Britain's Prestige Automaker Will Roll Away

Rolls-Royce, the last British-owned car company, is up for sale.

The eyes of tradition-minded car-lovers in Britain are moist with tears. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, which hand-crafts 3,000 luxury vehicles a year, is on the block. Announcing the decision last week, parent company Vickers, a defense and industrial group, said it was "in the best interests of all concerned."

Garel Rhys, a leading auto industry analyst, describes Rolls-Royce cars as "quintessentially British." He says ever since Jaguar and Aston Martin were purchased by Ford Motor Company, Rolls-Royce has been the only major British-owned automaker.

Ford has said it is not interested in buying Rolls-Royce. The leading bidders appear to be the German luxury car companies BMW and Daimler Benz. The Volkswagen-Audi group has also expressed interest. Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talala bin Abdulaziz is seen as an outside possibility.

Although the least expensive model, the Silver Spirit, costs about 100,000 ($160,000), and others can reach half a million pounds, Rolls-Royce has been under financial pressure for some years. Gazing past the limousine's fine leather seats and Italian walnut dashboard, a look under the hood finds an engine that has not been redesigned for 30 years, powering a vehicle that, for all its beauty, has the aerodynamics of the average cookie jar.

Whoever buys Rolls-Royce will inherit a legend. The first "roller" to come off the assembly line in 1904 cost 395. Like 6 out of 10 rollers built, it is still on the road today, but anyone wanting to buy it would face a price tag in excess of 250,000.

One aspect of the sale may raise problems. Copyright of the name "Rolls-Royce" is not owned by Vickers, but is retained by Rolls-Royce plc, the jet-engine manufacturer. A statement by Rolls-Royce plc last week said it would exercise the right of veto if it considered a prospective purchaser "unworthy of the Rolls-Royce name."

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