History of the Rolls-Royce Automobile Part 2

About the history of the Rolls-Royce luxury automobile as well as a biography of Rolls and Royce.



Shortly after this first successful test, Royce took Rolls and Johnson for a ride in his new car. It so impressed the two auto entrepreneurs that in March of 1906, the three of them formed Rolls-Royce Ltd. (they decided that name sounded better than Rolls-Royce-Johnson) and began producing handmade automobiles. The first Royce was a small four-seater with a 10-hp, two-cylinder engine, a 75-in. wheelbase, and a top speed of 30 mph. This model was later upgraded in size and power to four cylinders and 20 hp and called the Long 20. Then, after more refinements were made for racing purposes, the Light 20 was born. It had a top speed of nearly 55 mph, a wheelbase of 106 in., and a width of 36 in. It weighed in at 1,350 lb.--150 lb. lighter than the Long 20. The prices for these first cars were between $1,580 and $4,000. The expensive models included special features such as card cases and umbrella holders.

Despite the company's early successes and growing reputation for impeccable workmanship and sound engineering, Rolls's craving for speed and excitement got the better of him. After being taken for an airplane ride by Wilbur Wright, Rolls began losing interest in cars. He bought his own Wright-designed plane and was killed in a crash in 1910. When Johnson died a little over 10 years later, Royce was left to manage the company alone.

Royce's style of management was eccentric but, for him, necessary. Because of overwork, he had had a breakdown. Eventually he did recover his health, yet he never again ventured near the Rolls-Royce plant at Crewe. He ran the company instead by mail from his home, a villa in the south of France. Royce's letters to his managers were filled with engineering specifications and design information. This correspondence was bound into a volume called "the bible" by company executives. Though Royce died in 1933, "the bible," with its closely guarded secrets, is still used for reference today, and company decisions are often made on the basis of "whether Henry Royce would have done it. "Upon Royce's death, however, one change was immediately made in the car. On the distinctive Rolls-Royce grille, the silver nameplate, which had always been engraved "RR" in red, now bore the "RR" in black. It is still engraved in black today.

The lineage of Rolls-Royce models over the years reads like the family tree of a member of the nobility: the Grey Ghost from 1905; the Silver Ghost, made from 1906 to 1925, the longest model run in history and considered by many to be the finest Rolls-Royce ever made (they were able to go from 0 to 60 mph in an incredible 18 seconds and were so tough and durable that the chassis was chosen as the undercarriage for the 8,000-lb. armored cars the British used in W.W.I); the Phantom I of 1926; the 160-hp Phantom II of 1929; the 1936 Phantom III; and so on, through the Silver Wraiths, Silver Dawns, Silver Clouds, and Silver Shadows that followed.

The Rolls-Royce today is as close to handmade as a modern car can be, assembled at the rate of 20 per week with care that has been likened by observers to that taken in making a fine watch. The finished cars are tested and retested, then tested again before they are sold; and after they are sold, Rolls-Royce sees to it that they are serviced as if each owner were a member of the royal family. This kind of care makes Rolls-Royce owners--even those who parted with $114,000 to own the new two-door Camargue--feel that the investment was worth every penny and that, truly, they do own "the best car in the world."

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