There are very few brands whose association with class, prestige and luxury is as established and undoubted as that of Rolls Royce. The history of the brand starts back in 1904, when a member of the British Royal Automobile club by the name of Henry Edmunds, brought together two men from vastly different backgrounds who otherwise would have probably never met, Henry Royce and Charles Rolls. The meeting he set up between the two men eventually led to the establishment of what would not only one of the world’s most recognized and prestigious names in the automobile and aviation industry, but undoubtedly the most well-known British car maker of all time.
Henry Royce’s father, a flour mill manager, passed away when he was a boy, and consequently he had to sell newspapers and deliver telegrams in order to put food on the table after completing just one year of schooling, while Charles Rolls, his senior by 6 years, was the son of a baron, and completed his education at Eton College and Cambridge University. At the age of 18, Charles Rolls had travelled to Paris to buy his first car, joining the French Automobile Cub. When Henry Royce was 18, he was busy doing an apprenticeship with a Great Northern Railway company when his money ran out, whereafter he worked for a tool-making company in Leeds.
And so, in 1884, Henry Royce, after working in Leeds for three years, invested his savings of £20 into a partnership with Ernest Claremont and they started making domestic electric fittings in their Manchester workshop. During the 1890s they would also produce and sell dynamos and electric cranes. However, following the Anglo-Boer war, trade drastically declined and competition from Germany and the United States placed Henry’s business, Royce Ltd. under severe pressure. Fascinated by all things mechanical and driven by a desire for innovation, Royce became increasingly interested in cars, having bought his first car in 1901 and undertaking the manufacturing of his own car in a corner of his workshop in 1903. By this time the 26 year-old Charles Rolls had, with the help of a £6,600 sponsorship from his father, started one of Britain’s first car dealerships, C.S. Rolls and Co., located in Fulham, and made it his business to import French Peugeot and Belgian Minerva vehicles.
By 1904 Rolls had also become a member of the Royal Automobile Club in Britain and so Henry Edmunds, who had been impressed by Royce’s work, introduced him to Rolls. In what would be a most historic first meeting, a poor but innovative mechanic Henry Royce met with the wealthy and successful businessman and car enthusiast Charles Rolls at the Midland Hotel in Manchester on the 4th of May 1904. They reached an agreement that Royce Limited would manufacture a range of cars to be exclusively sold by C.S. Rolls and Co.
By December 1904, the first Rolls-Royce car was unveiled at the Paris Salon. Called the Rolls-Royce 10 hp, Royce succeeded in making the car significantly quieter than existing cars at the time. He eventually built 16 of these cars, of which 4 is known to have survived unto this day.
With Royce providing the technical expertise and Rolls providing the financial backing, the two men formalized their relationship in 1906, when they created the company Rolls-Royce Limited. Royce was appointed chief engineer and works director. At the same time, Rolls-Royce also launched its now famous Six-cylinder Ghost, which, within a year, was hailed as the world’s best car.
At the same time, Royce and Co. still continued to exist as a separate company building and selling cranes until 1932. By 1910, the relationship between Rolls and Royce would end when the former tragically died in a plane crash. The latter would also fall seriously ill in 1911, with doctors only giving him a few months to live. He would go on to live for nearly two more decades. Even after surgery, he refused to retire completely and insisted on seeing and approving all new designs from the factory, which proved quite daunting for his engineers, given his well-known perfectionism. However, from that time on, until his death in 1933, Royce would remain under the care of a full-time nurse.
In 1907 Rolls had unsuccessfully tried to convince Royce and other company directors to design an aero engine. Four years after his death, however, World War I broke out and Rolls-Royce produced its first aircraft engine, the Rolls-Royce eagle, and was used by the British military during the War. It proved to be one of only two aero engines produced by the Allied nations during the war which did not end up being a production or technical failure. By 1918, Royce was awarded with an OBE for his immense contribution to the automobile and aviation industry.
By 1921, the demand for Rolls-Royce automobiles had grown to such an extent, that the company opened up a new factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, to help meet a three-year backlog demand. As a result of the Great Depression, the factory had to close down 10 years later, but by then had already produced nearly 3,000 vehicles on American soil. Back in Britain, the company also successfully resisted government pressure upon manufacturers to merge, largely due to its introduction of the highly successful and affordable Trolls-Royce Twenty introduced in 1922.
Royce, despite being under full-time care, simply could not let go of his passion for designing and improving engines. Here, in his small studio, in October 1928, he started the design of the “R” aircraft engine, which would, less than a year later, set a new airspeed record of 560 km/h. in 1931, using a special fuel blend, the engine would also propel the Supermarine S.6B aircraft to a new airspeed record of 640 km/h. The engine would also establish new speed records on both land and water.
The Great Depression also helped Rolls Royce acquire Bentley, the small sports car manufacturer and potential rival in 1931, due to the financial difficulties faced by the latter. Rolls Royce thus eliminated their competition, immediately ceasing production of the Bentley 8 litre, which was threatening the sales of its own Rolls-Royce Phantom. In 1935, however, it launched a new, smaller Bentley, the 3.5 litre, which outperformed its predecessors and won over many Bentley loyalists. From 1945 until the end of the previous century, standard Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars were virtually identical.
During Second World War, the company built aero engines not only for the British but also for the American military. Following the war, Rolls-Royce and Bentley also expanded their production from chassis to complete motor bodies, which had previously been outsourced. By then the luxury car industry had come under tremendous pressure, and Rolls-Royce further improvised and diversified by producing diesel engines for not only automotive, but also railway, industrial and marine use. The company also entered the civil aviation market, producing engines for commercial airline use.
By 1966, Rolls-Royce had acquired the aero engine manufacturer Bristol Siddeley, and had its factory near Bristol dedicate itself to producing engines for the British military. By now, Rolls-Royce had employed over 80,000 people and had grown to the 14th largest British company in terms of manpower.
However, by 1971, the company had run out of funds following a series of problems with its latest series of turbofan engines produced for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. A new company, called Rolls-Royce (1971) Limited was established by the government, through which It managed to acquire all the business and assets of the former company’s motor car divisions as well as permission to use its trademarks. During that same year, the new company launched its Corniche, a two-door, rear wheel drive luxury car. The Bentley version of this same model would also be launched and became known as the Bentley Continental. In 1973, the government decided to sell the car business and continued to focus solely on jet engine manufacturing.
In 1977, the company dropped the “(1971)” from its name, with the liquidated company being renamed Rolls-Royce Realisations Limited. By the late 1970s there were two active companies in addition to the original liquidated company, the private Rolls-Royce Motors company and the government owned Rolls-Royce Ltd. In 1980, the engineering conglomerate Vickers acquired Rolls-Royce Motors, which it would own until 1998.
By 1987, under prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the aviation company, now renamed Rolls-Royce plc., returned to the private sector, with shares sold to private investors.
In 1998, Rolls-Royce Motors was sold to Volkswagen, which founded the subsidiary Bentley Motors as its direct successor, and which continues to operate as a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group to this day. During that same year, however, BMW acquired the rights to the Rolls-Royce brand name and logo from Rolls-Royce Motors. For the next five years Volkswagen would continue producing Rolls-Royce automobiles in an agreement which gave BMW time to build a Rolls-Royce headquarters and production facility. And in 2003, BMW finally set up the subsidiary Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited, and has been the exclusive producer of Rolls-Royce branded automobiles ever since. It has also retained the famous “Spirit of Ecstasy” emblem, first registered as a Rolls-Royce trademark in 1911, which has been a defining feature for the Rolls-Royce brand for over a century, and has grown to be one of the world’s most famous and iconic symbols of innovation and luxury.
Separately, Rolls-Royce plc. continues to operate as one of the world’s largest multinational aerospace and defence companies to this day, producing both commercial and military aviation systems.