February 5, 2007


And the men behind the brand are...
Charles Stuart Rolls and Frederick Henry Royce

One was educated at Eton, the other studied at night school. One was a devil-may care racer, the other a no-nonsense engineer. One died spectacularly as the first Englishman ever killed in an airplane crash, the other died of overwork. Together they are responsible for the most luxurious car in the world.

Frederick Henry Royce was the son of a miller who was forced to sell newspapers on the streets of London when his father’s business failed. By his 21st birthday in 1884 he had already been in and out of the telegraph business, the railroad business and the new electric light business. That year he borrowed 70 pounds and began manufacturing lamps and other electrical devices. With a fanaticism for detail and a normal work day that spanned 16 hours he was able to become prosperous.

In 1902 Royce treated himself by purchasing a new-fangled French auto. Royce was not happy with his new car; it was unreliable and, worse, noisy. A self-styled engineer Royce decided to build his own two-cylinder car. In fact he made three: one for himself, one for his partner A.R. Claremont and a third for Henry Edwards, a new director in the firm of F. H. Royce Ltd.

Edwards drove his car over to see a friend, Charles Stuart Rolls, who knew cars. Rolls, the son of an English baron, graduated with an MA in mechanical engineering and became a champion high bicycle rider. In December 1895 he imported a Peugeot from France, then the most powerful car made. It was only the fourth car in England and traffic laws forbade any self-propelled vehicle from moving more than 4 mph - about the speed of a brisk walk - and a man carrying a red flag had to precede the car on the highway. It took Rolls more than 12 hours to travel from London to Cambridge, a distance of less than fifty miles.

The experienced racer became convinced upon seeing Royce’s little car that the superior engineering should be applied to a more powerful automobile. The two became partners in 1904 with Royce building in a shop in Manchester and Rolls, awash with influential contacts, selling in London. They quickly decided to concentrate on a single model and with Rolls adding flare and style to Royce’s meticulous engineering the first Rolls Royce automobile reached the market in 1906.

It was called the Silver Ghost and was a landmark in automotive history. It was “quiet as a ghost,” so solid that a penny would not be dislodged from the side of a radiator cap while the 6-cylinder engine idled. The car set speed records immediately and, with its distinctive grille, established standards for luxury and quality forevermore.

But already Charles Rolls was becoming bored with the auto business. An enthusiastic aviator he made 170 balloon ascents after discovering the sport in 1901 and founded the Aero Club in England in 1903. He became one of the first to fly with Wilbur Wright when he demonstrated his new airplane in France and as a pilot he became the first to fly across the English Channel and back without setting down. Rolls died tragically on July 12, 1910 when a Wright bi-plane he was piloting at a flying tournament in Bournemouth crashed from a height of only 23 feet. England’s first airplane casualty was only 33 years old. As a symbol of mourning the “R & R” was changed from red to black.

In 1911 Henry Royce suffered a breakdown from overwork. For the rest of his life he would not visit the automobile works in Derby, contributing designs and making approvals from his home. If Rolls had lived the company would inevitably have been involved in airplane manufacturing sooner but by World War I Rolls Royce became the leading supplier of planes to the Royal Air Force. Half of Britain’s air force of Eagles, Falcons, Hawks and Condors carried Rolls Royce engines.

Production was stopped on the legendary Silver Ghost in 1925 after some 6000 had been built. In 1930, three years before his death, Royce was awards a baronetcy of his own. Sir Frederick Henry Royce’s death was a rare one for a baron: the lingering affects of overwork.

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