With a shared ambition to make the future of motoring extraordinary, the Honourable Charles Rolls and Sir Henry Royce joined forces in 1904. Despite being from very different backgrounds, the founders of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars formed an unlikely partnership – one forged from a shared passion for engineering and a desire to create the Best Car in the World.
Born in 1877 in London’s affluent Berkeley Square, Charles Stewart Rolls was the third son of Lord and Lady Llangattock. After school at Eton, Rolls studied mechanical engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was the first undergraduate to own a motor car. Having gained a reputation for tinkering with engines, Rolls earned himself the nicknames ‘Dirty Rolls’ and ‘Petrolls’.
By the time he left university, Rolls was already an accomplished motorist. In 1903, he broke the world land speed record in Dublin driving a 30hp Mors at nearly 83mph. But because the timing equipment was not approved, the governing body refused to acknowledge his accomplishment.
To fund his sporting activities, Rolls set up one of the first car dealerships in Britain with his friend Claude Johnson: CS Rolls & Co. Together they imported and sold Peugeot motor cars from France and Minerva motor cars from Belgium.
At 14 years old, one of Royce’s aunts paid for him to begin an apprenticeship with Great Northern Railway Works. Working under one of the outstanding engineers of the day, Royce took every opportunity to educate himself, spending his evenings studying algebra, French and electrical engineering. With a natural talent for engineering, Royce landed a job with the Electric Light and Power Company.
Royce’s true ambition was to make engineering his full-time job. He started a business with his fellow engineer friend, Ernest Claremont – working around the clock to make electrical components such as doorbells and dynamos. It was during this time that Royce patented improvements to the bayonet light bulb that are still in use today.
It wasn’t until he bought a second-hand two-cylinder French Decauville that Royce became interested in building motor cars. He had an instinctive desire for perfection and an innate work ethic that later became a pillar of Rolls-Royce philosophy: “Take the best that exists and make it better.”
Having found construction faults in the French Decauville, Royce vowed to do better. By the end of 1903, he had designed and built his first petrol engine – and in April 1904, he drove his first Royce 10hp motor car into town.
Henry Edmunds, a shareholder in Royce’s company and a friend of Rolls, was boasting to him about his new 10hp Royce motor car. At the time, Rolls was frustrated at only being able to sell foreign imports, so Edmunds arranged a meeting with the man behind the 10hp.
Little did Edmunds know that the meeting he organised would change the future of motoring forever.
Rolls and Royce first met on 4 May 1904 in Manchester. Within minutes of seeing Royce’s twin-cylinder 10hp, Rolls knew he had found what he was looking for. After taking the motor car for a drive, Rolls agreed on the spot to sell as many motor cars as Royce could build, under the name Rolls-Royce.
Creating a brand requires vision. So while Rolls and Royce were busy building and selling motor cars, it was Rolls’ partner, Claude Johnson, who stepped into the role of Managing Director and expanded the fledgling company’s reputation. A genius at publicity, Claude Johnson was so integral to the success of the company that he became known as ‘the hyphen in Rolls-Royce’.
One of Johnson’s early adverts for the 40/50hp motor car promoted it as: ‘The six-cylinder Rolls-Royce – not one of the best, but the Best Car in the World.’ In that moment, he had introduced the phrase that would forever be associated with Rolls-Royce.
Johnson’s decision to orchestrate a series of publicity stunts to promote the quietness and reliability of Rolls-Royce motor cars was incredibly effective. It demonstrated their superior performance and created global exposure for their world-class engineering. The rest is history.