Rolls-Royce was a British luxury car and later an aero-engine manufacturing business established in 1904 in ManchesterUnited Kingdom by the partnership of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. Building on Royce’s reputation established with his cranes they quickly developed a reputation for superior engineering by manufacturing the “best car in the world”. The First World War brought them into manufacturing aero-engines. Joint development of jet engines began in 1940 and they entered production. Rolls-Royce has built an enduring reputation for development and manufacture of engines for defence and civil aircraft.

In the late 1960s, Rolls-Royce was adversely affected by the mismanaged development of its advanced RB211 jet engine and consequent cost over-runs, though it ultimately proved a great success. In 1971, the owners were obliged to liquidate their business. The useful portions were bought by a new government-owned company named Rolls-Royce (1971) Limited which continued the core business but sold the holdings in British Aircraft Corporation(BAC) almost immediately and transferred ownership of the profitable but now financially insignificant car division to Rolls-Royce Motors Holdings Limited, which it sold to Vickers in 1980. Rolls-Royce obtained consent to drop 1971 from its name in 1977.

The Rolls-Royce business remained nationalised until 1987 when, after renaming the owner Rolls-Royce plc, the government sold it to the public. Rolls-Royce plc still owns and operates Rolls-Royce’s principal business, though, since 2003, it is technically a subsidiary of listed holding company Rolls-Royce Holdings.

A marketing survey in 1987 showed that only Coca-Cola was a more widely known brand than Rolls-Royce.[1]

Henry Royce started an electrical and mechanical business in 1884. He made his first car, a two-cylinder Royce 10, in his Manchester factory in 1904. Henry Royce was introduced to Charles Rolls at the Midland Hotel, Manchesteron 4 May of that year. Rolls was proprietor of an early motor car dealership, C.S. Rolls & Co. in Fulham.[2]Pages from a very early brochure

In spite of his preference for three- or four-cylinder cars, Rolls was impressed with the Royce 10, and in a subsequent agreement on 23 December 1904 agreed to take all the cars Royce could make. There would be four models: 

  • a 10 hp (7.5 kW), two-cylinder model selling at £395 (£40,000 in 2014),[3]
  • a 15 hp (11 kW) three-cylinder at £500 (£50,000 in 2014),[3]
  • a 20 hp (15 kW) four-cylinder at £650 (£60,000 in 2014),[3]
  • a 30 hp (22 kW) six-cylinder model priced at £890 (£90,000 in 2014),[3]

All would be badged as Rolls-Royces and be sold exclusively by Rolls. The first Rolls-Royce car, the Rolls-Royce 10 hp, was unveiled at the Paris Salon in December 1904.

Rolls-Royce Limited was formed on 15 March 1906, by which time it was apparent that new premises were required for production of cars. After considering sites in Manchester, CoventryBradford and Leicester, it was an offer from Derby‘s council of cheap electricity that resulted in the decision to acquire a 12.7 acres (51,000 m2) site on the southern edge of that city. The new factory was largely designed by Royce, and production began in early 1908, with a formal opening on 9 July 1908 by Sir John Montagu. The investment in the new company required further capital to be raised, and on 6 December 1906 £100,000 of new shares were offered to the public. In 1907, Rolls-Royce bought out C.S. Rolls & Co.[4] (The non-motor car interests of Royce Ltd. continued to operate separately).

Rolls-Royce 40/50[edit]

During 1906 Royce had been developing an improved six-cylinder model with more power than the Rolls-Royce 30 hp. Initially designated the 40/50 hp, this was Rolls-Royce’s first all-new model.[5]In March 1908, Claude Johnson, Commercial Managing Director and sometimes described as the hyphen in Rolls-Royce,[6] succeeded in persuading Royce and the other directors that Rolls-Royce should concentrate exclusively on the new model, and all the earlier models were duly discontinued.[2] Johnson had an early example finished in silver and named, as if it were a yacht, Silver Ghost. Unofficially the press and public immediately picked up and used Silver Ghost for all the 40/50 cars made until the introduction of the 40/50 Phantom in 1925.[7]

The new 40/50 was responsible for Rolls-Royce’s early reputation with over 6,000 built. Its chassis was used as a basis for the first British armoured car used in both world wars.

Rolls-Royce Eagle aero-engine[edit]

Aero-engine manufacturing began in 1914 at the government’s request.[2] The first model, the Rolls-Royce Eagle, entered production in 1915. Two Eagles powered Alcock and Brown‘s first non-stop trans-Atlantic crossing by aeroplane mounted on their converted Vickers Vimy bomber.

In 1931, Rolls-Royce acquired Bentley, the small sports/racing car maker and potential rival,[2] after the latter’s finances failed to weather the onset of the Great Depression. Rolls-Royce stopped production of the new Bentley 8 Litre, which was threatening sales of their current Phantom, disposed of remaining Bentley assets and using just the Bentley name and its repute.

After two years of development Rolls-Royce introduced a new and quite different ultra-civilised medium-size Bentley, the Bentley 3½ Litre. Advertised as “the silent sports car” and very much in the Rolls-Royce mould, it was a private entry by Eddie Hall (but supported by Rolls-Royce) in the 1934, 1935 and 1936 RAC Tourist Trophy sports car races on the Ards Circuit, where it recorded the fastest average speed in each year (ahead of Lagondas and Bugattis). This helped the Sales Department as old Bentley customers had been inclined to doubt that the new Crewe Bentley could out-perform its famous predecessors.[11]

Immediately after World War II (when fully-tooled pressed-steel cars were produced in the factory, rather than chassis sent to a coachbuilder for a custom-built body [12]) until 2002, standard Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars were usually nearly identical – Bentleys were badge engineered; only the radiator grille and minor details differed.

In 1933, the colour of the Rolls-Royce radiator monogram was changed from red to black; because the red sometimes clashed with the coachwork colour selected by clients, and not as a mark of respect for the death of Royce later that year as is commonly stated.[13]

The British government built a shadow factory in Crewe in 1938 for Rolls-Royce where they could build their Merlin and Griffon aero engines. Car production was moved there in 1946 for space to construct bodies and to leave space for aero engines at Derby. The site was bought from the government in 1973.[2] It is now Bentley Crewe.

In 1940, a contract was signed with the Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit, Michigan, for the production of Merlin aero-engines for World War II in the USA.

Production focused on aero engines but a variant of the Merlin engine, known as the Meteor, was developed for the Cromwell tank. The Meteor’s development completed in 1943 the same team at the Belper foundry restarted work on an eight-cylinder car engine widening its uses and it became the pattern for the British Army’s B range of petrol engines for post war combat vehicles[2] in particular in Alvis‘s FV600 range,[nb 2] Daimler‘s FerretHumber‘s Hornet and Pig and Austin‘s Champ.