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Rolls-Royce History and “Best Car in the World”

Chris Kaiser

You might know Rolls-Royce as the poshest, most sophisticated luxury car around. But did you know they broke speed record on land, sea, and air? Get the full story on Rolls-Royce, here.

Mr. Rolls, Meet Mr. Royce

Henry Royce and Charles Rolls founded Rolls-Royce Limited on March 15th, 1906. The genesis of the company began two years prior in 1904 at a meeting in the Midland Hotel in Manchester England between the two men. Royce was the owner of a small mechanical business while Rolls sold motor cars at C.S. Rolls & Co. dealership. They were meeting at the behest of a mutual friend, Henry Edmunds, who knew of Rolls’ keen interest in automobiles and Royce’s impressive new car, the Royce 10. The two men hit it off immediately and not long after decided to merge their efforts and companies under the banner of Rolls-Royce with the goal of producing the world’s best car.

1904 Royce 10 hp prototype
The first Royce 10 hp prototype was completed in the Cooke Street factory in March 1904. – firstversions.com

The two men couldn’t have had more different backgrounds. Henry Rolls came from a landed family of the British upper crust. A graduate of Trinity College with a degree in mechanical engineering, Rolls was fascinated by engines, automobiles, and aviation. Rolls worked briefly as an engineer, but his greatest talents lay in the realm of promotion. With money from his father, Rolls started one of Britain’s first auto dealerships in 1903, the C.S. Rolls & Co.

In contrast to the aristocratic Rolls, Charles Royce was a self-made man and the son of a miller. 14 years the elder of Rolls, Royce had persisted in his engineering interests despite only a year of formal education. After a three-year apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway Co., Royce started his own electric company in 1884. It would take another 20 years and the advent of automobiles before Royce began building cars of his own in 1904.

“The Best Car in the World”

So, despite their modern reputation for opulent luxury, Rolls-Royce built its initial reputation on superior engineering, performance, and durability. To demonstrate the capabilities of their cars, the company fielded their vehicles at early endurance races of the period. These races featured long distances across challenging mountainous terrain. Commercial Marketing Director Claude Johnson took the 13th 40/50 ever made on the 774-mile Scottish Reliability Trial 1907, winning a gold medal in the process. Johnson dubbed the car the Silver Ghost and the name stuck for all subsequent 40/50s. That same year, Autocar magazine named the Rolls-Royce 40/50 “the best car in the world.”

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost in 1907
The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost achieved a world record in 1907 by driving 14,371 miles without an involuntary stop, establishing the car's reputation for reliability. – cnn.com

In 1910, Charles Rolls died when the tail to his Wright Flyer detached mid-flight. The aeronautics pioneer was just 32 years old.

In 1914, at the request of the British government, Rolls-Royce was contracted to produce airplane engines for the war effort. The first of these was the Rolls-Royce Eagle. The Eagle was a massive 20-liter V-12 that put out 225hp at 1,800 rpms. Over the course of the war, Rolls-Royce refined the engine to an output of 360hp by 1918. Silver Ghosts were also used extensively for armored cars during WWI, winning praise from the likes of T.E. Lawrence for their toughness and reliability.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that Rolls-Royce branched out from the single car strategy. Faced with slowing sales of the 40/50, Rolls-Royce released the somewhat less expensive Twenty in 1922. The Twenty featured a smaller 3.1-liter inline-6 engine. The larger Phantom, a successor to the 40/50 Silver Ghost, debuted in 1925 with a 7.7-liter OHV (overhead valve) inline-6.

1952 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn

1952 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn – Carsforsale.com  |  Shop Rolls-Royce Silver Dawns on Carsforsale.com

Until after WWII, Rolls-Royce’s production was limited to the engines and chassis of their cars, leaving the bodies and interiors for companies like Barker & Co. to design and build. The first Rolls-Royce to feature an in-house built body was the Silver Dawn, which debuted in 1949. The car came with a 4.2-liter, and later a 4.6-liter, inline 6-cylinder engine. Only 760 Silver Dawns were produced from 1949 to 1955.

Aeronautic Excellence

By the late 1920s, airplane engines made up the bulk of Rolls-Royce’s business. The R engine, developed in 1929 for air racing, set the air speed records in 1929 of 355 mph and again in 1931 of 407.5 mph. The same engine achieved the first land speed record to exceed 300 mph in 1935 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the Campbell-Railton Blue Bird, with a 301 mph run. Following WWII, Rolls-Royce expanded into jet propulsion. The RB.163, or Rolls-Royce Spey, was a turbofan jet engine used in both military and civilian aircraft for decades.

The Great Sundering

Engineering and building jet engines wasn’t always easy, however. In 1971, amidst cost overruns in completing their newly contracted RB211 engine, Rolls-Royce’s jet propulsion division had to be nationalized in order to complete the project. The government liquidated the original Rolls-Royce Limited company and formed a new company, Rolls-Royce (1971) Limited. In conjunction with Lockeed Corporation, the new company completed the RB211 project. But this left the automotive segment of Rolls-Royce in limbo.

In April of 1971, Rolls-Royce Motors Inc. was formed to house the car and diesel divisions and became its own entity in 1973. Rolls-Royce Motors Inc. was publicly floated that year but failed to gain much public support and 80 percent of the company remained with the underwriters. It was finally purchased by Vickers PLC in 1980. The aeronautics division would exit public receivership with a successful public offering in 1987. The two segments of the historical Rolls-Royce company remain separate entities today.

A Posh Phoenix Arises

1996 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament

Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament on a 1996 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn – Carsforsale.com  |  Shop Rolls-Royce Silver Dawns on Carsforsale.com

A curious thing happened in 1998. Vickers PLC decided to sell Rolls-Royce Motor Inc. Despite already producing engines and parts for Rolls-Royce cars, BMW’s offer on the company was bested by rival Volkswagen. While Rolls-Royce PLC (held by Vickers) still had rights to the Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament and the trademark grill, it was the aeronautics Rolls-Royce that still held rights to the logo and name. Aero Rolls-Royce sold those naming rights to BMW (in part due to other joint ventures between the two companies). This left Volkswagen with a company and brand without its iconic name.

Eventually BMW licensed the name and logo from Volkswagen who received both fees and rights to Bentley (which had also been passed from government receivership to Vickers in 1980). BMW then formed the new Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.

2020 Rolls-Royce Phantom

2020 Rolls-Royce Phantom – rolls-roycemotorcars.com  |  Shop Rolls-Royce Phantoms on Carsforsale.com

A new version of the Rolls-Royce Phantom (VII) was the first car produced by the BMW owned company in 2003. The Phantom VII helped revive the brand and re-establishing the luxury icon and Rolls-Royce’s reputation as “the best car in the world.” It came available as a saloon/sedan (with suicide doors no less) and as either a drophead (convertible) or standard coupe. It boasted an excessive V-12 engine, but that was just in keeping with the “more is more” ethos that runs through Rolls-Royce’s storied history.

Rolling in a Rolls

Today, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars continues its tradition of swank and opulence married to supreme engineering. Take the world’s most luxurious SUV, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan a vehicle so excessive it takes 8 bulls to upholster a single one. There’s also the champagne chiller and custom champagne flutes in back, the custom umbrella that pops out from its holster in the rear door sill, and the 6.75-liter twin turbo V-12 engine to name but a few of its over-the-top features. The Cullinan also has one of the most sophisticated air-suspension systems in the world utilizing both GPS and on-board cameras to actively adjust to even the most subtle of road imperfections. It really doesn’t get better than this.

2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan – rolls-roycemotorcars.com  |  Shop Rolls-Royce Cullinans on Carsforsale.com

Let’s face it, modern supercars are a bit silly, and G-Wagons are nice and all, but for my money (that spare $400,000 I’ve got sitting around) it’s gotta be the Rolls or no roll. If they’re good enough for Beyoncé, they’re good enough for me.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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