The divorce of Rolls-Royce and Bentley is expected to become final on New Year's Eve 2002, but they will be legally separated in the U.S. market this fall.
Parent Volkswagen AG will offer both brands to all 37 U.S. dealers in September, but for the first time they will have separate dealer agreements.
The new Rolls-Royce agreement expires Dec. 31, 2002, said Gary Pietruszewski, director of franchising for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Inc. in Auburn Hills, Mich. The new Bentley agreement probably will expire in September 2003, he said.
'I'm certainly concerned and curious about what will happen,' said Fred Tierney, who owns Foreign Motors West Inc. in Natick, Mass. In addition to an exclusive Rolls-Royce and Bentley dealership, Tierney also has separate Mercedes and BMW stores.
VW bought Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. in 1998, but BMW separately obtained the legal rights to the Rolls-Royce brand name. Under an agreement between the two, VW until the end of 2002 will own both Rolls-Royce and Bentley and the factory that builds them in Crewe, England.
BMW then will take over the Rolls-Royce brand, but none of the hard assets. They will remain in VW hands along with the Bentley name.
Pietruszewski said he expects all U.S. dealers to keep both Rolls and Bentley franchises. The agreements will be identical except for the expiration dates, he said.
But some U.S. dealers are worried Volkswagen will terminate them when the existing agreements expire. In Europe, VW has dropped at least eight dealerships and awarded most to VW dealers.
'Yeah, we're going to have a problem with them,' said a U.S. dealer, who asked not to be named. 'At our dealership, we haven't done the job for them, I have to admit. But it's hard to do the job for them.'
Pietruszewski said the U.S. subsidiary has no plans to terminate dealers. 'There are some performance issues with certain dealers; there always are. But there won't be anything like that (in Europe),' he said.
Another dealer, who also asked not to be named, claimed VW is starving the Rolls-Royce brand. Company spokesman John Crawford denied that, too. 'We have several marketing programs this year that are exclusive to Rolls-Royce,' Crawford said.
U.S. dealers sold 437 Bentleys and 237 Rolls-Royces in 1999. That was a 39 percent increase over 1998 for Bentley and a 3.5 percent increase for Rolls.
Meanwhile, BMW has been mum about its plans to sign up Rolls-Royce dealers.
'On the surface, sure, I'd like to keep both (Rolls and Bentley) franchises. But I don't know what that entails,' Tierney said last week. 'If you don't have all the pieces to the puzzle, how can you make a decision?'
Rolls-Royce insiders hold out the hope that BMW might sell Rolls to VW or strike a deal to keep the brands together.
Wolfgang Ziebart, BMW AG board member for research, development and purchasing, said BMW will not sell Rolls to VW.
'Maybe that's what (VW Chairman Ferdinand) Piech would like,' he said in an interview last month, 'but we're not interested.'