want a new car with the Rolls-Royce grille and name will find a home with the new company from Goodwood.
Both lines now feature state-of the art technology and all modern conveniences – something the Crewe cars from the 80s and 90s lacked. Appealing as that is today, technology is a double-edged sword. In our present high-tech world nothing says “dated” more than last year’s navigation display or an obsolete car phone. Older Crewe cars were criticized in the day for lacking such features, but their absence now makes those models timeless.
In terms of overall popularity, the trend that began in Crewe thirty years ago continues today. Bentley remains the more popular car by a significant margin. Yet Rolls-Royce endures as one of the most iconic and respected names in the world. Both companies have expanded their product lines far beyond anything the earlier company could have done, and the engineering excellence of both lines has returned to the standards sought by the founders. I hope both continue.
(c) 2017 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent restoration and repair of Crewe-built motorcars in Springfield, Massachusetts. John is a longtime technical consultant to the national Bentley and Rolls-Royce car club (rroc.org), and he’s owned and restored many fine British motorcars. Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665
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