European Automotive Hall of Fame

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  • Rolls-Royce: An unlikely but brilliant pair


    The aristocrat and the miller's son created a lasting legacy.

    Automotive News Europe

    Two British motoring pioneers whose names are forever linked by a hyphen made unlikely business partners.

    Charles Stewart Rolls was born in 1877 in London's fashionable Mayfair district. As a member of the aristocracy, he was educated at one of the UK's top schools (Eton) and one of its best colleges (Trinity at Cambridge).

    Frederick Henry Royce was born in 1863 near Peterborough, the son of a miller who died in poverty. Royce held a series of odd jobs -- including telegram messenger in Mayfair -- before an aunt sponsored his apprenticeship at the Great Northern Railway.

    What the two men shared was a love for engineering and a passion for the car, an industry still in its infancy when they met in 1904.

    They had separate roles. Royce was the practical, hard-working man who designed every element of Rolls-Royce engines and chassis. Rolls provided much of the finance -- and the social connections that generated sales.

    It was a great partnership, but lasted only six years. In 1910, Rolls, an aviation pioneer, became the first Briton to die in an air crash. He was 32.

    Royce continued to make all the company's engineering decisions, but was aided on the commercial side by Claude Johnson, a man many later called the hyphen in Rolls-Royce.

    During World War I, Rolls-Royce began designing and manufacturing airplane engines, a business that was to become the dominant company activity.

    After the war, Rolls-Royce returned to manufacturing the chassis that coachbuilder specialists turned into cars. Royce's Silver Ghosts and later Phantoms earned the company the unofficial title of "best car in the world."

    By then, airplane engines increasingly took up Royce's time. He was knighted in 1930 for his work on the engines that powered the Supermarine aircraft that won the Schneider Trophy outright.

    The following year, Rolls-Royce bought the assets of the bankrupt Bentley Motors. Sir Henry's reign at Rolls-Royce was by then almost over. He had been in poor health most of his adult life. Despite his age, though, he continued to oversee all elements of the engineering that went into the firm's chassis and engines.

    A perfectionist and workaholic, Royce died in 1933 at the age of 70.