The name Rolls-Royce is synonymous with superior craftsmanship; the famous car brand’s Spirit of Ecstasy emblem a symbol of the ultimate luxury vehicle for over a century. But the full story of Rolls-Royce encompasses far more than extravagant cars.
Although Rolls-Royce started out producing automobiles, the company moved into the aircraft engine manufacturing business at the start of the First World War to assist with the war effort, and its aerospace business continues today as the second-largest producer of civil and defense aircraft engines, and also operates in the marine and energy sectors. This article will focus on the car manufacturing side of the business, however, you can learn more about the entire history of Rolls-Royce operations with the timeline on their website.
The founders of Rolls-Royce – Charles Rolls and Henry Royce – came from very different backgrounds. Rolls was born into the aristocracy of London in 1877, the third son of Lord and Lady Llangattock, whose ancestral seat was in Monmouth, Wales. After studying at Eton, Charles went on to study mechanical engineering at Trinity College in Cambridge, where he developed a passion for automobiles, particularly as a driver. He went into business selling cars in 1902 to fund his sporting activities, and was still an automobile dealer when he met Henry Royce.
Royce, on the other hand, was born in 1863 in Peterborough, England and grew up poor. He was working at nine years of age as a newspaper and telegram boy until he was gifted an apprenticeship with Great Northern Railway Works by an aunt when he was 14 years old. Henry applied himself to a range of language and math studies in addition to his engineering studies, and he went on to work for the Electric Light and Power Company and start his own business with a friend and engineer, Ernest Claremont at the age of 21.
F.H Royce and Co. manufactured small electrical components including doorbells, switches, fuses and lamp-holders, along with more sophisticated measuring instruments and switchboards later on. Royce patented his improvements to the bayonet light bulb fitting, which is still in use today, as well as developing the sparkles commutator.
But with the purchase of a second-hand French Decauville, Royce became passionate about building motor cars. With a desire to make improvements on the current automobile standards, he decided to build his own car, and in April 1904, the first Royce 10hp motor car was realized, aptly named the Royce 10.
A month later, Royce was introduced to Rolls by Henry Edmunds, a friend of Charles Rolls and a shareholder in Henry Royce’s company. Impressed with Royce’s vehicle, the pair struck an agreement for Rolls to buy as many vehicles as Royce could manufacture. The vehicles were sold under the name Rolls-Royce and the renamed Rolls-Royce 10 was unveiled at the Paris Salon, but it would be two years before they would found the iconic luxury car brand, Rolls-Royce Limited.
With their shared passion to “take the best that exists and make it better”, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce joined forces to create Rolls-Royce Limited in 1906, and the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost 40/50 was produced later that year. Marketed as “The Best Car in the World”, the term would become synonymous with Rolls-Royce and the world-class engineering that went into building their cars. Its status was cemented when the six-cylinder Silver Ghost completed a flawless run traveling from London to Glasgow 27 times and covering a whopping 14,371 consecutive miles, breaking the world record for a non-stop motor run.
Tragedy struck just three years after the record feat, however, with Charles Rolls dying in an aircraft accident when the tail broke off his Wright Flyer during a flying display in Bournemouth. The Welsh automobile pioneer was 32 when he died in 1910.
The company’s focus shifted to the development of aircraft engines at the beginning of the First World War, with their “Eagle Engine” powering the first non-stop transatlantic flight from England to Australia in 1915. Although the Silver Ghost remained in production, it wasn’t until 1925 that it was replaced by Phantom I.
The car manufacturer also went on to acquire rival car brand Bentley in 1931 before the death of Henry Royce two years later at age 70. The 1930s would prove a prosperous decade for Rolls-Royce, however, with the Rolls-Royce ‘R’ engine breaking speed records on land and sea, and the release of first the Phantom II, followed by the first ever V12-engineered Rolls-Royce, the Phantom III.
Although WWII saw the company focus shift again back to the aerospace business, the car brand enjoyed continued development during the 1940s with the launch of Silver Wraith and Silver Dawn. Constructed on a separate chassis, the coach-built body of the Silver Wraith was extremely heavy, requiring a 4887cc engine to carry the weight. The later Silver Dawn was constructed with a standard steel body and paved the way for the next and most exclusive vehicle, the famous Phantom IV.
Designed solely for the royal family and other heads of state, the British monarchy received their first Phantom IV in 1950, with Rolls-Royce replacing Daimler as the royal family’s preferred car manufacturer. The Phantom IV was produced between 1950 and 1956 with only 18 models ever built. The less-exclusive Silver Cloud was introduced in 1955, although this luxury vehicle with a top speed of 106mph was still out of reach for the average consumer. Four years later, Rolls-Royce released the Phantom V, which featured a coach-built body and a powerful V8 engine.
In the 1960’s, Rolls-Royce stepped into the celebrity spotlight, with the Phantom V gracing the silver screen in movies like ‘The Yellow Rolls-Royce” and gaining popularity with famous actors and musicians. Perhaps the most famous Phantom V was the one purchased by John Lennon in 1965, which the pop star painted with a bright, psychedelic design. This weirdly wonderful model remains a most valuable piece of pop memorabilia. (
Rolls-Royce also introduced the Silver Shadow and the Phantom VI in the late 1960s, although the next two decades would see fewer new models released: the Corniche starting in 1971, and the Silver Spirit from 1981, followed by the Silver Spur. The struggling company went into liquidation in 1971 and the aircraft engine division was taken over by the British Government, with Rolls-Royce Motors being purchased in 1980 by British defense company, Vickers. The takeover lasted less than two decades, however, with Vickers putting Rolls-Royce up for sale again. Both BMW and Volkswagen attempted the purchase, but Volkswagen’s £430 million bid beat out BMW’s offer by 90 million pounds in 1998.
The sale was complicated however, by the fact that Volkswagen only purchased part of the company, with BMW eventually owning the rights to the logo and brand name, and Volkswagen retaining only the rights to the grille design and the Spirit of Ecstasy emblem. The two companies negotiated a deal, and from 2003 forward, Rolls-Royces were solely produced by BMW.
Rolls-Royce reintroduced the Phantom the next year, which is still produced today alongside the Wraith, Ghost and Dawn models. Rolls-Royce’s newest release is the Cullinan, the car brand’s first all-terrain SUV.