A brief history of the Bentley/Rolls-Royce rivalry
British car manufacturers are recognised for a level of sophistication found in few other automotive brands. This top-drawer blend of engineering, comfort and luxury is no more evident than in examples from Bentley and Rolls-Royce.
As two of the country’s most iconic and indeed historic symbols of automotive luxury, the pair have always been mentioned in the same breath as one another. Their pasts, however, are much more interwoven than even the most erudite of car fanatics may expect.
Between them, they occupy a similar space in the luxury car market, but that is where the similarities end. Founded in 1919 and 1904 respectively, Bentley leaned more towards an amalgam of performance and comfort owing to its rich racing heritage whilst Rolls-Royce put all its eggs in the out-and-out luxury basket.
The early days
You may think then, that there would be no good reason or catalyst for these two to bump heads, but that all changed when Bentley encountered financial trouble in the wake of the Great Depression. When financier and racing driver Woolf Barnato – who had already saved the brand from financial ruin in 1926 – was unable to pay the debts against the company in ‘31, Rolls-Royce took a controlling stake in the business.
From that point on, the manufacturing of both marque’s cars was to be intrinsically linked and Bentley production became completely reliant on Rolls-Royce. The cars themselves were largely homogeneous during that period with the all-important badges becoming one of the only differentiating factors. Not that it hurt either entity from a brand perspective, with Bentley maintaining its slant towards performance and Rollys-Royce remaining true to its comprehensive luxury offering, at least from the viewpoint of their customers.
A change in fortunes
Fast forward thirty years to 1971, and things start getting a little more complicated. Now the shoe was on the other foot, and Rolls-Royce found themselves in financial difficulties. The government subsequently nationalised the company and split it in twain, signalling the formation of Rolls-Royce PLC (aerospace) and Rolls-Royce Motors Limited. After another nine years, engineering conglomerate, Vickers Plc purchased the motoring arm along with any subsidiaries (including Bentley).
Once 1998 rolled around, Rolls-Royce Motors Limited was on the market once again and this time, it was automotive behemoth Volkswagen AG that stepped in for the acquisition, surpassing Rolls-Royce and Bentley engine supplier BMW’s offer of £340 million with a substantial bid of £430 million. And here’s the kicker, during Vickers’ initial purchase of the motor group, Rolls-Royce PLC had retained the rights to the name and logo and had sold it to, you guessed it, BMW.
As engine supplier and with the ability to cease production with a mere twelve months’ notice, BMW had an ace up their sleeve. Reluctantly, Volkswagen entered into negotiations, eventually conceding that they would produce BMW-powered Rolls-Royce cars up until 2002, by which point, BMW would’ve built its brand new Rolls-Royce headquarters & production facility on the Goodwood Estate and would take full control of the brand. And so, the proverbial fork in the road was reached with Bentley and Rolls-Royce going their separate ways, becoming owned in their entirety by Volkswagen and BMW respectively.
What has become of them?
Since then, things have become a lot more amicable and both brands have flourished under their respective German parent companies. Each of them enjoyed record sales years in 2021 with Bentley delivering 14,659 cars and Rolls-Royce a still-respectable 5,586.
Much of this recent success has been attributed to the booming super-SUV market along with the unique positioning of both the Bentayga and Cullinan within that space.
One thing is for certain, however, both car makers are in much better positions than they were at the turn of the century, and for that, the motoring community is thankful.