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Rolls-Royce: A Brief History, Part One

Article by: Hannah in Group - 9 September

The history of the Rolls-Royce car manufacturing company is a complicated one. Today, the multiple buy-outs, subtle renamings and divisions that the marque has undergone since its founding in 1906 has resulted in the current Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited’s having very little connection with the original company. Today’s company dates from 2003 and is owned by BMW, but here at Fiennes Classics and Fiennes Engineering the Rolls-Royce cars that are the heart of our business date from the original company’s golden era.

Rolls-Royce was founded in Manchester by Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. Rolls owned a motor dealership in Fulham; Royce had a background in, amongst other things, the manufacture of electric cranes and dynamos. They met in 1904 when Royce had just built his first car, the Royce 10, and they decided to go into partnership. In December of that year Rolls signed up to his dealership taking all of the cars Royce could make. There would be four models, of increasing power, and they would be sold under the badge of Rolls-Royce. The first car, the Rolls-Royce 10hp was unveiled in Paris in December of 1904.

Rolls-Royce Ltd. was formed in 1906 and shares were offered for public sale to enable the company to build a factory in Derby. Royce did much of the design for the facility, which opened in 1908. In 1907 Rolls-Royce had bought out Rolls’ motor dealership. Royce’s skills as a designer quickly acquired for the new business a reputation for reliability and longevity.

Top of the initial range was a 30 hp six cylinder model, but Royce started work on a new and more powerful car in 1906. Claude Johnson, Commercial Managing Director of the company, persuaded the directors to focus all of their attention on this new car. It was Johnson who had one of these 40/50 hp cars finished in silver and called it Silver Ghost, an unofficial name that stuck when the press picked it up. All 40/50 cars through to the introduction of the Phantom in 1925 became known as Silver Ghosts. In excess of 6,000 Silver Ghosts were built, and demand for the model in the USA led to the building of a Rolls-Royce factory in Springfield, Massachusetts.

It was during the First World War that the company first began building engines for aircraft, and after the war Rolls-Royce successfully avoided being pressured into merging with other manufacturers. In 1922 they introduced the smaller, cheaper Twenty in addition to the Silver Ghost. The Phantom, launched in 1925, would enjoy a staggering production run that didn’t end until the 1980s, although for its last few decades it was built only for heads of state.

Such then is the early history of this most distinguished of British car manufacturers. More success was to come, and in part 2 we will look at Rolls-Royce’s acquisition of Bentley and the halcion days of the 1930s and the years just after World War 2, long before the problems of the 1960s spelled disaster. We will look also at the particular connection that we here at Fiennes Classics and Fiennes Engineering have with this marque, and why we may well be the best place in the world to care for one of these beautiful vehicles if you are lucky enough to be an owner.