The story of Rolls-Royce cars begins with Sir Frederick Henry Royce, a member of the English aristocracy. While his rank in the order of nobility entitled him to be referred to as “Sir”; Royce was a baronet, rather than a Knight.
Royce’s father died in 1872, so at nine years old he had to leave school to go to work to help support his family. Because of this, he had but one year of formal education. Six years later, an aunt helped Royce secure an apprenticeship with the Great Northern Railway in 1878. For three years, his mechanical aptitude was nurtured there. After working at the railroad, Royce went to a tool making company in Leeds—before securing a position with the Electric Light and Power Company in London.
By 1884, Royce had saved enough money to go into business with a partner, Ernest Claremont. The two made electric fittings for homes, dynamos, and electric cranes, in a workshop in Hulme, Manchester. Originally called F.H. Royce and company, the name changed when the organization went public in 1899, to Royce, Ltd. With the money raised from the public offering, the partners opened another factory in Trafford Park in Manchester.
Their business ran nicely until the end of the second Boer War in 1902. Facing new competition from Germany and the United States, Royce decided to build cars to diversify the company’s revenue stream. In 1904, he completed the first three Royce 10 automobiles. One of the cars was sold to Henry Edmunds, a member of the Royce Ltd. board of directors. Edmunds showed the car to Charles Rolls who owned a car dealership in London. Rolls liked the car and endeavored to meet with Royce. In December of 1904, two days before Christmas, the two inked a deal whereby Rolls would sell all of the cars Royce built and they would be badged Rolls-Royce.
Charles Stewart Rolls had been born in August of 1877, in Berkeley Square, London into a well-to-do family. His father was a hereditary member of the English peerage, a Baron. In contrast to Royce, Rolls attended Prep school in Berkshire; Eton College; Trinity College and Cambridge University. His fields of study were mechanical and applied science.
An early automotive enthusiast, in 1896, at the age of 18, he bought the first car to be based in Cambridge, which was also one of the first three in Wales. After completing his formal studies at Cambridge University, Rolls signed on with the London and North Western Railway in Crewe. He soon discovered his real professional skill was salesmanship. Combining this with his love of motoring, Rolls started C.S. Rolls and Company with a loan from his father. C.S. Rolls was one of the first car dealerships in all of Great Britain.
Rolls and Royce formed Rolls-Royce Limited in 1906, which proceeded to buy out C.S. Rolls and Company in 1907. Rolls was appointed technical managing director of the new company and sat about marketing its products very aggressively. The first all-new Rolls-Royce automobile, built under the auspices of Rolls-Royce Limited appeared that year as well. Fitted with an inline six-cylinder engine, this car was launched as the Rolls-Royce 40/50, but would eventually be referred to as the Silver Ghost. Because of Royce’s unflinching determination to build the best cars possible, Rolls-Royce models were extremely quiet and smooth running. They were also exceptionally reliable and of very high quality.
Rolls-Royce automobiles sold well and started winning awards right away.
However, Rolls’ interests were many and varied.
In addition to motoring, he was also fascinated with aviation. With car sales going strong, his interest in that aspect of the business fell off. He resigned his active position, but stayed on as a non-executive director of the company. Rolls tried to get Royce interested in producing an aircraft engine—but to no avail. Undeterred, Rolls bought a Wright Flyer airplane and became the first person to make a non-stop double crossing of the English Channel in June of 1910. Just over a month later, his plane would go down during a flying show.
Rolls was killed.
Ironically, with the outbreak of World War I, the company got into producing aircraft engines in a huge way. Fully half of the airplane engines employed by the Allies during the war were built by Rolls-Royce. By the end of the 1920’s, constructing aviation powerplants comprised the majority of the company’s business.
On the car side of the house, because of the success of the Silver Ghost, the board convinced Royce to concentrate solely on that model and forget the earlier cars powered by two, three, and four-cylinder engines. The Silver Ghost proved so successful it was deemed necessary to open another factory—in the United States. Rolls-Royce of America was created and Springfield, Massachusetts was chosen as the location. There, some 1700 “Springfield Ghosts” were constructed, starting in 1921. The Springfield factory operated until 1931, when the worldwide economic slowdown inhibited demand.
The next model to emerge was the 1922 Rolls-Royce Twenty. Smaller and more affordable, the Twenty served as a bridge model between the Silver Ghost and the first Rolls-Royce Phantom, which was introduced in 1925.
Up until 1946, Rolls-Royce built only chassis, which were then shipped to coachbuilders to complete to a customer’s specifications. The first Rolls-Royce model to be completely built in house was the 1949 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, which was also the first model to come out of the new factory at Crewe. The Pressed Steel Company produced the bodies.
In 1971, the aviation side of the company had a hiccup and endangered the financial stability of the entire concern. The British government nationalized Rolls-Royce to preserve the aircraft engine manufacturing aspect of the company. It split the car side of the business off in 1973, dubbing it Rolls-Royce Motors. Vickers plc bought it in 1980, then sold it to the Volkswagen Group in 1998. Actually BMW and VW had vied for control of the company but Volkswagen eventually out-bid BMW and won—sort of.
VW got fried, because the deal they made got them the then-current Rolls Royce model range, the Spirit of Ecstasy Flying Lady hood ornament, and even the shape of the radiator grille—but not the Rolls Royce name, nor the RR logo.
Rolls-Royce plc, the aircraft engine company had retained ownership of those elements, when the British government broke up the company back in 1973.
BMW subsequently worked out the deal of a lifetime with Rolls-Royce plc to use the name and the logo—which cost them way less than buying the whole thing, would’ve. BMW then worked out a deal with VW to get the Flying Lady and the grille, before proceeding to build a whole new range of Rolls Royce models.
The current (July 2013) Rolls-Royce model range is comprised of the Phantom sedan, coupe and drophead (drophead is English-English for convertible), and a smaller “entry level model based on the BMW 7 Series sedan called the Ghost.