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Rolls-Royce — the history of the famous car producer

Rolls-Royce logo

The Rolls-Royce company is more than just a motor manufacturer. It supplies jet engines to the world’s airlines and military aircraft, as well as making ships’ engines, and is a provider to the oil and gas markets in 120 countries. More than anything else, though, it is associated the world over with the building of luxury cars, vehicles whose sleek opulence and classic designs have made them the sought-after choice of the wealthy for the past century.

Henry Royce, a miller’s son from Huntingdonshire, had founded his own manufacturing company in 1884, making domestic electrical fittings, in the Manchester district of Hulme. In the 1890s, the company diversified into electric cranes. By the first decade of the new century, Royce had become interested in the fairly new-fangled motor car, building his own as a sideline in a corner of the Hulme workshop. He went on to build three of these two-cylinder engine cars, selling one of them to one of his fellow directors, Henry Edmunds.

Edmunds had a friend who ran a car showroom, the Hon Charles Stewart Rolls, third son of the Welsh peer Lord Llangattock. Rolls and Royce were introduced to each other at a meeting at the Midland Hotel in Manchester in May 1904, at which it was agreed that Rolls would sell the entire Royce production through his business. By 1906, they had decided to go into manufacturing together, in association with Rolls’s employee Claude Johnson, and the Rolls-Royce company was set up.

The first product of the new business was the car that was dubbed by Johnson the Silver Ghost, only begetter of all the Phantoms, Spirits and Seraphs that were to come. This was the company’s sole model from 1906 until 1922. It was a six-cylinder car with a seven-litre engine churning out 40/50 hp, a mighty capacity for the Edwardian era. Nearly 8,000 of these cars would be made over the years. When the Ghost was described by Daily Mail founder Alfred Harmsworth, who owned one, as “the best car in the world”, the company’s reputation for uncompromising quality was sealed. The Ghost remained in production until 1925, with production divided between Britain and the United States for the last four years of its life to meet the almost insatiable worldwide demand.

What distinguished the Rolls-Royce car was the sleekness of its running. Even though it was a large car for its day, the turnover of its engine was remarkably quiet (hence “Ghost”), while its degree of vibration was so slight that a penny coin could be balanced on its edge on top of it without falling over. Its smooth ride was such that a motoring journalist of the time commented that it conveyed “the feeling of being wafted through the countryside”. That gently gliding sensation, common to all Rolls-Royce models since, is technically known by the company’s engineers as “waftability”.

The very first Silver Ghost to be produced, now approaching its centenary, is still running. It has half a million miles on the clock, but has never undergone the indignity of reconstruction. Even today, its engine barely makes a sound.

Already by 1908, demand was so high for the new Rolls-Royce car that production had grown too large for the modest Manchester factory where it all began. A move was made to specially built premises on Nightingale Road in Derby, where car manufacture continued until 1939, and where the first aeroplane engines were made in 1915. (The aero engine production is still based in Nightingale Road.)

Charles Rolls died in 1910. Ironically, given the company’s subsequent direction, he was the first Englishman to die in an aviation accident, when a Wright biplane he was flying crashed at an air show in Bournemouth. He was just 32. Henry Royce lived, despite successive health scares, to see his 70th birthday in 1933, by which time the company’s distinguished Phantom series – the Ghost’s successor – was well under way.

The Phantom III, with its 7.3-litre V12 engine and revolutionary independent front suspension system, marked another giant leap for Rolls-Royce, although early models prove to be surprisingly fault-prone, probably as a result of its having been hastened into production before it was quite ready.

In 1931, the company had acquired its great rival, Bentley, a prominent manufacturer of sports and high-performance cars, established in 1919. In 1930, Bentley had launched an 8-litre car as a direct competitor to Rolls-Royce’s Phantom II and, faced with such an obvious challenge to its supremacy, the older company mounted a successful takeover bid.

During the second world war, the focus of Rolls-Royce’s efforts was on the production of aero engines. Its Derby plant, backed up by facilities in Glasgow and Crewe, worked flat out to build Merlin engines for Hurricane and Spitfire fighters (the ones that famously prevailed in the Battle of Britain in 1940).

After the war, when British industry as a whole began to piece itself together again, Rolls-Royce took a bold commercial decision, one that didn’t command unanimous support among its board of directors. Where previously its cars had been produced on a bespoke basis, with their superstructures fashioned by hand, it would now move to using a standardised pressed steel body that would be the basis of models across the range. Despite the efforts at rationalisation, though, the portfolio of models that was launched in the spring of 1946 combined Bentleys with standardised bodywork (the Mark VI) with Rolls-Royces that still boasted hand-crafted bodies in the traditional style, exemplified by the majestic new model, the Silver Wraith.

The immediate postwar period was a time of image consolidation for Rolls-Royce. Whatever the production methods, the designs of its models remained, in an increasingly streamlined age, as impervious to the winds of change as their stolid front ends did to the air currents they glided through. The radiator grille, no longer a feature on the average family saloon car, was retained, a classically formed piece of motoring architecture that looked as monumental as the façade of the British Museum.

Above the radiator was a piece of gleaming silver statuary, a kneeling version of the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot designed by Charles Sykes that had graced every Rolls-Royce car since 1911 (but which could be all too easily unscrewed by unscrupulous trophy-hunters). For the first three years of production, the statuette was silver-plated, but from 1914, a nickel alloy was favoured because would-be thieves wrongly believed the figure was solid silver. These days, it is made of stainless steel, and safety concerns have led to its being mounted on a spring-loaded mechanism so that, in case of impact, the Spirit retracts harmlessly into the car bonnet.

In the 1950s, Rolls-Royce supplied bespoke luxury models to the establishment of many countries worldwide. A Phantom IV supplied to the then Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1950 featured enlarged windows so that the royal couple could be clearly seen by the public on official visits. Cars ordered by the Shah of Iran and the ruling dynasty in Kuwait were bristling with accoutrements, while the Spanish dictator General Franco’s three Rolls-Royces were fitted with armoured rear compartments for protection in the event of an assassination attempt.

A car delivered to Prince Talal of Saudi Arabia in 1952 had seats that were mounted on a swivel mechanism so that His Royal Highness, upon disembarking, needed merely to shunt the seat forward and turn it towards the open door, thus avoiding the need for any unprincely scrambling to get out.

These cars were not merely performance vehicles, but contained a multitude of creature comforts for the discerning owner. There were fold-down picnic tables mounted in the front seat-backs, a cocktail cabinet with a felt mat on the tray to prevent glasses from sliding about when the car was moving, and an array of controls for operating the various electrical devices, including the windows and their blinds.

Seats were upholstered either in leather or in West of England cloth, while the carpeting was by Wilton. The interior space was so extensive that there might well be no fewer than three heaters, each separately controlled. These were cars you might easily live in for a day or two if stranded, but certainly made an agreeable base for a day’s outing, the only problem being that you might not feel much inclined to step outside and leave its cosseting opulence behind.

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars was acquired by the BMW Group in 1998. These days, Rolls-Royce models look more like ordinary cars again (albeit very smart ones), instead of five-star hotel lounges on wheels. The latest Phantom, launched in 2003, shows all the care in design and power in performance that have characterised the company’s cars over the previous century. Easy-access coach doors that open from the centre, a curved rear seat that facilitates a feeling of sociability between passengers, umbrellas that sit in compartments in the rear doors: everything has been thought of. A new one will cost you around £250,000.

Production is now carried on at a specially designed, environmentally friendly facility at Goodwood in West Sussex. This is not far from the famour Motor Museum at Beaulieu, and only 20 miles from Henry Royce’s final home, a house called Elmstead in the village of West Wittering. The nearby Goodwood racing circuit is used for testing new cars, and overseas orders can be shipped from the port of Southampton. It feels like a fitting home for what remains the world’s most prestigious car maker.