Bentley Motors Ltd. said on Tuesday it may assemble a planned sport-utility vehicle outside the U.K., the first time the British luxury automobile icon would build a complete car on foreign soil.
Rapid sales growth has kept Bentley’s factory in northwest England busy, but shifting production of a new model abroad would be an unwelcome development for Britain’s government as it tries to revive a flagging industrial sector.
Luxury manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. is already investigating moving its car manufacturing to India to build on growth in emerging markets with the help of Indian parent Tata Motors Ltd.
Bentley, bought by Germany’s Volkswagen AG in 1998, has been making its ultraluxury vehicles, including the flagship Mulsanne limousine, at the Crewe factory, near Cheshire, England, since 1946.
A prestigious heritage and exclusive image has kept the brand alive – James Bond drove Bentleys in the novels by Ian Fleming – and guaranteed its appeal to rich foreigners.
But Bentley executives shrugged off a suggestion that shifting production outside the U.K. would harm the “Britishness” that is central to Bentley’s appeal.
Overseas buyers accounted for 87 per cent of Bentley’s turnover in 2012, when sales grew 22 per cent.
“The single most important thing is that the design and the concept is wholly British, and it is,” said Kevin Rose, board member for sales and marketing at Bentley.
Speaking at a press conference in London, Bentley chairman and chief executive officer Wolfgang Schreiber said the German parent company could give a green light for production in the next few weeks and it may opt to build the SUV overseas.
He said discussions centred around two likely locations: Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, where the Volkswagen Group makes other SUVs, and Crewe.
Mr. Schreiber said the Bentley board supported keeping assembly in Crewe, benefiting from the brand’s 4,000 motivated and highly skilled staff, but it would have to make a balanced decision.
“The group board is not fighting for Bratislava. We are all together fighting for the best solution for the group and Bentley,” Mr. Schreiber said.
“There also is the chance that the car may be built in Bratislava and Crewe delivers parts to Bratislava,” he added.
Bentley reported an excellent start to 2013, with global deliveries up 40 per cent in January and February.
“We are confident to again achieve a double-digit growth rate in 2013,” Mr. Schreiber said.