LONDON - Rolls-Royce dealers in Europe say they are confused and angry.
They have sat by and watched the break-up of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars after a messy nine-month auction that caused sales of Rolls and Bentley cars to crash.
Many now fear that BMW and Volkswagen will separate the two franchises and set up their own distribution networks after January 2003. At that time, BMW will take over Rolls-Royce and VW will be left with the Bentley brand under a complicated agreement worked out earlier this month.
The dealers plan to meet in Brussels in September. They will urge Rolls to re-launch the four-month-old Silver Seraph and Bentley Arnage and may ask for compensation if Rolls can't guarantee the franchises after 2003.
'We had expected a 12-month order backlog for the Arnage and Seraph by now,' said Jacques Beherman, a Rolls-Royce dealer in Brussels. 'But you can buy one from stock.'
About 30 dealers, covering nearly all of western Europe, plan to attend the Brussels meeting. Rolls-Royce Motor Car executives will also be there.
Most Rolls dealers say they welcome the improvements that VW and BMW are expected to make. 'This is the best possible solution,' said Helmut Becker, who heads a large multi-brand dealer group in Duesseldorf. 'Rolls-Royce and Bentley have been unique brands, but the quality must improve. A Rolls-Royce has to be sold on more than just an image.'
But sales have slowed to a trickle while former Rolls-owner Vickers plc conducted its auction, won by VW. Even the launch of the Silver Seraph at the Geneva auto show in March and the Arnage a few weeks later failed to entice buyers.
The Volkswagen-BMW deal solved the dealers' immediate problem by guaranteeing the flow of BMW engines for the Seraph and Arnage. BMW had threatened to stop suppyling them in July 1999 after losing out to VW. Now dealers want to repair the damage of the past several months.
'Many who were interested in buying a Rolls had second thoughts,' said Rudiger Czaker, sales manager for Rolls-Royce at Auto Koenig in Munich. 'They preferred to wait. Some said that they would only buy a car from our showroom. They didn't want a Rolls with a VW engine.'
Christian Paul, sales manager at Alfred Krauthahn, a Rolls-Royce dealer in Berlin, blamed the uncertainty for a 30 percent drop in sales in the past six months.
Dealers say that Rolls must take steps to communicate with customers.
'We want to discuss with the manufacturer a marketing plan to offset the recent problems,' said Beherman. 'We have to re-launch the Seraph and the Arnage and also convince customers that there will be no Mark II versions with a different engine.'
Rolls-Royce spokesman Richard Charlesworth said he had not heard demands for a re-launch.
'We were very happy with the launch,' he said. 'Everybody is aware of the products and the early indications are that traffic is picking up.'
Beherman said dealers are anxious to know what happens after the brands are separated.
'We want clarification,' he said. 'If you split Rolls and Bentley, will BMW take Rolls into its distribution channel and Audi take Bentley? We want a statement assuring that they will keep the same network.'
Without one, he said 'we will review our operating standards and talk to them about some form of compensation.'
Charlesworth said it is too early to make guarantees about the network.
'Naturally, some dealers are concerned,' he said. 'But there is not a lot we can tell them at this stage. The separation is a long way off. Who knows what will happen.'
BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder said a strong Rolls-Bentley dealer will probably continue to sell the brands side-by-side after 2003.
Rolls Chairman Graham Morris sought to reassure dealers in a letter announcing his own decision to resign. He said dealers can expect 'an extended range of both marques with far greater product differentiation than in the past, which is something we had jointly desired for a long time.'
But Christian Paul thinks that more product differentiation means splitting the franchises. 'If BMW produces Rolls-Royce they will probably market them through their own company rather than use us,' he said. 'The best thing is to keep the brands together. We should sell both.'
Mark Cooney and Beatrix Israel contributed