The Birth of Rolls Royce

The origins of the famous company.

The two men who met over lunch at the Grand Central Hotel in Manchester that day in the dawn of the age of the motor-car could scarcely have seemed less alike. C. S. Rolls was an Old Etonian daredevil of twenty-six from a rich Monmouthshire landed family. Enthusiastic and likeable, with a passion for speed and machinery, he studied mechanical engineering at Cambridge, where he won a half-blue for bicycle-racing and bought himself a 3.75 horsepower Peugeot, the most powerful car in existence. He hurled himself eagerly into motor-racing and ballooning, and in 1900 in a Panhard he won the Thousand Miles Reliability Trial, inspired by the Northcliffe newspapers, which made him the best-known ‘autocarist’ in England. In 1903 Rolls and a partner, Claude Johnson, set up a company to import and sell foreign cars, but Rolls wanted to give his name to an English car which would be the Steinway of the roads.

Henry Royce was fourteen years older, a big, bearded, solid man, a workaholic and perfectionist, who had come up the hard way. As Rolls later said, he was ‘no ordinary man but a man of exceptional ingenuity and power of overcoming difficulties’. Of Cambridgeshire farming stock, the son of a struggling miller, he had begun to earn money as a paper boy aged nine, somehow got an education at night-school and took an engineering apprenticeship. He started an electrical engineering business in Manchester before designing and building his own car. It made an excellent impression for speed and reliability on a keen motorist named Henry Edmunds, who knew Charles Rolls and more or less dragged him to meet Royce in Manchester. The two men took to each other almost instantly and agreed to form the Rolls-Royce car company. Rolls was so delighted with Royce’s quiet little two-cylinder car that he borrowed it on the spot, drove it back to London, woke Claude Johnson up in the middle of the night and insisted on giving him a ride in it. By the end of 1904 the first Rolls-Royces were appearing, with the characteristic radiator that would become the world’s best-known symbol of supreme motoring excellence.

Claude Johnson ran the company as managing director, Royce designed and built the cars and Rolls put them in the public eye. In 1906 he won the Tourist Trophy Race in the Isle of Man at an average speed of 39mph, despite the attentions of a swarm of bees and the rival Napiers, Darracqs, Minervas and Arrol-Johnstons. That year Rolls-Royce produced a luxury six-cylinder car, the Silver Ghost, that ran so smoothly a glass of water could stand on the engine without spilling. ‘The length of it, the silence, the stately form of it,’ wrote Max Pemberton, Royce’s biographer, ‘were beyond anything the motoring world had ever known’. For sixteen years it was the only model Rolls-Royce built.