Rolls-Royce: History on the Road and in the Air

20/25 Rolls-Royce Limousine. (Photo by Ed Callow via Wikimedia Commons)
20/25 Rolls-Royce Limousine. (Photo by Ed Callow via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1904, Charles Stewart Rolls met Frederick Henry Royce in Manchester, England.

Here are some things you may not have known about the history of Rolls-Royce.

Henry Royce built his first car in 1904 in Manchester, which led to him being introduced to car dealer Charles Rolls at the Midland Hotel. Royce’s car, the two-cylinder Royce 10, was named for the number of horsepower the engine produced. The car impressed Rolls, who agreed to sell them at his dealership in Fulham, London. Royce added models with three, four and six cylinders, each with five additional horsepower. The base model 10 sold for the equivalent of almost $60,000 in today’s money. The top model sold for the equivalent of $134,000 today.

The pair formed Rolls-Royce Limited in 1906 and built a factory outside Derby, England. That year was also the debut of what came to be known as The Silver Ghost, which is the vehicle that established Rolls-Royce’s reputation. In 1921, the company opened a factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, to keep up with demand in the United States. The factory operated for 10 years and made 1,701 cars. 1925 saw the introduction of the Phantom. Six years after that the company bought its smaller competitor, Bentley.

Until 1949, Rolls-Royce built only the chassis of the car, leaving the body to be built by specialist coach-builders. The first Rolls-Royce with a factory-built body was the Silver Dawn. Two other models, the Phantom and the Silver Wraith continued to have their bodies built by coach-builders.

In addition to cars, Rolls-Royce is also renowned for their aircraft engines. During World War I, half of the aircraft engines used by the Allies were made by the company. The last engine designed by Henry Royce before his death in 1933 was the Merlin V12. The Merlin was the power plant in some of the most notable planes of World War II, including the British Hurricane and Spitfire and the American P-51 Mustang. Merlins that didn’t make the grade as aircraft engines were used as tank engines under the name Meteor.

Aircraft engines made up the vast majority of the company’s business. However, they also contributed to turbulent times for the company.

As a result of the costs of developing the RB221 turbofan engine, the company was nationalized under the government of Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1971. (As an aside, Edward Heath is the Mr. Heath referred to in the Beatles’ song “Taxman.”) This led to the car division being spun off as a separate entity.

The aircraft engine maker was re-privatized in 1987 and continues to make engines today.

The car company’s fate was a bit more convoluted. The company eventually sold the rights to the design of its hood ornament and radiator grille to Volkswagen. However the aircraft engine company licensed the rights to the name “Rolls-Royce” to BMW. In essence, Volkswagen could build cars that looked like Rolls-Royces, but weren’t allowed to call them that. Meanwhile, BMW could call a car “Rolls-Royce,” but it couldn’t look like one. Eventually, the companies agreed that BMW would be allowed to build Rolls-Royces, while Volkswagen would make the better-selling Bentleys.

The new company, called Rolls-Royce Motor Cars plans to introduce its first sports-utility vehicle in 2017. The least-expensive Rolls-Royce available today has a sticker price of about $300,000.

Our question: What is the name of the figure that is used as a hood ornament by Rolls-Royce?

Today is World Anti-Bullying Day, Bird Day in the United States and Greenery Day in Japan.

It’s “ Star Wars” Day — May the Fourth be with you. Its also Bike to School Day, International Firefighters Day and National Respect for Chickens Day.

It’s the birthday of actress Audrey Hepburn, who was born in 1929; country singer Randy Travis, who is 57, and golfer Rory McIlroy, who turns 27.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1995, the top song in the U.S. was “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan.

The No. 1 movie was “While You Were Sleeping,” and the novel “The Rainmaker” by John Grisham topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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