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Ford prepares to sell British brands

Ford is seeking buyers for its Jaguar and Land Rover brands in Europe as the money- losing manufacturer seeks to focus on turning around its North American business.

Ford, which lost $12.6 billion last year, has hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley to prepare for the sale. The plan is known internally as 'Project Swift' a reference to the speed at which Ford wants to make a sale.

Selling the brands would end a 20-year initiative to expand sales of luxury autos by acquiring European companies. Since 1998, before Michigan-based Ford bought Land Rover and Volvo, the company's own Lincoln unit has plunged from No. 1 in US luxury sales to seventh.

The carmaker's North American automotive operations were the primary source of last year's record loss. The unit has been hurt by declining sales of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles, Ford's main source of profit.

Among the European luxury brands, Land Rover turned profitable under Ford. Jaguar has had unspecified losses.

The brands make up Premier Automotive Group, whose losses widened to $2.32 billion last year. The figure includes costs considered one-time expenses, such as job cuts.

A Ford spokesman said the company would neither confirm nor deny speculation about a sale.

Ford, the world's third-largest automaker, hinted that the brands might be sold when it announced in August that it planned to find a buyer for UK-based Aston Martin. Since then executives have said Ford continues to evaluate its assets and has no current plans to sell any of the other European brands.

Jaguar employs about 10,000 staff at sites in Coventry, Birmingham, and Liverpool, while Land Rover employs about 9,000 in the West Midlands and Warwickshire. Unions have expressed concerns about job security.

"We would find it difficult to understand why Ford would want to sell a successful, growing and environmentally improving brand like Land Rover and a marque like Jaguar which is a significant player in the luxury market and one that Ford has invested heavily in," said Dave Osborne, T&G section of Unite national secretary for the car industry.

"There have been persistent rumours and speculation which we have pressed Jaguar/Land Rover to deal with as our prime concern is the job security of our members. We should not need the spectre of people like Alchemy, whose down-sizing reputation goes before them, to provide the answers we require."

There is also speculation about Ford's ownership of Volvo. Any sale is said to be unlikely to include Volvo, after Ford said last week it is not in discussions aimed at its disposal.

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