Ask virtually anyone what the best car in the world is, and the answer is likely to be “Rolls-Royce.” Even folks who know nothing about automobiles are often able to spot a Rolls passing by, and realize that they’re viewing a legend.
Rolls-Royce resulted from two men’s efforts, and the founders could hardly have differed more. Charles Stewart Rolls was a member of the British aristocracy. Frederick Henry Royce came from a working-class background.
Royce, the son of a miller, in 1877 began an apprenticeship at the Great Northern Railway Locomotive Works. By 1880, he worked at a machine tool firm. Before age 20, he went to Liverpool as technical advisor to Lancashire Maxim and Western Electric Company. Within three years, Royce was in business for himself, making electrical devices.
In 1903, Royce bought a Decauville motorcar, secondhand. Deeming it unreliable, he vowed to make his own. By spring of 1904, the first Royce came to life, with a 1.8-liter two-cylinder F-head engine. Soon, Royce motorcars became known for near-silent running.
Meanwhile, Rolls got a degree in mechanical engineering and applied sciences at Cambridge University. While still a student, he bought a Peugeot automobile. By graduation time, Rolls was one of the most skillful drivers in England, setting a world land-speed record of 93 mph in 1903. By then, he was in the high-end motorcar sales business as C.S. Rolls and Company.
Rolls wanted not only to sell cars, but to produce the finest automobile available. Hearing about the Royce, he tried it and liked it, obtaining the rights to sell all Royces built. Two Royce cars appeared at the Paris Salon in December 1904. Within days, the two men agreed to use the name “Rolls-Royce” for all cars made. In 1906, Rolls-Royce Ltd. was officially formed.
Their first major joint creation appeared at the 1906 Olympia Show, in London. Called the 40/50 HP, it became the Silver Ghost, heralding a long line of dreamlike model names. The Silver Ghost was immodestly called the ”best car in the world.”
Rolls died in 1910 in an aircraft accident. Royce became ill and was warned not to work, but stayed in touch with the company until his death in 1933. The basic upright Rolls-Royce grille design never changed, but it did grow bigger over the years. In 1911, Sir Charles Sykes created the motorcar’s mascot, which sat atop each radiator.
Until many years later, Rolls-Royce built only the chassis. All bodies came from coachbuilders, made to order. During World War I, many 40/50 HPs were ambulances and staff cars; some used by T.E. Lawrence–famed as “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Of the 7,800 Silver Ghosts made during 1907-25, 1,700 were built at Springfield, Massachusetts. By 1931, U.S. production halted. Americans seemed to want only the British models.
During the 1922-29 period, a “baby Rolls-Royce” was offered: the more affordable 20 HP (Twenty). Some bodies were made in quantity, to lower costs. In 1925, the Phantom I emerged, leading to Phantom II and III. In 1931, Rolls-Royce acquired the Bentley company. Bentleys were dubbed the “Silent Sports Car,” but as years went by, the two makes grew more similar.
Just before World War II broke out, Rolls-Royce issued the Wraith, a descendant of the early Twenty. After the war, by 1947, Rolls-Royce was producing the Silver Wraith, with an F-head six-cylinder engine. A larger Silver Dawn saloon (sedan) appeared in 1949. Rolls-Royce adopted the Hydra-Matic transmission in 1952, and power steering in 1956.
Next new model was the Silver Cloud, holding the company’s last six-cylinder engine, but with a streamlined body. In 1959, a Phantom V replaced the Silver Wraith. From 1965-77, only the Silver Shadow was built. Silver Shadows had the first unibody, so special custom bodies faded into history. A two-door model arrived in 1966, soon followed by a convertible. In 1971, the convertible evolved into the Corniche.
Bankruptcy led to nationalization of the company in 1971. A two-door Camargue, with body styled by Pininfarina, emerged in 1975. During the 1980s, Rolls-Royce produced the Silver Spirit (successor to Shadow), Silver Spur (an evolution of Corniche), and Phantom VI.
Final examples of the Corniche convertible and Silver Seraph sedan were produced in 2002. As 2003 began, the joint companies split up. Rolls-Royce became part of Volkswagen, while Bentley went to BMW. Since then, Rolls-Royce has issued only the latest version of the massive Phantom. Different in appearance from earlier Phantoms, the ultra-plush 21st-century sedan features rear-hinged back doors for easier access.
Despite global financial troubles, Rolls-Royce has been doing well. Total sales rose by 31 percent in 2011, with 3,538 motorcars going to customers worldwide.