Rolls Royce

By Ned Reich

The Rolls Royce automobile was the brainchild of Frederick Henry Royce who, as a self taught engineer was a successful producer of electric cranes and other heavy electrical equipment. In 1900 he saw a new French car and after examining and driving it he concluded that he could design one that wouldn't shake, that wouldn't make lots of noise and that would run reliably. He then built 3 cars that met those standards and their phenomenal performance came to the attention of Charles Stewart Rolls, an aristocrat who sold cars in London in partnership with Claude Johnson. In 1904 an agreement was reached that had Royce building cars and Rolls selling them with the products carrying the name, Rolls Royce.

From the start they offered a choice of different size engines and chassis that even included a mid engine V 8 to cover as broad a range of their market as possible. But, even though the cars met Royce's standards for quiet and reliability sales were not outstanding. It was Claude Johnson who suggested that the firm concentrate on one model a daring move, but at this early stage in automobile production there were no precedents to guide industry pioneers. But Johnson and Rolls were apparently confident in aiming their efforts at the luxury market and that Royce could design a chassis worthy of their confidence.

In the United States at this time Henry Ford had a problem similar to that of Rolls and Royce. He was offering a variety of models that weren't selling well so he decided to focus all of his design and production attention on a car that was cheap to build and that was ideally suited to the low price market and to the distances and road conditions typical of America then. The Model T of 1908 was the result. The impact of Ford's decision was historic, but Rolls Royce was to play a significant part in history later on.

Rolls Royce was correct in their one model approach. Royce's solution was state of the art for 1906, but while not especially innovative the chassis was capable of carrying luxury coachwork in reliable quiet and earned a solid reputation in that rarified market.

Meanwhile C. S. Rolls had developed an interest in aeronautics, first balloons and then airplanes. The Short Brothers built his balloons and then his airplanes when they obtained a license to construct the Wright Flyer. Rolls used his aircraft to enter competitions at air meets that included altitude, endurance and precision landing trials. It was at one of these latter trials that Rolls lost his life in 1910. He had had his elevator/stabilizer enlarged so that he could dive on his landing target more steeply and quickly, but it failed when he attempted to recover from the dive.

Claude Johnson took over sales and business management and the single model that Royce designed was the 40-50 horsepower and soon named the Silver Ghost. These chassis were entered in some grueling endurance and distance events that again showed their durability and reliability. A testament to this was their adaptation in World War I as armored cars that often carried a cylindrical turret sprouting a machine gun.

By 1914 the Silver Ghost's solid reputation for silence and durability was augmented by three icons that gave the cars immediate identity. The first was the Greek temple portico shape of the radiator and the crisp form that it gave to the hood behind it. The second was the RR monogram that was fixed to the front of the radiator just below the cap, and finally it was the Flying Lady mascot, an optional accessory at first, riding on the radiator cap itself. She was a thinly draped female figure called, "The Spirit of Ecstasy" by the company, and with the badge and the radiator became the automotive symbol of perfection and prestige.

With the end of the war the Silver Ghost was well established in the luxury market, the company had embarked on aircraft engine production and Royce was in semi-retirement but still in charge of important design matters. While there was a strong demand for automobiles, the weak economy following the war suggested to the company that a lower priced chassis was needed to supplement its hi end production of 40-50. So in 1922 the 20 horsepower appeared. Like the Ghost it had a straight 6-cylinder engine but with pushrod operated overhead valves. The model was replaced in 1929 by the 20-25 horsepower.

The Silver Ghost persisted with its 1906 vintage technology. Over the years more power had been coaxed from the engine but never at the cost of silence or reliability. The radiator had been enlarged, the rear suspension had been changed and in the year before production ceased front brakes were added. However it must have been clear that competition from other premier makes called for some changes especially the engine. In 1925 the New Phantom (later Phantom I) was introduced but it was a new pushrod 6 in a Silver Ghost chassis and while it met the usual high standards set early on it was an interim solution.

In 1929 the Phantom II was introduced. It was an entirely new chassis fully competitive with the best in the luxury market. Its 6-cylinder pushrod engine and the whole chassis had been completely redesigned for yet another level of refinement. This chassis was in production through 1935, and in two wheelbases carried some of the most beautiful coachwork of the classic era.

Continuing the two-model policy the 20-25 horsepower replaced the 20 horsepower in 1930 and the factory continued aircraft engine production. A Rolls Royce liquid cooled V 12 engine powered the airplane that won the Schneider Trophy for Great Britain in 1931 and Frederick Henry Royce died in 1933.

In response to multi-cylinder competition from makes like Cadillac, Hispano-Suiza, Lincoln, Marmon, Packard and Pierce Arrow, Rolls Royce introduced their V 12 in 1936, the Phantom III. Like the P II in its day it was entirely new including independent suspension for the front wheels, a feature that may have required a royalty payment to General Motors. At this time the 25-30 chassis replaced the 20-25 that was replaced by the Wraith in 1939 the last year for the P III. The Wraith was also equipped with independent front suspension.

The years leading up to World War II were development and testing years for Rolls Royce aircraft engines, especially the Merlin, a formidable V 12 power plant that was the descendent of the engine that powered the Schneider Trophy winner, which was the world speed record for aircraft, in 1931. In the early 1930’s Hawker and Vickers were developing their single seat fighters, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, around the Merlin engine. In some cases airframe production began before engines were ready but there were those who understood the need for a modem air force to defend the country. When the air war finally came to Britain in the summer of 1940 radar warned of the enemy's approach and the Merlin powered fighters went aloft to meet them. The fighters were so relentlessly effective in the weeks that followed that the Germans called off their plans to invade Great Britain, and Merlin engines went on to power other aircraft that ultimately contributed to victory.

The North American P 51 was designed in 1940 as a more modem supplement to the Spitfire that dated from 1936. Like the Spitfire it was designed around the Rolls Royce Merlin, but the airframe was to be built in the USA. The problem was that Rolls Royce did not have the capacity to build the quantity of engines needed for the numbers of the P 51s that were projected. The company asked Ford if they would fill the order and they said no. They then asked Packard, a company that had plenty of experience with V 12 engines going back to the Twin Six automobile and the Liberty aircraft engine of World War I. Packard agreed and Merlin engines were available for the P 51 fighters that flew thousands of sorties protecting bombers on their wartime air raids.

After the war the Silver Wraith was the continuation of the Wraith but its smaller partner the Silver Dawn became the basis for further automobile development that included a V 8 engine in later models. Meanwhile aircraft engine development especially jet engines became the principal focus of the company and eventually it was split from the automobile division when that became part of the Bavarian Motor Works in 1998.

Westminster Abbey in the center London is appropriately close to the Parliament, buildings that are the seat of government for a country that has played a major role in the history of western civilization for at least the last 1000 years. The venerable gothic building by itself is important enough to be a landmark, but it is more than that, it is a national shrine. On the walls and floors everywhere there are monuments and graves of people of all kinds of professions and ranks who made significant contributions to the history of England and to Great Britain as a whole. As one walks in from the west entrance into the nave on the left and above is a stained glass window dedicated Frederick Henry Royce and to the Royal Air Force in the victory in the Battle of Britain. Probably nowhere else on earth has such an honor been bestowed on a maker of fine automobiles for helping to save his country from an enemy invasion and by extension the ultimate victory in war.