Classic car manufacturer Bentley held secret talks with Brexit Minister David Jones on Thursday – calling for the Government to ‘clarify’ plans to leave the European Union.
The summit with Bentley chief executive Wolfgang Dürheimer and other senior executives at the firm follows unease within the motor industry over suspected Government guarantees to Japanese manufacturer Nissan aimed at protecting it from the side effects of Brexit.
Earlier last week, Dürheimer had warned that Brexit posed a risk to Bentley’s plans, saying: ‘I cannot delay progress for Bentley even if that means building cars outside Britain. Bentley’s growth must come first and building in Britain second.’
Meeting: Classic car manufacturer Bentley held secret talks with Brexit Minister David Jones on Thursday
A spokesman for Crewe-based Bentley – which sells more than 10,000 cars a year worldwide and has an annual turnover of £1.4billion – told The Mail on Sunday that the talks with Jones had been ‘private’.
He said the head-to-head was ‘an initial meeting to find out where we are as a business’.
The spokesman added: ‘As an industry, it’s important to alleviate that uncertainty and any agreements should be made on behalf of the whole industry.’
He said Bentley – owned by Volkswagen – needed more certainty in order to make future decisions about where to manufacture new models. ‘We have to go through a competitive process with other Volkswagen factories.
‘It has to be efficient and we have to operate in an acceptable environment to put us in the best possible position.
‘It’s up to the UK Government to alleviate uncertainty about that. Our intention would always be to build any future models in Crewe. However, we have to make sure we are in the best possible position to do that.’
Bentley is understood to be preparing the launch of a new luxury line to compete with Aston Martin’s Vantage and other two-seater cars from Ferrari and McLaren priced at about £150,000.
Driving seat: Bentley boss Wolfgang Dürheimer wants more certainty from the Government before making future plans
Dürheimer is believed to be in the process of seeking board approval from Volkswagen for production of the new model which could begin as soon as next year.
The spokesman added: ‘We have invested more than £840 million in our headquarters in the past three years and we are committed to further expansion and our ambition to build new models in Crewe.’
A Government spokeswoman confirmed that Jones visited Bentley’s HQ last week ‘to get a flavour of the opportunities but also what are the problems that will be caused because of Brexit and help us inform negotiations as we go forward’.
In August, Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn warned that ‘important investment decisions will not be made in the dark’.
He added: ‘If I need to make an investment in the next few months and I can’t wait until the end of Brexit, then I have to make a deal with the UK Government.’
His comments were interpreted as a warning over the future of the Nissan plant in Sunderland, which opened in 1986.
But in October, he emerged from a ‘productive’ hour-long meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May saying he was ‘confident the Government will continue to ensure the UK remains a competitive place to do business’.
Future: Bentley is understood to be preparing the launch of a new luxury line to compete with Aston Martin’s Vantage
Business Minister Greg Clark confirmed a month ago that he had sent a letter to Nissan in October containing assurances over continued funds for training and skills, regional grants and research backing. The letter made it clear that the UK would remain competitive.
He said of the EU negotiations that it was ‘very important that we make a commitment to keep competitive.
‘Our objective would be to ensure we have continued access to the markets in Europe and vice versa without tariffs and bureaucratic impediments and that is how we will approach those negotiations.’
But he said there was no specific promise to compensate Nissan in the face of any new tariffs because that would be anti-competitive.
Senior figures across the motor industry have been open about their nervousness as Britain moves towards separating from the EU.
They are concerned that failure of Brexit Secretary David Davis and International Trade Minister Liam Fox to conclude a free trade deal with the EU would mean falling back on basic World Trade Organisation rules.
That could mean car exporters facing tariffs of up to 10 per cent.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said that would leave the industry facing an annual £4.5billion tariff – comprising £2.7billion on imports and £1.8billion on exports.
Jaguar Land Rover strategy director Hanno Kirner said in September that ‘disastrous’ tariffs could ‘damage business and British jobs’.
There have also been concerns that US giant General Motors could close its Vauxhall factory.
A report in July by industry analyst LMC Automotive said GM was the most likely to shift production to Germany or Poland if it felt it could no longer justify a UK presence.
In October, GM said it would ‘take whatever action is necessary’ to put its European division back on track.