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Rolls Royce history


Charles Stewart Rolls

Fredrick Henry Royce

Charles Stewart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce came from very different backgrounds, they had very different educations and, until shortly before they met, their careers were going in very different directions. Yet, in 1904, they joined forces to build and sell motor cars. And, just two years later, the partnership had produced the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost: a car acclaimed as the best in the world. This is the story of those two remarkable men, of the cars they and their successors built and of the range of Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars today.

THE BEGINNING. In the late 1800's, Henry Royce and Charles Rolls were going through experiences, which, with hindsight made their meeting and the cars they produced almost inevitable. Royce was the son of an impoverished miller from Alwalton near Peterborough and he had, by any standards, a difficult start in life. He began work at the age of ten, selling newspapers for WH Smith at Bishopsgate and Clapham Junction. But he soon left that to find his first real job working as an apprentice at the Great Northern Railway works in Peterborough. It was while he was there that he learnt most of the basics of engineering, and it is also obvious that even at that age Royce was determined to do well because he set about teaching himself foreign languages, algebra and the fundamentals of electricity. Three years later, in 1880, he moved to a firm of machine tool makers in Leeds where he worked a 54 hour week for just 11 shillings (55p). His next move was to London where his self taught knowledge of electricity enabled him to get a job with one of the pioneer electric light companies. From there, at the age of 19, he went to Liverpool as technical advisor to the Lancashire Maxim and Western Electric Company. And then, just three years later, he and a partner, AE Claremont, set up in business in Cooke Street, Manchester, making electric light fittings, dynamos and cranes. Such was Royce's determination that by the turn of the century, the order books were full and the business was going from strength to strength.

All this, of course, was quite an achievement for someone who had started almost literally with nothing. But the real turning point in Royce's career was yet to come. That happened in 1903 when Royce bought himself a second hand French Decauville car for the journey between his home and the factory. The car, he found, was difficult to start, it overheated with depressing regularity, it vibrated, it was unreliable and the ignition system was hopelessly inefficient. (This may be the point, which annoyed Royce the most. He was, after all, quite ax expert in electricity in his own right). Royce eventually became so disillusioned with the car that he decided, in characteristic style, that he could do better himself. And, just a few days later, he announced to his colleagues that he was going to build three 2-cylinder motor cars of his own design. The first of these, designed and built almost completely by Royce himself, rolled out of the factory gates in the spring of 1904. The first car was a success in almost every way: it started easily, ran smoothly and quickly and was very reliable, something which never failed to impress everyone who saw or rode in the car.

At about the same time, Charles Rolls was also in business for himself (like Royce, very successful). But achieving this had been rather less of a struggle for Rolls than it was for his future partner. Rolls was born into the aristocracy, being the third son of Lord and Lady Llangattock. The landed gentry, of course, were never expected to work in those days and Rolls, like most young men in similar families, was groomed for a life of ease and luxury. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge University where his natural flair for engineering work enabled him to gain a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Sciences. It was while he was still at Cambridge that he began to take an interest in the fledgling motor industry. He went to France with his father and on his return bought himself a 3 3/4 hp Peugeot, a car which soon made a name for itself with Rolls at the wheel. It was the first car ever seen at Cambridge and when he drove it to the family home at Monmouth, the journey took him two days including many hours spent working on the car at the roadside to keep it going. By the time Rolls left Cambridge University, he was probably the most skilful driver in the country. And he proved his skill by winning the first 1000 mile (1600km) reliability trial promoted by Sir Alfred Harmsworth so convincingly that a special gold medal was struck in his honour. Later, in 1903, Rolls set a new world land speed record of 93 mph (150km/h) driving an 80 HP Mors at Phoenix Park in Dublin.

Meanwhile in 1902, Rolls had gone into business for himself selling motor cars and the firm, known as CS Rolls and Co, quickly became a leading motor car distributor. A few months after its formation, Rolls persuaded Claude Johnson to join the firm as a partner. Johnson had built up a reputation as a brilliant organizer of motoring events and was the first secretary of what is now the RAC. Often known as the 'hyphen' in Rolls-Royce, he was responsible for much of the growth of the Rolls-Royce Company, especially after Rolls' death in 1910 and Royce's breakdown shortly afterwards.

Rolls, however, still had two major ambitions. First, he wanted his name to be associated with cars in the same way as Chubb's was with safes and Steinway's with pianos. And, secondly, he wanted to find a British car as good as or preferably better than the foreign cars he was then selling. But he very nearly missed his chance to achieve both these aims at once because when Henry Edmunds, a shareholder in Royce Ltd, told Rolls about Henry Royce's new 2 cylinder car, Rolls assumed that it would be a noisy and inefficient as all the other 2 cylinder cars on the road. He was, of course, wrong, and Henry Edmunds persuaded Rolls to make the trip up to Manchester to see the car. Rolls, Edmunds and Royce met at the Midland Hotel in Manchester and the meeting was an immediate success. Rolls tried the car and became a wholehearted enthusiast and he said afterwards that Royce 'was the man I have been looking for years'. An agreement was quickly reached giving Rolls exclusive sales rights for the cars Royce could produce and the two men really got down to work. A 10 HP car, a 10 HP chassis and engine, a 15 HP chassis, a 20 HP car and a 30 HP 6-cylinder engine were all exhibited at the Paris Salon in early December 1904. And then, on December 23rd, a contract between the two companies was signed, including a clause stipulating that all the cars should be called 'Rolls-Royce'. The company which would soon be building the best cars in the world was in business.

Unfortunately, Rolls was only to enjoy the success of the company, which bore his name for a few more years because on 12 July 1910 he tragically met his death in a flying accident at Bournemouth. In contrast, Royce was to spend many more years at the head of the company stamping his unique personality on Rolls-Royce motor cars right up to his death on 22 April 1933.

MILESTONES. Since the day in 1904 when Henry Royce's first car left the factory, more than forty different models have been built by the company. Included amongst these are the various Bentleys produced since the acquisition of Bentley Motors by Rolls-Royce in 1931.
From 1904 to 1939, the company produced chassis only and it was left to specialist coachbuilders to construct coachwork to the individual requirements of the customers. After the Second World War, it was decided to produce a complete car with Rolls-Royce becoming responsible for the coachwork of the newly introduced standard steel saloon. To do this required more extensive factory space for paint shop and assembly areas and so in 1946 motor car production was moved from Derby to a new factory at Crewe where aero engines had been built throughout the war. The first car to be built completely by Rolls-Royce at Crewe was a Bentley Mk VI, not a Rolls-Royce. The Mulliner Park Ward Division of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars maintains the traditional crafts and skills of English coachbuilding.

40/50 HP SILVER GHOST, 1907-1925. The 40/50 hp which Royce himself considered to be the best car he had ever made, was the first Rolls-Royce to be known as the "best car in the world".

An extract of the first reference to the 40/50 HP in the Autocar dated 20 April 1907 reads "the motor beneath the bonnet might be a silent sewing machine... there is no realization of driving propulsion; the feeling as the passenger sits either at the front or back of the vehicle is one of being wafted through the landscape".

But silence, reliability and quality were not the only things to impress the press and public alike in that year. Soon after covering 2,000 miles (3218km) in the Scottish Reliability Trial the same car covered 14,371 miles (23,210km) without a single involuntary stop, beating the existing long distance record of 7,089 miles (11,140km).

1913 saw further success for the Silver Ghost when four cars were entered in the Austrian Alpine Trials and took virtually every prize awarded.
During the First World War Rolls-Royce, motor cars were commissioned as ambulances, staff cars and armoured cars. Later armoured cars earned fame under the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. Even with heavily armoured bodies weighing up to 4 tons, they still managed 50 mph (80km/h).
The car actually received its name from a 40/50 HP, which Claude Johnson had built for himself. He took the twelfth chassis built and fitted it with a 4/5 seat touring body which was finished in aluminium paint and adorned with silver plated lamps and fittings. A handsome silver plated brass plaque mounted on the car bore the name "The Silver Ghost". This car is still owned by Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and is in perfect running order after over 500,000 miles (800,000km).

The Silver Ghost was in production until 1925 and 7,870 were built. 1,700 of these were produced in Springfield, America where a factory had been established in 1921. Production in the USA ceased in 1931 because American customers preferred to buy Rolls-Royce motor cars built in Britain.