Bentley Vs. Rolls-Royce: How Two Became One And Then Parted Ways Again

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A summative history of the world's eminent luxury automakers.

Bentley vs. Rolls-Royce: It's a battle that has been raging for ages, but did you know they were once effectively the same car brand? Bentley and Rolls-Royce were both founded early in the 20th Century, and the two brands survive into the modern era with several spectacular luxury cars that offer astonishing attention to detail and outstanding levels of comfort. But while both British brands cater to customers who smirk at a six-figure starting price, the two have slightly different ways of attracting those customers.

Bentley has a history steeped in motorsport, while Rolls-Royce is better known for aircraft engines than for race-winning sports cars. However, the road car divisions of each outfit take little influence from these outside affiliations, with their luxury automobiles focusing on stunning craftsmanship and lavish comforts above all else. With that in mind, we're taking a look at the intertwining paths these two marques have taken to reach the same point.

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Bentley vs. Rolls-Royce: Founding

In 1904, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce established Rolls-Royce in Manchester, England. The business was incorporated as Rolls-Royce Limited in 1906 before a new factory was opened in Derby in 1908. The onset of the First World War brought the company into the business of manufacturing airplane engines, but the company already had a reputation for manufacturing "the best car in the world."

Interestingly, Bentley's founder, Walter Owen Bentley, also had a connection to airplanes. He sold French DFP cars with his brother Horace Millner Bentley but always wanted to design and build his own cars. With a mind focused on innovation, W.O. figured that aluminum pistons may prove to be a suitable replacement for cast iron materials, and his idea proved viable, with the first Bentley aluminum pistons fitted to Sopwith Camel engines during the First World War. On the day that the Paris Peace Conference to end World War I started, January 18, 1919, W.O. founded Bentley Motors Limited; he registered the name in August of that same year.

standard bentley Bentley

Bentley Cars vs. Rolls-Royce Cars: Early Days

In 1904, Henry Royce's first car impressed Charles Rolls so much that he agreed to buy every Royce 10 that Henry could make, all to be badged as Rolls-Royces. That first car, called the Rolls-Royce 10 hp, was unveiled to the public in December 1904.

It was in 1906, after Rolls-Royce Limited was founded that RR began making its own cars, with an offer of cheap electricity from Derby council swaying the decision to move production facilities to the town. In 1921, a new factory was opened in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Rolls-Royce Phantom and Ghost luxury vehicles were produced over the course of 10 years.

powered Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

During this time, Bentley's cars were being entered in various races. The brand's first major event was the 1922 Indianapolis 500, and this was followed by the 1922 RAC Tourist Trophy. Numerous wealthy car owners began to learn of Bentley's reputation for great performance and reliability, campaigning several cars in their private capacity. Comfort was not as important as it is today.

To cut a long story short, this led to Bentley winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1924 and then every year from 1927-1930. By the time Ian Fleming's James Bond novels arrived in the Fifties, Bentley's name had become synonymous with both performance and high-end luxury. This is why 007 originally drove Bentleys rather than the Aston Martins made popular by today's film sponsors.

performance oriented car Bentley

Rolls-Royce Sneakily Buys Bentley

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression nearly killed Bentley, with demand for its expensive cars dwindling. In July 1931, two mortgage payments were due, and neither Bentley nor its financial backer could pay, pushing the company into receivership. At the same time, the then-new Bentley 8-Litre was proving to be a great success, and Rolls-Royce watched as customers passed on its most expensive model, the Phantom II.

Engineering company Napier attempted to buy Bentley, sensing that the new car and the brand's prestige could still carry the company to success. But a winning bid was made by the British Central Equitable Trust. This turned out to be a front for Rolls-Royce Limited, and not even W.O. Bentley himself knew what happened until the deal was done. Essentially, RR bought an entire rival to stop its car from competing with the Phantom II. This was the beginning of a shared history between Bentley and Rolls-Royce.

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Badge Engineering on Luxury Cars

Rolls-Royce took over the assets of Bentley Motors (1919) Ltd in 1931, creating a new subsidiary called Bentley Motors (1931) Ltd. Rolls-Royce acquired Bentley showrooms in Cork Street, the Kingsbury service station, and the Cricklewood complex, the latter of which was sold in 1932. Rolls-Royce also trademarked the Bentley name, but the manufacture of Bentley vehicles came to an end for two years before eventually resuming at Rolls-Royce's Derby facility.

In 1933, the new Bentley 3½-Litre was revealed as a sporty version of the Rolls-Royce 20/25. Essentially, this was what the Lamborghini Urus is to the Audi Q8. But it was still a great car, with W.O. Bentley reportedly saying, "Taking all things into consideration, I would rather own this Bentley than any other car produced under that name."

Rolls-Royce endowed it with the slogan "the silent sports car," a tagline that would accompany Bentley vehicles until the 1950s. No wonder Fleming thought Bentley provided the perfect vehicle for a super spy.

All Bentleys produced from 1931-2004 used inherited or shared Rolls-Royce chassis, as well as adapted Rolls-Royce engines.

model RM Sotheby's

Rolls-Royce Faces Its Own Financial Troubles

Rolls-Royce Limited's love affair with aeronautics almost put the company in the ground, as development of the RB211 engine caused a financial collapse. The company entered receivership in 1971 and was nationalized by the British government. In 1973, the government sold the Rolls-Royce car business, allowing nationalized parent company Rolls-Royce (1971) Limited to continue manufacturing jet engines.

The car business became Rolls-Royce Motors that same year, but, disappointingly, more than 80% of the initial stock issue was left in the hands of the underwriters. On 6 August 1980, the shareholders' agreement to merge Rolls-Royce Motor Holdings with a company called Vickers Limited became unconditional. In 1977, the company received consent to drop the "(1971)" from its name. This was only possible because the original Rolls-Royce Limited incorporated in 1906, which was still in liquidation, had been renamed Rolls-Royce Realisations Limited and had agreed to the name change for the parent company.

In 1986, 'Limited' was replaced by 'plc' (public limited company) to allow for the public trade of shares, which took place the following year in April. This time, the government sold all shares with great success.

top speed Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

Volkswagen Beats BMW To The Rolls-Royce Punch

In 1998, Vickers decided to sell Rolls-Royce Motors, and since BMW already supplied engines and other components for Rollers and Bentleys, the German automaker seemed a shoo-in. However, BMW's final offer (£340 million/$425 million) was outbid by the Volkswagen Group (£430 million/$537 million). As part of this deal, Volkswagen acquired the Crewe factory and the rights to the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot and the shape of the radiator grille.

However, the brand name and its logo were still owned by aero engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce plc, with these licensed to Rolls-Royce Motors. The aero business still had shared business with BMW and elected to license the name and RR logo to the Bavarians for £40 million (roughly $50 million at the time of writing). This game of chess left BMW with the name for a steal, while Volkswagen owned the rights to the grille shape and the mascot for a fortune.

VW had vehicle designs, rights to nameplates, production and administrative facilities, and the abovementioned trademarks, but BMW had a trick up its sleeve.

impressive comfort features Rolls-Royce

BMW Wins Anyway

Part of BMW's supply contract included an allowance for BMW to terminate its supply deal with Rolls-Royce's motor car business with only 12 months' notice. Volkswagen would not have enough time to re-engineer its Bentleys or Rolls-Royces, which would have needed a new name in any case. Following intense negotiations, BMW and Volkswagen came to an agreement that would see the former continue to supply engines and components while allowing the latter to use the Rolls-Royce name and logo temporarily. VW said that it only really wanted Bentley anyway, as it was outselling RR two cars to one at the time.

In 2003, all BMW engine supply came to an end. From January of that year, Volkswagen was the exclusive user of the Bentley name. BMW, on the other hand, established yet another new entity: Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited. Hereafter, Rolls-Royce's current HQ and production facility in Goodwood was established. Basically, this means that the RR car company you see today is the third such purveyor of luxury roadgoing goods since the marque's initial inception.

Bentley was consolidated under Audi in 2022, BMW owns Rolls-Royce, and Mercedes, not to be outdone, owns Maybach.

high status vehicle Bentley

Bentley or Rolls-Royce: Which is Better?

In the early days, both brands sold cars with engines and chassis but not bodies, with customers employing the services of coachbuilders to complete the vehicles. These days, everything is done in-house, including the premium interior of each brand's luxurious models, but custom creations with fancy materials are in vogue once more, and we're seeing numerous one-off or low-volume creations worth several million dollars from each company.

Both British automakers are in good financial health and stability thanks to their German owners, and despite their similarities, each can exist comfortably. Bentley still leans into its motorsport history every now and then, but Rolls-Royce is and always has been about peerless luxury. That shows through in today's cars, too, with the Rolls-Royce Wraith a more relaxing but less performance-oriented car than the better-handling Bentley Continental GT. Both brands are at the top of the luxury ladder, but each has its own flavor.

performance oriented car Bentley

At the end of the day, Bentley and Rolls-Royce both provide timeless luxury, and each offers driving exclusivity that has no comparison. It doesn't matter which you choose - each is a lovely way to turn heads and show off. All the offerings in these automakers' lineups provide luxury car enthusiasts with performance and style that other brands struggle to match, whether we're talking about a Dawn, a Wraith, a Continental, a Mulsanne, or any other car they offer.

Had Rolls-Royce never acquired Bentley, perhaps the latter would have become more focused on performance. Perhaps it would have faded into oblivion. Either way, the real heroes - responsible for bringing the Bentley Bacalar and Rolls-Royce Sweptail to life - are doubtless Volkswagen AG and Bayerische Motoren Werke.

driving exclusivity Bentley

Bentley or Rolls-Royce: FAQs

Is Rolls-Royce better than Bentley?

This comes down to personal choice, but the comparison is fair. We'd recommend those looking for a sporty drive to consider a Bentley, while those who want the most luxurious car possible should probably shop in Goodwood.

Which is more expensive: Rolls-Royce or Bentley? Bentley vs Rolls-Royce price.

Different models in each range have different MSRPs, but Rolls-Royce cars tend to be more expensive. For example, the Bentley Bentayga starts at around $200,000, while Rolls-Royce's SUV, the Cullinan, starts at just under $350,000.

Bentley vs Rolls-Royce reliability - which is better?

At this level, reliability is not a major concern, but both brands have a solid reputation in this regard. That said, each has had recalls, but no automaker is entirely free from this. Making the right choice between Rolls-Royce and Bentley is easy: choose the one you like the look of.


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