» Business » Rolls-Royce: A century of Ecstasy

Rolls-Royce: A century of Ecstasy

By BS Motoring
Last updated on: June 05, 2004 16:13 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

Just a month back, a landmark event took place in motoring history. On the 4th of May 2004, the legendary Rolls-Royce marque turned a 100 years old.

On this day, a century ago, two men met at a hotel in Manchester and decided to create automobiles bearing their surnames. These cars would be exceptional in every aspect, with no compromise in quality, detailing, performance or road behaviour -- even today we recognise the fact that Rolls-Royce is synonymous with brilliant engineering.

Also see:
Rolls-Royce completes 100 years!

A host of activities have been planned to celebrate the centenary. Giving company to BMW-owned Rolls-Royce Motor Cars is Rolls-Royce plc, the manufacturer of gas turbines, which is still in British hands.

Rolls-Royce will be the featured marque at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and at the Pebble Beach Concourse d'Elegance, and a world tour of classic Rollers is also planned.

A special centenary edition of the new Phantom has also been unveiled. Only 35 of these will be produced and it will have special features that will set it apart from the other Phantoms. Here then is a concise history of one of the greatest automotive marques on earth.

No two men could be so dissimilar. Yet, fate got them together to create an automotive marque that even after 100 years, stands for the ultimate in luxury motoring. Charles Stewart Rolls (1877-1910) was a member of the British landed gentry, privileged in life and sophisticated in upbringing, while Frederick Henry Royce (1863-1933), the youngest child of his parents, had to start work early in life to support his family.

Rolls was educated at the finest of colleges and was a motoring enthusiast, racing cars and motorcycles for pleasure. Royce, on the other hand, got an opportunity to work as an apprentice at a railway works through the generosity of his aunt. There, he used his spare time to learn, among other things, the newfound subject of electricity.

Royce's aptitude for engineering got him a job at an electric company, but he still didn't give up studies. When the company folded up, Royce, along with his friend, set up a business manufacturing electrical components. The business did fairly well, and he diversified into the manufacture of electric motors and electric cranes.

The turning point came when Royce got himself a 10 hp two-cylinder Decauville. Dissatisfied with its build quality and unreliable electricals, Royce decided to manufacture his own car. His car, a 2000cc two-cylinder unit, used the best of materials, and by all accounts, was dependable and well-built.

The news about this wonderful car reached the ears of Rolls through some common friends. Rolls, at that time, was a dealer in imported cars and felt the need for a good British-built automobile.

A meeting was arranged on 4th May 1904 at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, where Rolls and Royce met for the first time. Rolls drove the new car and was sufficiently impressed with it.

Despite their differing backgrounds, the aristocratic Rolls and the self-made Royce hit it off. Royce met a brilliant businessman, while Rolls went back saying he met the greatest engineer in the world. It was later decided that Royce would manufacture two-, three-, four- and six-cylinder cars while Rolls would sell them, and the cars would be branded Rolls-Royce.

The first cars were well received and fairly successful, but the model that really proved what the name Rolls-Royce was all about was the six-cylinder 40/50 hp. Yes, the very one which was first advertised with those famous words, '...the best car in the world.'

Claude Johnson, a friend of Rolls and the MD of the company, also known as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce, once took a 40/50, and had it entirely finished in silver.

He called this car the Silver Ghost, and the name stuck, and henceforth all 40/50 hp cars came to be known as Silver Ghosts. Thanks to the success of the Silver Ghost, Rolls-Royce had to move out of their existing premises in Manchester to a larger plant in Derby in 1907.

In 1910, tragedy struck. Rolls, who got interested in the then new discipline of flying, met with an accident and passed away -- he was just 32.

Before that, he held the record for being the first person to fly over the English Channel in both directions, and after the accident, the first Englishman to die in a flying accident.

Rolls' untimely death led to the myth that the red colour in the double-R logo was changed to black in his memory, but Rolls-Royce records revealed that the decision to change the colour was carried out independently in 1930 -- the reason being it was deemed too loud for the rest of the car! However, the following 20/25 hp model retained the red inlay to distinguish it from the 40/50 hp.

During the first world war, Rolls-Royce contributed to the war effort by manufacturing aero engines and supplying armoured cars, staff cars and ambulances. They also set up a plant in the US in 1921, which manufactured the 40/50. But it had to shut operations in 1931 following the Wall Street Crash.

By now, the Silver Ghost was getting old. It was replaced by the first Phantom, which had a new six-cylinder engine. And in 1929, an all-new car with this new engine was introduced. And that was the legendary Phantom II.

In 1931, Rolls-Royce, through a clever move, outwitting their competitor Napier, acquired Bentley Motors. In 1933, the extremely hardworking and brilliant engineer Royce passed away, and the last car he designed was the V12-engined Phantom III, which was introduced in 1936.

During the second world war, production was diverted to manufacturing aero engines and their variants for tanks and boats. A new plant was established at Crewe and production was transferred there from Derby.

The Crewe plant was also new in the way the cars were produced. Gone was the bespoke manner, and in came American style mass-production methods. Which meant production of the complete car and not just the chassis - in came pressed steel bodies and out went the coachbuilding industry.

Coachbuilders would however be used for a few examples now and then, but their days were numbered. The first non-coachbuilt car, the 1949 Silver Dawn, had an anxious launch, but the market took to it, especially across the Atlantic.

Models like the Phantom IV, V, VI and the Silver Cloud I, II, III were later launched. It was the Silver Shadow, introduced in 1965, that boasted monocoque construction. And it also came with a host of technical advances, allowing for more luxury for drivers and passengers, including power everything and self-levelling coil spring independent suspension.

However, things were not looking financially well for Rolls-Royce. In 1971, they went into receivership and the two businesses -- aerospace and automobiles -- were split.

Yet, Rolls-Royce chugged along by launching the Silver Spirit and Silver Spur. And in 1980, the defence manufacturer Vickers and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars were merged. It was not until 18 years later, in 1998, that an all-new car was unveiled. It was the Silver Seraph, powered by a BMW V12 engine.

In the same year, BMW took over Rolls, and Volkswagen picked up Bentley and the plant at Crewe. With BMW at the helm, Rolls-Royce started operations from scratch, building an all-new plant at Goodwood, and launching the all-new Phantom in January 2003.

The last 100 years has been a saga of triumphs and disasters for Rolls-Royce. Still, the Spirit of Ecstasy lives on, gracing the most luxurious, highly detailed and most well-engineered cars of all time. Here's to the next 100 years!
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
BS Motoring

Moneywiz Live!