News & Analysis

Bentley and its struggle with the modern world. Profits up, shares down!

Andrew Saks, Friday, 7 January 2022

There was a time when the very top end of British car manufacturing was differentiated only by a selection of radiator grilles.

Between the years of prosperity in which the United Kingdom worked hard to rebuild itself after the economic destruction of World War 2 and the final wave given by free market economy champion Margaret Thatcher, the 1950s to the 1990s were years in which status mattered.

One way to flaunt status was to own one of the finest examples of British engineering and distinguish yourself from a fellow owner by choosing a particular specification.

Back then, there were two choices. Jaguar, which was still part of British Leyland until Ford bought it and saved it from the precipice from which British Leyland jumped, or Rolls Royce for those who were far more well heeled.

If you were a Jaguar customer, you had two choices; to stick to the racing pedigree and the leaping big cat of the Jaguar brand and drive a car adorned with a standard grille, or to opt for the Daimler version with the ringed D badge and 'fluted' grille and tailpiece, just to show the neighbours and the board of directors at your company that you were a little more discerning and could afford a little more luxury.

If you had already passed the stage of being on the board of directors and had successfully sold, or were a high flying magnate and were more inclined to own a Rolls Royce, the same pattern was offered; either a Rolls Royce with the famous flying lady and that utterly ostentatious grille that looks like a piece of Roman Empire architecture, or if you were a bit more sporting, the same car could be ordered with Bentley badges, giving it a more subtle appearance and marking you out as a motor racing enthusiast who also enjoys a lot of luxury.

Nowadays, things are very different.The British car industry practically no longer exists. The abominations which were almost on par with communist-era fodder from the other side of the Iron Curtain along with the endless industrial disputes killed off the mass market manufacturers, and the luxury marques were sold off.

Ford stepped in to rescue Jaguar in 1988 but by 2010 had done its work, and sold the company to TATA Motors, an Indian conglomerate which makes loss after loss on its white elephant purchase.

Rolls Royce was sold to BMW in the late 1990s, and the company was split up, with Bentley being sold individually to Volkswagen.

The two are now entirely different products from entirely different manufacturers whereas they were once one and the same, bar the badge and grille.

Rolls Royce, despite its ownership, has remained true to its roots and is utterly and unmistakably British. It has been doing very well indeed and its incredibly elegant cars have been selling better than ever, despite their astronomical price tag proving that if customers can see the value in something, they'll pay the money.

As a result, Rolls Royce shares have been trending throughout last year despite the challenges faced by the automotive industry with regard to supply chain and semi-conductor availability. Good for them. They are once again making truly great cars and deserve success.

Bentley, on the other hand, is an anomaly. Under its German ownership it has become something of a square peg in a round hole. No longer is it part of the Rolls Royce family, and the cars have struggled to maintain their traditional image whilst modernizing and appealing to new customers.

They are popular, but it has been an unusual ride for Bentley ever since the company began courting the more mass-market audiences and committing such heresy as using machines to build cars on a production line! Who'd have thought?!

No longer is Bentley considered an out-of-reach aspirational dream machine and there are literally hundreds of late-2000s Continental GTs across the United Kingdom at the foot of tower blocks and on housing estates. They can be acquired for half the price of a new Toyota once they are 15 years old. Everyone knows that the original Continental GT was a VW Phaeton underneath and therefore not really a ‘proper Bentley’. It even had VW switchgear and displays, but it brought the marque within reach of a wide audience, which saved the company.

This has affected their image however, and an interesting circumstance has occurred today.

Bentley has announced record sales, yet its share price is down. How can this be?

Investor confidence in the automotive industry these days takes more than just a full order book unfortunately. Both Rolls Royce and Bentley have not gone down the electric car route yet, although Rolls Royce did demonstrate a quite remarkable and extremely futuristic electric luxury car prototype two years ago.

Bentley has not said a word, and in most private estates across London, and along the boulevards of Beverly Hills, the whirring into life of electric and plug-in hybrid luxury SUVs, sedans and supercars is now omnipresent, only echoed by the obsolete roar of the 12-cylinder internal combustion engines of the Bentleys.

Nowadays, pedigree is important but so is modernity. This automotive revolution, started by Elon Musk, has spurred the traditional car makers into life and they are all at it. Porsche, Volvo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lexus (part of Toyota, the inventor of the Hybrid in the first place), Cadillac, Lincoln, Tesla of course, and even Ferrari all offer fully electric or hybrid vehicles, and very appealing ones to say the least, whereas Bentley does not.

Being old-fashioned is no longer interesting to motor enthusiasts willing to pay this much money for a car. Bentley's results, which show a 31% increase in new car sales compared to the same period in 2020 which was also a record year, came with a notice from Bentley that the company would begin to develop a vehicle with some degree of electrification as its motive power, but who knows when that will appear, and it is on the scene too late.

Has anyone seen how many Porsche Taycans, Volvo XC90 T8s, Audi e-trons and BMW 745e models are on the roads so quickly? This is where the market is and these are potential customers for an electric or hybrid Bentley.

Who wants a fuel guzzler when the governments of the west are closing in on them, and you cannot drive your £200,000 car in certain areas, or when the roar of a 12-cylinder engine is now as fashionable as steam power, given that the Kings Road is now awash with utterly silent Ferraris whose owners park them at electric charging points?

Since the year 2022 began, Bentley stock has been declining in value. Over the last five days it is down 9.99% which is quite interesting given the company's massively positive results.

This is an interesting company to watch. We live in a world of technological disruption and influence. If discerning customers cannot get a Bentayga SUV with a plug socket on the outside, perhaps they would move on and select a luxury marque which is already living in the year 2022.

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