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Vickers puts Rolls-Royce on auction block

Rolls-Royce, builder of rolling palaces for the unabashedly rich, was put up for sale Monday _ perhaps destined to be a prestigious sideline for one of the world's major automakers.

Vickers PLC, which acquired Rolls-Royce in 1979, said it was selling to concentrate on building tanks, howitzers, propulsion systems and Cosworth engines.

Andy Chambers, analyst at Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull, estimated the value of Roll-Royce Motor Cars at $450-million, but figured the prestige of the name would raise the sale price above $655-million.

Based in Crewe in west-central England, Rolls-Royce is Britain's last major luxury car maker to remain independent of the world's big automakers.

BMW, which took over Britain's Rover and has a deal with Rolls-Royce to build the next generation of engines, was one possible buyer, but the company had no comment Monday.

Ford already owns Jaguar and Aston Martin, and "we are not interested in acquiring Rolls-Royce," spokesman Simon Sproule said.

Rolls-Royce and Bentley sales peaked at 3,324 in 1990, but recession cut sales to 1,375 in 1992.

In the first nine months of this year, the company sold 1,396 automobiles, a 9 percent increase over the same period in 1996.

Rolls-Royce dates from 1904, when electrical engineer Henry Royce built three cars of his own design. Racing driver Charles Stewart Rolls was so impressed that his London dealership agreed to take as many cars as Royce could build. The two men merged their businesses in 1906 as Rolls-Royce Ltd.

Rolls died in 1910, the first British pilot killed in an aviation accident; Royce went on to develop plane engines and died in 1930.

Their creation entered bankruptcy in 1971 and was reborn as two companies _ one building cars and the other making jet engines. The engine-maker, Rolls-Royce PLC, which is not part of the sale, owns the name and licenses it to the auto company.