Author: Irving Robbin
(Article orginally published 1960)
It really is. The name has become a legendary symbol of perfection. Small boys and taxi drivers refer to it with awe, engineers marvel over its precision and performance, while car owners gasp at the sheer luxury of the appointments.
"The Best Car in the World" - the Rolls-Royce Company stands behind that slogan. It always has. What other manufacturer will give a three year guarantee with each car sold? Rolls-Royce builds the finest machine possible. There are no lemons; company pride and testing see to that. Each car is broken in and test driven by factory mechanics for several thousands miles before the customer even sees it. But before that, each component is separately tested. Every piece of metal is polished and examined for the minutest flaw. The working parts of the car are designed to run for 250,000 miles, with only standard maintenance. The frame is assembled with tapered bolts that are hand-fitted into hand-reamed holes. A Rolls-Royce will not shake apart, and to make sure of that they use an ingenious torture rack. The car is placed on a set of huge wheels, recessed into the floor. These wheels have large bumps spaced around their circumference. When they are rotated at full speed, the car is given the equivalent of a fast ride down a road paved with logs. This brutal treatment once shook an expensive American car apart in several minutes, but every Rolls-Royce can withstand the pounding.
Everything about a Rolls-Royce is legendary. The finish: As many as fourteen coats of filler, paint, and varnish are sanded, pumiced, and hand rubbed to create the deep rich glow.
The luxury: The quiet dignity of soft leather, polished wood, and deep pile rugs are complemented by the little personal conveniences that a customer may request. Writing desks, cocktail bars, or special seats. Some wealthy potentates once had their cars delivered with silver or gold plating.
The silence: The Rolls-Royce is designed to run without noise. Hence the names - Silver Ghost, Wraith, Phantom, etc. It is possible to stand next to the hood and not hear the engine idling. To make sure of this silence, factory engineers go over each car with stethoscopes. Even the gears in the rear end must run without a whisper. The exhaust is specially chambered. One advertisement claims that the loudest sound in the car is the clock. It is.
The ride: To tour in a Rolls-Royce is like sailing a yacht. There is no vibration, only the rush of the wind as the car effortlessly clocks mile after mile. Brute speed was never the aim of the Rolls-Royce designers, but their cars will run easily at high speeds as long as the driver wishes. If one is in a real hurry however, the speedometer will climb smoothly past 100 miles per hour on most models.
When a Rolls-Royce salesman is asked for the horsepower of the car, he will answer, "Sufficient." Top speed? "Fast enough." How long will it last? "With proper maintenance, a lifetime!"
Obviously this is a car made with loving care, with no regard for price. Yes, it is expensive; but for the buyer who has the money, it is worth every penny. A Rolls-Royce is a car that will run for a fantastic number of years and its classic elegance will never be dated. Some early models have become family heirlooms; passed down through two generations, and still in running order.
Who decided to build a car of this caliber? His name was Henry Royce, an electrician who owned his own electrical appliance corporation. Royce built dynamos and electric cranes at the turn of the century. In 1903 he bought a Decauville to drive around in, and soon decided to build a better car himself. As a matter of fact, he decided to go into the car business as an adjunct to his electrical manufacturing. So in 1904, three 10 horsepower, 2 cylinder cars were made, completely designed and engineered by Henry Royce.
In a day when part of the attractiveness of the motor car was the noise of the racketing exhaust, Royce determined to build a silent, vibrationless car. Perhaps this came about because of his association with dynamos and electric motors, certainly the quietest and smoothest machines that man has devised. The early cars were very successful and attracted the notice of the firm of C. S. Rolls and Company, automobile dealers in London.
The Honorable Charles Stewart Rolls, son of a baron, was a typical gay blade of the era. He raced cars, motorcycles, balloons, and boats. But he had a unique asset in Claude Johnson, his business manager. Johnson, who later became the guiding spirit of the Rolls-Royce corporation, was a quiet cultured man, almost terrifyingly efficient as a company manager. Rolls and Johnson decided to handle the entire output of the Royce factory with the proviso that the car be named Rolls-Royce. By 1906 the companies merged into Rolls-Royce Limited and an automotive tradition began.
Although the Rolls-Royce was never designed to be a racing machine, the irrepressible Charles Rolls entered it in many events. In these, the superb quality of Henry Royce's cars soon became evident. Although not as fast as other contenders, they outlasted them: Other machines would run out of water or gas, or suffer mechanical defects; but the Rolls-Royces stayed doggedly on the track, running smoothly and astounding the spectators as they drifted by without a sound!
Henry Royce was the kind of engineer who delighted in solving knotty problems. Even in 1905, the undeclared war between drivers and traffic police raged fiercely. England had a 20 mph speed limit, and police used all the time-honored tricks. Officers hid behind trees and used elaborate signal systems; and magistrates imposed stiff fines. Royce tried to outwit the law by building a car that would maintain a constant speed of 20 mph - uphill, downhill, on the flat - no matter what the driving conditions were. He built it. It was called the Legalirnit! Only a few were made, but it was a historic car because it used a V-8 engine, one of the first successful applications of the V-shaped block.
By the end of 1906, Rolls-Royce Ltd. produced its most famous car, the Silver Ghost. This was the automobile that gave the name of Rolls-Royce its reputation. The first model was a touring car with silvered fittings and aluminum paint. It was perhaps the handsomest car of its time. But it was also one of the most durable cars ever made. In 1907 it was entered in the Scottish Reliability Trial, a run from London to Glasgow and back, with various meanderings up and down the hills and streets of the many towns between. The Silver Ghost set a non-stop record of 15,000 miles! And without shutting the engine off! Try that on any modern car. After the run the car was stripped for inspection. The water pump needed re-packing, there was some tenthousandths of an inch wear in the steering universal, and the valves needed grinding. This first Silver Ghost is still in running order. It now has over 400,000 miles on it, and it is kept by the factory as an active museum piece. But Royce was not satisfied. He was never satisfied. He made improvements here and there until Claude Johnson decided finally to produce the car for the public.
It was at this point that Johnson realized that the company's greatest asset was Henry Royce, the perfectionist. Royce could make a machine finer than anyone else, and Johnson decided to capitalize on that fact. They would make only one model chassis, and body styles were farmed out to several choice carriage makers who were enjoined to retain the distinguishing Rolls-Royce features. The Silver Ghost was to be "the" production car, and Johnson named it "The Best Car in the World." A factory was built at Derby, and the Ghost went into production. Even there it holds a record. It was made, practically unchanged, for nineteen years. That is one year longer than Henry Ford's Model T. But Johnson was also looking to the future. He made it company policy that no car could ever be designed and engineered without the planning and approval of Henry Royce. It was this policy that made the perfection of the Rolls-Royce a continuing tradition.
In 1910, a double tragedy struck the firm. Charles Rolls died in a flying accident, and Royce became gravely ill. After convalescence, Johnson took him on a tour of Europe for relaxation. But during the trip Royce had a serious relapse and Johnson decided to rush him back to England. As they dashed across France in their Silver Ghost, Royce looked back and noticed another car gaining on them. Deathly ill as he was, he ordered the driver to go faster. The driver accelerated the car, but the pursuer gained even more rapidly. Suddenly Royce relaxed. "It's all right," he said, "it's one of ours!" In a few seconds they were passed by another Silver Ghost!
Royce recovered but remained an invalid the rest of his life. Johnson installed him in a house at St. Margaret's Bay, and surrounded him with an elaborate entourage of attendants and nurses. There, from his sick bed, Royce continued to design and control the engineering and scientific developments of the company. Many new ideas in metallurgy were worked out by Royce, and his steel and aluminum alloys are still in use today.
With World War I, Rolls-Royce went to battle. The British generals began to use the Silver Ghost as a liaison car. By adding armor and shielding the wheels, the cars functioned as primitive tanks. With machine guns mounted they became an attacking vehicle. These wartime Rolls-Royces demonstrated their astonishing reliability. Carrying tons of armor, they traveled through mud, endured the dry desert climate, operated through the snows of freezing winter, and still kept running. Many clocked as much as 60,000 miles without any repair!
In Mesopotamia, two cars were damaged in battle. One was completely out of commission; the other had lost its oil reservoir. The second car then proceeded to tow the first six miles back to camp: Eight tons for six miles without oil! It went back to fight the next day. Again in Mesopotamia, an armored Rolls-Royce caught sight of a Mercedes loaded with German staff officers. The English gave chase. In a flat-out race across the hot sands, the Rolls-Royce caught the flying Mercedes, disabled it with a gun burst, and captured the Germans.
The most romantic of the wartime exploits came in the Turkish campaign. Colonel T. E. Lawrence, the famous "Lawrence of Arabia" fought the Turks with nine Rolls-Royces. Flashing across mud flats and rocky desert areas, he harassed the enemy. His convoy would descend in eerie silence upon Turkish emplacements, blow them to bits, and speed away. For eighteen months this flying squadron blew up bridges and destroyed railroads. On one occasion it captured an entire Kurdish cavalry regiment. The cars never let Lawrence down. With only primitive repair facilities available, they had to run on their own. They did - magnificently. Lawrence sums it all up succinctly in his book, Seven Pillars o f Wisdom. He wrote, "A Rolls in the desert was above rubies." One may be sure that he was forgiven for one minor error. A factory decree states that the car must always be referred to as a Rolls-Royce!
During the war it was obvious that the British government would ask for a Rolls-Royce aircraft engine. They did, and Henry Royce's genius was again demonstrated. From his sick bed, he designed many models. Named after birds of prey, the Eagle, Hawk, Condor, and the V-12 Falcon enabled British planes to fight successfully against the Germans. The durability of the Rolls-Royce aircraft engines saved many pilots' lives, as they brought badly shattered planes safely home.
It was in the twenties that Henry Royce decided to change the famous radiator shell. He felt that its broad, square surface was aerodynamically poor, but the astute Claude Johnson knew that it had become a symbol of the excellence of the car. To change the shape of ROLLS-ROYCE the cowling would break a tradition. He won his fight, and the modern
Rolls-Royce retains the classic flat-looking grill. Incidentally, it is not flat! Every piece has a subtle arc, and even today the entire radiator must be beaten out by hand, and then hand welded.
In 1919 a subsidiary company was organized in the United States. With a factory at Springfield, Massachusetts, this organization turned out a series of Rolls-Royces for several years. They were just as good as the British models, but sales were not. Wealthy American customers wanted a car made in Europe. They would not believe that a Rolls-Royce from Springfield was as good as one from Derby. Because of this resistance, the idea of a branch plant failed. It has never been tried again.
During the burgeoning postwar era, Johnson decided to change his policy and introduce several models. A smaller car was designed and named the Wraith. It was still a Rolls-Royce, though smaller in all dimensions and horsepower. Then, with the growth of other automobile manufacturers beginning to threaten its position, the firm also decided to change its basic model. And so the famous Silver Ghost was discontinued. But Henry Royce replaced it with a finer car, the Phantom 1. Even more durable than its predecessor, it was also faster.
In 1928, General Motors built a four-mile, high-speed track in their test area in Michigan. After many runs, it was discovered that no American car could run the loop at full throttle for more than two laps. The main bearings would go. Then a stock Phantom I, equipped with a seven-passenger Barker body, was brought to the track. To the amazement of the American engineers, the big machine lapped the course at 80 mph. This alone was no great accomplishment, but the Rolls-Royce did it all day long!
The Phantom 11 came next, some years later. It has been called the finest Rolls-Royce built, but some believe the Phantom 111 is even better. There seemed to be no end to the improvements and refinements, ROLLS-ROYCE when in 1933, Henry Royce died. Strangely enough, his personality and perfectionist methods had been so firmly impressed on the company that the quality of the cars designed since his death has not varied. With his death came the only change in the famous radiator. The Board of Directors decreed that the famous radiator monogram should be changed from red to black. To this day each Rolls-Royce mourns its founder.
Rolls-Royce engines have been put to many uses. Sir Henry Segrave put one in a speedboat and set a new record. Sir Malcolm Campbell topped it in his Bluebird speedboat, and his Bluebird car drove to a land speed record of 301 mph at Bonneville. Not to be outdone by that feat, George Eyston, of MG fame, had a huge six ton monster built. He named it the Thunderbolt. Carrying three axles, some with double wheels, its two Rolls-Royce R-type engines powered it to a new record of 357 mph.
In World War II, Rolls-Royce Merlin engines were the heart of the Spitfire fighter planes. Some were used in tanks, and both Packard and Ford built them in Detroit for use in the American P-51 Mustang.
Today, Rolls-Royce makes jet engines, and they still build cars with the same loving care and precision applied to the early Silver Ghost. The Silver Dawn and the Silver Cloud carry on the tradition in our time, and recently a brand new machine appeared from the Derby factory. This Rolls-Royce has a V-8 engine, built of aluminum! Henry Royce, who for so many years directed the company from his invalid's bed, seems to be making his presence felt from the grave.