When you think of Rolls-Royce, you probably think of slick, high-end luxury vehicles with huge price-tags. These cars are famed for their aesthetic appeal, mechanical flawlessness, and overall quality of construction. The seeds of the company were planted back in 1884, when Henry Royce started his own business focusing on mechanical and electrical engineering. He manufactured several machines, including electric cranes. However, it was not until 20 years later that Royce created his first vehicle.
After a fateful 1904 meeting at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, aristocrat Charles Rolls agreed to purchase all of the vehicles that Royce created (he was quite impressed with his designs!). And thus, Rolls-Royce was born. The company produced top-of-the-line vehicles for nearly 70 years, before financial troubles caused the company to be reorganized and relaunched as two separate companies: Rolls-Royce Plc and Rolls-Royce Motors Limited. The British defense company Vickers acquired Rolls-Royce Motors, but sold it in 1998 to the Volkswagen Group.
Volkswagen did not have the right to build a Rolls-Royce, however. This right was still held by BMW. After further negotiation, Volkswagen and BMW agreed that BMW could brand its cars Rolls-Royce, whereas Volkswagen would take control of the Bentley/Rolls-Royce division of Rolls-Royce Motors.
Today, Rolls-Royce is owned exclusively by BMW AG, with headquarters in Goodwood, United Kindgom. They continue to produce several models of car, including the Ghost, Series II, Phantom, Wraith, Silver Seraph, and Corniche (along with subvariants of each). But Rolls-Royce isn’t just a top-end vehicle producer. It has a long, interesting history that you may not know about. So, without further ado, here are Twenty Facts You Never Knew about Rolls-Royce.
The First Rolls-Royce Made 10 Horsepower
The very first Rolls-Royce vehicle was hand-built by Henry Royce back in 1904. He created a two-cylinder, ten-horsepower car after deciding that he could create a better car than the French. This vehicle used a three-bearing crank with twin camshafts operating the side exhaust and the overhead valves. The 1.8-liter motor made use of a 3-speed manual transmission to get this car rolling. Henry Royce got in touch with Charles Rolls through Henry Edmunds. Edmunds had driven Royce’s first vehicle on the Automobile Club’s Sideslip Trials. After this test, Edmunds encouraged Rolls to set up a meeting with Henry Royce. A short time later, the three met at the Midland Hotel and the fateful deal was made.
65% of All Rolls-Royce Vehicles are Still Roadworthy
Rolls-Royce vehicles are known for their high-quality construction and near-silent operation. Their refusal to fail is a testament to the skills of the Rolls-Royce mechanics – who are better known as artisans. In fact, about 65% of all Rolls-Royce cars ever produced are still on the road today. The oldest working condition Rolls-Royce is one of the very first ever produced. A 1904 model, owned by Scotland inhabitant Thomas Love Jr., is still in perfect working condition over a century after it was created.
One Rolls-Royce Motor Held Three Consecutive Records
Rolls-Royce did more than design car engines. They also designed powerplants for aeronautics and marine applications. In the early 1930s, with the backing of the British Air Ministry, the company decided to attempt to create an engine that would power the fastest aircraft. Known as the R Type engine, it was a 36.7 liter V12 engine, supercharged and liquid-cooled. It made about 2530 horsepower when using high-octane aviation gas. This incredible amount of horsepower – especially for the 1930s – led Rolls-Royce to easily beat the aircraft speed record. In addition, the R Type was used to power a car and a boat, launching them to record speeds. For a few months in 1932, just one engine simultaneously held the speed records for air, land, and water. The R Type is still the only engine to ever hold all three records at the same time.
Charles Rolls Was a Record-Breaking Pilot
Just a few years after forming Rolls-Royce, Charles Rolls decided to make a nonstop flight from one side of the English Channel to the other, and then back. He succeeded in this feat, becoming the first pilot to do so. Charles Rolls also broke another record, though it is admittedly somewhat morbid. He was the first British pilot to die in a flying accident, just months after making his English Channel flight. He died in July, 1910.
Rolls-Royce Has a Chauffeur Training Program
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rolls-Royces worldwide are not always driven by their owners. In fact, the prevalence of chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces has led the company to introduce a training program to complement the experience of their more affluent customers. Known as the White Glove training program, it seeks to train future chauffeurs on etiquette and driving behavior. It even goes so far as to train you how to open or close a door to avoid fingerprints on the car, or how to brake so that the car does not stop in a jarring manner. The program will also teach its students how to judge the characteristics of a road in order to provide the best possible riding experience for the presumably-important person you are chauffeuring around. This is the only program of its kind from a major auto manufacturer, and it reflects quite well on the nature of the company.
One of their Models was Exclusive to Royalty and Heads of State
The Rolls-Royce Phantom IV was produced for and sold only to royalty or heads of state. Just seventeen of these cars were sold, and sixteen of them are now preserved in museums or collections. The car itself featured either a 5.7L or 6.5L straight-eight engine with a 4-speed transmission (automatic after 1956). Each Phantom IV was made to spec. For example, the Phantom IV made for Aga Khan III had a custom body, included a Dictaphone, telescoping ashtrays, cigarette lighters, and Aga Khan’s crest embossed on many of the surfaces. Few of these cars have come to market in recent times. Of those that have, they likely fetched astronomically high prices. However, the purchasers have retained their anonymity – likely due to the rare, expensive, and desirable nature of these cars. The last car to be sold was Aga Khan III’s in 2011.
The Famous Silver Ghost Broke World Records for a Nonstop Motor Run
The Silver Ghost was a six-cylinder Rolls-Royce first constructed in 1906. This car, often heralded as the best car of the times, truly established the Rolls-Royce reputation for reliability and engineering. The car was so well-built, that it made several trips between Glasgow, Scotland, and London, England – breaking the record for a nonstop motor run. The car ran for 14,371 consecutive miles, an unheard-of number for the times. This unprecedented trip shot the Rolls-Royce into the spotlight of early auto enthusiasts, and firmly cemented the company as one that produced quality vehicles.
Rolls-Royce Only Uses Bulls for their Leather
Rolls-Royce has always had a commitment to the highest quality in all of their workmanship. Plus, their leather interiors are famous for their soft feel. But how does the company pull it off? The answer is bull hides. Citing that female cows could get unsightly stretchmarks during pregnancy, the luxury auto manufacturer will only use bull hides in creating the interiors for their cars. These bulls are also raised in a European region that is too cold for mosquitoes. This minimizes the risk of insect bites or other blemishes on their beautifully-crafted interiors. Rolls-Royce truly is committed to achieving the highest quality in every detail of auto manufacturing!
Rolls-Royce Played a Substantial Part in Jet Engine Development
Frank Whittle created the first British design for a practical jet engine in 1941. However, the design could not be easily and fully-implemented without the support of a full engineering team. Plus, as the bureaucracy turned Whittle’s original design became muddled down in changes resulting from pure professional jealousy. Ernest Hives (head of Rolls-Royce’s aero engine division) saved Whittle’s design. Though they slightly redesigned this engine, they made it practical to incorporate into military aircraft. Their improvement on Whittle’s original design, the Rolls-Royce Welland I, powered the first Allied military jet – the Gloster Meteor fighter. This jet was not widely used during the Second World War, but it laid the groundwork for many future implementations of the technology. And it was all thanks to Rolls-Royce!
Rolls-Royce Only Created the Chassis and Motor Until 1949
The original offerings from the luxury manufacturer only included the chassis and motor of any particular vehicle. The body would have to be commissioned from a custom coachbuilder that would not have been a part of Rolls-Royce. The first vehicle that Rolls-Royce actually created the body for was the 1949 Silver Dawn. This was the 2nd new Rolls-Royce created after World War Two. Though the company did offer an option to purchase a stock body option for this vehicle, coachbuilders still were commissioned to design and construct custom body styles for this vehicle.
They Designed a Machine Gun
A far cry from the high-end vehicles that Rolls-Royce originally offered, and even pretty far from their substantial contributions to aeronautics, was the Rolls-Royce Experimental Machine Gun. This .50 caliber gun was designed by Dr. Spirito Mario Viale – the head of a World War II Rolls-Royce engineering team. The gun forewent the gas-operation that was the most common mechanism in use at the time. Instead, it fired from a locked breech, using a wedge-shaped piece to extend and retract the pin. It weighed about 42% less than the common Browning M2, as well as being over a foot shorter. Plus, the gun fired at double the rate of the Browning. However, unforeseen problems plagued the prototype – which looked great on paper. The gun produced a lot of muzzle flash, tended to break, and jammed frequently. Thus, the Browning M2 was retained as the standard service weapon. Only one example of the Rolls-Royce gun exists today. It is in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England.
Modern Rolls-Royce Vehicles Still are Handmade
Even though Rolls-Royce has been around for over a century, many parts of these vehicles are still crafted by hand (despite being a property of BMW, who mass-produces their normal vehicles). For example, all of the interior woodworking and leatherworking is still completed by hand. The “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornaments, the V12 engine, the radiator, and many other parts are still assembled (if not completely fabricated) by hand. The Rolls-Royce professionals that work in the factories have undergone extensive training to ensure that each vehicle rolling off the factory floor will meet the extremely high standards put into place for these luxury cars. This handcrafting contributes to the high price of the vehicles – but it provides an attention to detail and a human touch that cannot be matched by any machine.
Rolls-Royce Powered the World’s First Supersonic Passenger Jet
Though supersonic aircraft existed before, the first passenger jet that could reach supersonic speeds was the Concorde. This jet could reach a maximum speed of 1,354 mph – almost twice the speed of sound. The engine onboard is a Rolls-Royce Olympus motor, with a SNECMA designed exhaust and reheating system. The end result of this powerful motor was a supersonic aircraft that was not legal to fly over the mainland United States due to federal regulation on sonic booms. However, this may be repealed in a decision sometime in 2018. Thus, we could once again see Concorde-style flights crossing the mainland, while we hear sonic booms in the sky,
All Rolls-Royce Pinstripes are Hand-painted by a Single Man
Any pinstriping on any Rolls-Royce created since 2003 was put there by a single man. Mark Court is an artist, and all he ever does is paint pinstripes on Rolls-Royces – a six-figure income for this man with a steady hand. His job is rather high-stress, as the pinstripes are made from a special kind of paint that bonds instantly to the underlying car paint. Thus, there is no room for mistakes. If Court does make a mistake, the car needs to be entirely repainted. He doesn’t just paint pinstripes either. In addition, customers have requested flowers, animal heads, abstract shapes, and their initials. No matter what the request, Court delivers. Not bad for a guy who started out as a humble painter, focusing on pub signs!
Rolls-Royce Motors Powered the First Nonstop Transatlantic Flight
In 1919, Captain John William Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a nonstop flight from Newfoundland to Ireland. The flight took a little over 16 hours to complete, and it was made in dangerous conditions. The two brave pilots encountered fog, ice, snow, and severe turbulence during this dangerous flight. Lieutenant Brown even had to leave their twin-engine biplane bomber to clear out the engine intakes – a job you must accomplish by climbing on the wings mid-flight. The plane itself was powered by two Rolls-Royce motors, each boasting 350 horsepower. The fuel tanks were greatly increased in capacity in order to facilitate the transatlantic flight. Rolls-Royce has played an integral role in so many advances in aviation technology, can we really be surprised that the company pulled this off as well?
Many WWII Planes Were Powered by Henry Royce’s Last Design
Before his death in 1933, Henry Royce managed to design one last motor – the Merlin. This aeronautics motor was used in many frontline aircraft in WWII, including the P-51 Mustang, Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, Avro Lancaster, and de Havilland Mosquito. In fact, every plane on the frontlines during the Battle of Britain was fitted with a Rolls-Royce engine. The Merlin was later equipped with a supercharger, which allowed it better power at sea level. This ensured that the Royal Air Force maintained fighter superiority throughout this conflict. Without Royce’s innovations, it is quite possible that the British would not have been able to maintain their ground during the Battle of Britain. However, thanks to the Rolls-Royce Merlin motor, the Luftwaffe was eventually pushed back by far superior forces.
A Former Rolls-Royce Factory is now a Movie Studio
During the Second World War, the Leavesden Aerodrome in Hertfordshire County of the United Kingdom was used to produce Mosquito fighters (powered by Rolls-Royce motors) as well as other aircraft. Rolls-Royce had an integral part in the wartime production. After the war, Rolls-Royce took over the aerodrome to produce helicopter motors. In continued in this use until 1994, when the airfield was sold to Warner Bros. The first appearance the field made in film was during GoldenEye – a James Bond film created in 1995. In 2010, Warner Bros decided to make the defunct airfield their permanent base. The control towers (as well as some other vestiges of the field) remain, bringing to mind its former uses. The former aerodrome has been used to shoot several famous films, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as well as Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Rolls-Royce Opened a Factory in America
The iconic British luxury car manufacturer got a lot of business from the United States back in the early 20th Century. This led to them electing to open their own manufacturing plant in the States. Started in Springfield, Massachusetts, the American Rolls-Royce plant produced more than 3000 automobiles. However, many Americans preferred British-made Rolls-Royces. Thus, the factory remained open for only ten years before closing its doors permanently. However, the vehicles created in Springfield did meet the Rolls-Royce standards of construction. The body types available in America were not as widely sought-after.
The Silver Ghost Was Used to Create the First British Armored Car
Rolls-Royce’s acclaimed six-cylinder Silver Ghost was the base upon which the first British armored car was constructed. After testing the first Rolls-Royce-based cars on the frontlines in 1914, the British government immediately asked for all available chassis to be presented. Aside from a single exception due to a personal request from King George V himself, every Silver Ghost created during wartime was used in the military. In fact, even some private citizens donated their own models of the Ghost for military use. Rolls-Royce is a pioneer in so many fields. The fact that their chassis could withstand wartime conditions speaks to the indestructability and quality construction of these cars.
Nostradamus Predicted the Rise of Rolls-Royce
We’ll leave it up to you whether you believe this one or not, but Nostradamus wrote, way back in 1548, “From Albion's shore shall come a marvelous conveyance, a carriage silincieux bearing the arms of Rolles de Roi." This certainly sounds like it could be an accurate prediction. After all, Rolls-Royce originates from Albion – which is another term for Britain or England. Plus, they pride themselves on the silent operation of their vehicles. Silincieux is the French word for silent, or quiet. Thus, a “carriage silincieux bearing the arms of Rolles de Roi” could definitely be a Rolls-Royce. They are definitely a marvelous form of transportation.
I hope that you learned something today about this legendary motor manufacturer. Rolls-Royce will go down in history as one of the finest automobile manufacturers – not to mention a groundbreaking aeronautics company. The company dabbles in many fields, but they will always be able to create the highest quality motors. Whether it is the Rolls-Royce of automotive engineering (owned by BMW today) or of aeronautical engineering, we know that the future of the brand is bright. And we can thank it all to a fateful meeting in a hotel, over a two-cylinder ten-horsepower car that started an empire.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker