Recession? What Recession? Rolls-Royce and Bentley Sales Cut the Mustard

Last Updated May 5, 2010 3:58 PM EDT

It's a little hard to forgo a lot of smart-alecky, "Grey Poupon" comments here, but Rolls-Royce and Bentley sales bounced back in the first quarter. That's a sign of economic recovery among the upper crust, and another indication that luxury brands are the last-in, first-out of a recession.

It's also recognition that even those so-called "ultraluxury" brands have made some concessions to economic reality. Bentley moved downscale in price, for instance, when it first introduced the Bentley Continental GT, starting around $130,000, back in 2003. That car is mostly responsible for Bentley far outselling Rolls-Royce ever since.

Now archrival Rolls-Royce is rolling out a less-expensive car based in part on the BMW 7 Series called the Rolls-Royce Ghost. Suggested retail for the Rolls-Royce Ghost starts around $245,000, versus a starting point just below $400,000 for the brand's other principal model, the Rolls-Royce Phantom, which also debuted in 2003.

BMW (BAMXY.PK) owns Rolls-Royce. Volkswagen (VLKAY.PK) owns Bentley, plus the even scarcer Lamborghini and Bugatti.

BMW reported this week that Rolls-Royce had a record first quarter with sales of 279 units worldwide, a 60 percent increase from the year-ago quarter. Most of those, 158 units, were the Rolls-Royce Ghost, which debuted in December 2009. U.S sales of the new model are just getting under way. According to AutoData, Rolls-Royce sales in the United States were down in the first quarter.

Worldwide sales for Bentley were up 16 percent from the year-ago quarter to 1,179, according to parent VW. Bentley's U.S. sales were up 18 percent for the quarter to 311.

That shows a renewed willingness to spend on the part of people with a lot of money, but it also shows that -- relatively speaking -- they are being cautious about it.

Incidentally, my friend and ex-Rolls-Royce PR guy Reg Abbiss said in his 2008 book, Rolls-Royce from the Inside, that in a long career of promoting Rolls-Royce, nothing caught on quite like the Grey Poupon commercial, where one Rolls-Royce owner asks another, "Have you any Grey Poupon?"

Recession or no recession, it looks like the answer is still, "Of course!"

Photo: Rolls-Royce