For many car enthusiasts, Rolls-Royce is the last name in extravagance, refinement and sublime craftsmanship bestowed upon a motor car – regardless of price.
The Spirit of Ecstasy emblem and its modern double-R derivative are as synonymous with the luxury car firm as the three-pointed star is to Mercedes-Benz and the prancing horse is to Ferrari. But where did it all begin?
Back in May 1904, part-time racing driver and car dealer, Charles Rolls, and a talented engineer by the name of Frederick Henry Royce met over a spot of lunch. The two men were impressed with each other’s ideas for a new motor car company and a business agreement was made there and then.
In 1906 the partnership was officially formalised - creating Rolls-Royce Limited. It had the ingredients for a dream combination; Royce appointed chief engineer and works director, providing technical expertise to Rolls’s business astuteness and financial backing.
Although the Rolls-Royce 10hp can lay claim to being the first production ‘Roller’ when it debuted at the 1904 Paris Salon show, the 1907 Rolls-Royce ‘Silver Ghost’ 40/50 was the car that really put the luxury automobile maker on the map.
Powered by a 7.0-litre straight-six engine inside a silver-painted four-passenger chassis, the 40/50 (denoting its horsepower output) completed a faultless 14,371-mile run, cementing the car’s reputation at that time as “the best in the world”.
However, tragedy struck the company early on, when co-founder Charles Rolls was killed in 1910, after his Wright Flyer aircraft’s tail broke off during a flying display in Bournemouth.
In 1921, due to increased demand following the First World War, Rolls-Royce opened its first factory in the US, amid a growing economy and the ‘Jazz era’, where Rolls-Royce cars show-boated wealth and elegance.
Ten years later, the British carmaker bought out its rival Bentley, after the latter failed to weather the storm of the Great Depression going into the 1930s. This proved to be beneficial for both brands and for the next 70 years, Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars would often share identical parts apart from the radiator grille and minor details. Unfortunately, Sir Frederick Henry Royce would not see the company flourish beyond the decade, as he died in 1933 aged 70.
After the Second World War had ended, Rolls-Royce opened new plants in Crewe and Cheshire to go with its facility in Derby. The Crewe base would become the company’s formal home from 1946, which, with the exception of the Silver Wraith up to 1959, all bodies would be built in-house, putting an end to bodies being built by specialist coachbuilders.
The 1950s proved a prosperous time for Rolls-Royce, including the launch of the highly exclusive Phantom IV and the beginning of a long association with the Royal Family. It proved to be the most exclusive Rolls-Royce ever, with only 18 Phantom IVs being produced and all going to royalty and heads of state.
The swinging sixties saw Rolls-Royce appeal to a new breed of owner – many pop stars, actors, and celebrities of the day opting for the marque. The all-new slab-sided Silver Shadow was unveiled in 1965, the first Roller to feature a monocoque chassis while a choice of 6.2-litre and 6.75-litre V8s helped propel the 2,100kg kerb weight.
Rolls-Royce was not shown mercy during the 1970s automotive industry decline, though. Due to expensive aircraft engines, the company sought assistance from the British government, who took over the airplane engine division. Rolls-Royce Motors at Crewe separated from Rolls-Royce Limited at Derby. The revived company countered with new models like the Corniche, the Camargue, the Silver Shadow II, and the Silver Wraith II, which hit the market by 1979.
Rolls-Royce Motors was then bought in 1980 by Vickers plc. The Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit was developed in 1981, followed by the Silver Spur. Both were mammoth, ultra-lavish cars that screamed money in the brash 1980s ‘yuppie’ era.
The Vickers takeover came to an end in the 1990s, as Rolls-Royce was put up for sale again. The 1990s saw the end of production at Crewe and the start of a new chapter in the history of the firm when BMW attempted to purchase the carmaker, but their offer of £340 million was outbid by Volkswagen’s £430 million.
Rolls-Royce and Bentley separated in 2002. Due to the unique deal, Volkswagen held rights to the Spirit of Ecstasy emblem and the radiator grille design, but BMW held the rights to the double-R logo and the name of the brand.
The two companies arrived at an understanding, since Volkswagen wanted Bentley, and decided to sell the rights for the symbol to BMW for £40 million. The two brands separated, with Bentleys being produced by Volkswagen and Rolls-Royces by BMW.
A new dawn for Rolls-Royce arrived in the 21st century with the eagerly anticipated Phantom. This was followed up by the Phantom Extended Wheelbase, the Drophead Coupe, Phantom II and Phantom Coupe over the next nine years.
Spurred on by the words of their co-founder, and with the launch of the new Wraith and Ghost Series II this year, will the opulent luxury car maker continue to make “the best cars in the world”? We can’t wait to find out…