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The History of Rolls-Royce Vehicles

The History


When Charles Stewart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce met for the first time in 1904, it was instantly clear they needed to form a partnership. What they couldn’t have known at the time was the far-reaching impact they would have on the collective mind of people all around the world. The Rolls-Royce brand quickly established itself as the pinnacle of luxury and has retained this image, reputation, and branding to this day.

What Makes a Rolls-Royce Unique?

Most car companies have one or more “luxury” models in their lineup, but they simply can’t hold a candle to how the word luxury plays out in a Rolls-Royce vehicle. A Rolls-Royce is the embodiment of design, quality, comfort, and luxury. These are not cars produced en masse on an assembly line by robots. A Rolls-Royce is built by hand with unparalleled skills and craftsmanship. The designs are impeccably sophisticated, and the interiors are breathtaking. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t seen one up close. Only then do you realize how every other so-called luxury automobile is merely giving the appearance of luxury. Rolls-Royce is luxury. Every detail is meticulously considered, and only the highest-quality materials are used. The result is perfection.

The Men Behind the Brand

The two men who partnered to begin making Rolls-Royce vehicles couldn’t have been further apart in terms of their backgrounds, yet together they would establish a brand of motor cars that remains unmatched in quality and recognizability.

Charles Rolls: Aristocrat, Pioneering Motorist, and Businessman

Charles Stewart Rolls was born (1877) into a privileged family in London’s affluent Berkeley Square, the third son of Lord and Lady Llangattock. While studying at Eton College, he was always tinkering with the engines that fascinated him, earning him the nicknames “Dirty Rolls” and “Petrolls.” He went on to study mechanical engineering and applied science at Trinity College in Cambridge, during which time at age eighteen in 1896 he traveled to France and purchased his first car, a Peugeot Phaeton. It was the first-ever car brought to Cambridge, and one of the first three cars owned in Wales.

Rolls quickly became known as an accomplished motorist. Notable feats included winning the first 1,000-mile automobile reliability trials and setting a new land speed record of nearly 83mph driving his 80hp Mors at Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1903. That same year, with funding provided by his father, he and his friend Claude Johnson established one of the first car dealerships in the United Kingdom, CS Rolls & Co., which imported Peugeot cars from France and Minerva cars from Belgium. What he really wanted to do was establish his own British brand of motor cars and he wanted it to be the best in the world.

Henry Royce: Excellence in Engineering

Frederick Henry Royce, in stark contrast to Rolls, was born (1863) into a poor family and was the youngest of five children. When his father’s meager flour mill business failed, the family moved to London. His father died in 1872, and at the tender age of nine with only one year of formal schooling under his belt, Royce had to work to earn money for the family. He sold newspapers and delivered telegrams. At age fourteen and with the help of his aunt, he secured an apprenticeship at the Great Northern Railway, where he discovered his natural aptitude for engineering. He spent his evenings educating himself in algebra and electrical engineering, which led to securing employment at the Electric Light and Power Company.

Royce wanted to focus on making a living from his engineering skills. With the help of a friend, he started his own business, FH Royce & Company, a manufacturing business making domestic electric fittings and components. Soon he expanded into making dynamos (electrical generators) and electric cranes. He also became increasingly interested in motor cars. In 1901-1903 he purchased a couple of different used French-made vehicles, including a De Dion and a two-cylinder Decauville. He was not impressed with the engineering quality of either, which gave birth to his desire to “Take the best that exists and make it better,” a long-standing pillar of the future Rolls-Royce brand. He did exactly that when he built his first car, the Royce 10hp.

A Partnership is Formed and a Brand is Born

It was Henry Edmunds who ended up being the matchmaker between Rolls and Royce. Edmunds was a shareholder in Royce’s company and a friend of Rolls. When Edmunds heard Rolls complaining about being limited to selling only French and Belgian imports at his dealership, Edmunds sang the praises of his brand-new Royce 10hp and arranged for Rolls and Royce to meet.

The encounter took place at the Midland Hotel Manchester on May 4, 1904. When Rolls met Royce and saw the Royce 10hp, he immediately knew he’d found the partner he needed to fulfill his vision of a superior-quality British motor car. And Royce knew he’d found the well-connected businessman he needed to publicize his car creations. Rolls wasted no time in saying he would sell as many cars as Royce could make. Thus began the history of Rolls-Royce which would produce the most luxurious cars the world would ever know and a brand that will forever remain synonymous with quality and excellence.

The new company, Rolls-Royce Limited, set about building the best cars in the world, coming out first with the twin-cylinder 10hp in 1904, followed in 1905 by the three-cylinder 15hp, the four-cylinder 20hp, the six-cylinder 30hp, and the V-8 (of which only three were made). But it was in 1906 when they really hit their stride with the 40/50hp model the press dubbed Silver Ghost, and the name stuck. The prestigious weekly Autocar magazine called it “The best car in the world” in 1907, and Rolls-Royce happily took up the phrase as their primary marketing slogan. After all, business acumen was what Rolls brought to the table, as noted in a Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Pressclub Article about Rolls: “A shrewd businessman, Rolls recognized the power of marketing and public relations. In his role as Technical Managing Director, he used his extensive connections in politics, the media, and even royalty to promote Rolls-Royce and its motor cars. He famously enjoyed demonstrating the refinement of the legendary Silver Ghost by balancing a brimming glass of water on the running engine and watching people’s reaction as not a drop was spilled.”

Unfortunately, Rolls was only able to enjoy the success of the company that bore his name until 1910, when he died in a tragic accident doing something else he loved as much as driving: Flying. Rolls was as much a pioneer aviator as he was a pioneer motorist. He was piloting a Wright Flyer around Hengistbury Airfield when the tail broke off and the plane crashed. He was the first Brit to die in a powered aircraft accident.

Royce would run the company until his death in 1933, stamping his unique personality on the brand, the reputation of which is carried through to this day. Rolls-Royce Limited not only survived the Great Depression but managed to purchase the Bentley company in 1931, merging two great brands together, with Bentley operating as a Subsidiary of Rolls-Royce.

Rolls-Royce Across the Decades

As a company, Rolls-Royce has gone through several iterations. Although Rolls had tried to convince Royce early on to make aero engines, Royce resisted. It wasn’t until the economic pressure of WWI that decimated demand for luxury cars that Rolls-Royce started making aero engines in 1915. This represented a growing division for the company moving forward through the decades, but one where the financial stakes became increasingly high.

In 1971, facing intense financial pressure from competitors, Rolls-Royce ran out of resources, entered receivership, and was purchased by the British government, effectively nationalizing it for a short time. The company was split into two businesses, with Rolls-Royce Plc handling the aerospace division and Rolls-Royce Motors Limited continuing the motor car and diesel divisions. In preparation for going public, Rolls-Royce Motors Limited was sold to Rolls-Royce Motors Holdings Limited. In 1980 Rolls-Royce Motors Holdings merged with Vickers Limited (a subsidiary of VW Group), and in 1984 Perkins acquired the diesel division of the business. In 1987 Rolls-Royce went public in a heavily advertised and incredibly successful offering.

In 2004, the Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motorcars brands split apart, with Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited operating as a subsidiary of the BMW Group and Bentley Motors Limited operating as a subsidiary of the VW Group. With iconic designs and models carrying names such as Phantom, Wraith, Dawn, Cloud, Shadow, and Spirit, Rolls-Royce continues to fulfill the vision of the original founders to produce cars of unmatched design, comfort, and British luxury. In short, Rolls-Royce is the embodiment of an unwavering commitment to quality.

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