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I Witnessed: The sale of Rolls-Royce and Bentley

2 years ago

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Andrew English | Journalist


23 July 2022

It’s dawn on July 29, 1998, the appalling British summer weather has finally broken and the day is sunny and mild. Rising early, Paul Buckett, Volkswagen’s affable UK comms director is contemplating a spot of breakfast. Then the telephone rings… At the other end is VW’s head of communications in Germany who demands Buckett round up key journalists and get them to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in Birdcage Walk for a press conference; subject unknown. 

Which is how I found myself witnessing the day that Dr Ferdinand Piëch, VW’s formidable boss, lost out to Bernd Pischetsrieder of BMW and Sir Ralph Robins of Rolls-Royce PLC (the aerospace company) in the battle for the car maker Rolls-Royce, which had been owned by the same company as Bentley since 1931 when Rolls-Royce controversially and secretly purchased a bankrupt Bentley from the receivers by sending an intermediary from the ‘British Central Equitable Trust’ to do its bidding.

Rolls-Royce and Bentley had been discreetly put on the market at the end of 1997 as owner Vickers showed little stomach for the massive investment and roller coaster finances of the motor industry. All spring and summer of 1998 the battle had raged to own these prestigious marques. I’d reported on every twist and turn of the story in The Daily Telegraph and twists there certainly were.

There were several key bidders. The strongest was BMW, which had worked closely with Rolls-Royce Motor Cars supplying engines and technical know-how for the then current range of cars. Then there was Volkswagen, whose boss Dr Piëch was on a buying spree of famous marques and determined to own Rolls-Royce, plus a series of British consortia in the main headed by Michael Shrimpton and a firm of secretive venture capitalists. At various stages Mercedes-Benz and Toyota were also touted as likely candidates.

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