They are, to be sure, the stuff of legends—and not a few myths, too. Rolls-Royce. The mere mention of the name says it all to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with automobiles. They are the royalty of the automotive world, almost without equal in terms of luxury, quality, heritage and bloodlines. We’re talking about a car owned by history’s crème de la Crème: Rudyard Kipling. George Bernard Shaw. Ernest Hemingway. Alfred Nobel. Richard Burton. John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Barbra Streisand. Keith Moon. King Constantine of Greece. Princess Grace of Monaco. And that’s just a very brief listing. There were plenty others. As Sir Henry Royce himself once said, “Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it.” The first Rolls-Royce hit the streets in December, 1904, starting with an estimated 20 ten horsepower cars. There also were several models including a three cylinder 15 horsepower model and a four cylinder 20 horsepower one. Soon, following the company’s philosophy of producing a range of models with a variety of engines, Rolls-Royce introduced a 30 horsepower, six cylinder model. As befits a car as distinguished as Rolls-Royce, the first model bowed at the then-prestigious Paris Salon. Another interesting point—Rolls-Royce developed a V-8 engine very early on. The first one was pretty much unsuccessful, but undaunted, Rolls-Royce went on to introduce a six cylinder model called the 40/50, and company officials today say it went a great way toward establishing Rolls-Royce as a quiet, reliable, and smooth automobile. You might be surprised to know that racing also figured largely in Rolls-Royce’s early history. A 20 horsepower car was entered in touring car events in 1905, and at one point, a model called the Light Twenty was driven from Monte Carlo to London in 37 hours, 30 minutes. There were other Rolls-Royce models that were raced in the U.S., winning one match in Yonkers, N.Y. One of the most storied names in Rolls-Royce’s history is the Silver Ghost. The first one was actually the 12th 40/50 model that was produced, and all of its body work and trim was painted silver—hence the name Silver Ghost. It became so popular that Sir Henry Royce designed a new plant to build it—on Nightingale Road in Derby, England. The Silver Ghost was in production through 1925, and among the popular styles were the Barker Tourer; Hooper Landaulet; London-Edinburgh type, and Barker enclosed cabriolet. The most desirable 40/50 model however, may have been one known as the London Edinburgh, built in 1911 as part of a response to a challenge made by another auto maker of the era, Napier, which challenged Rolls-Royce to compete against them in a race between those two cities, followed by a grueling high speed run at Brooklands. The London Edinburgh had a top speed of 78.2 miles per hour at Brooklands. One of the best known part of a Rolls is the grille—and the graceful radiator mascot that tops it off. The mascot, interestingly enough, was not something Sir Henry wanted for his car—but he finally agreed to have one commissioned, and the model for the famous mascot was Eleanor Thornton, a secretary of a fellow high official in the company. Its official name is “The Spirit of Ecstacy,” though Rolls-Royce says it’s also mistakenly called “The Flying Lady” or “The Silver Lady.” By the way, one of the myths surrounding Rolls is that the emblem on the radiator was changed from red to black in honor of the sudden death of Charles Rolls in July, 1910 in a flying accident which made him the first Britisher to be killed in such a way. The truth is that the company selected black as a way to distinguish among its primary models. The other model had red lettering. Another myth is that Rolls never, but never disclosed exactly how many horsepower lay lurking beneath the hoods of their cars. That’s not true, of course, as you will see horsepower figures sprinkled throughout this article. Equally untrue—for obvious and practical reasons—is the myth that the hoods could never be unlocked by any but a Rolls mechanic. In 1914, Rolls-Royce went into aircraft production, and by 1921, they opened a manufacturing plant in Springfield, Mass. In a step to diversify even further, the company in 1922 introduced a model nicknamed the “Baby Rolls Royce”, the 20, which was produced until 1929. It had a 20 horsepower straight 8, and the most common body types were the Barker standard tourer and saloon. In 1925, it was time to replace the immortal Silver Ghost, and Rolls-Royce did it with a nameplate that was every bit the equal of the outgoing legend. It was the Phantom, and it was produced both in Great Britain and in the United States. The first one was really called the Phantom 1, as the name was used subsequently in newer models, including the Phantom II from 1929 to 1935; the Phantom II Continental, which was a short wheelbase car with a number of modifications including a low steering column, the Phantom III, which was powered by the company’s first V12 engine. There were of course, legendary coach builders which provided the bodywork for these cars, including Park Ward, which was particularly known for its limousine and sedanca de ville types. In 1931, the Springfield, Mass. Plant closed, and Rolls took over Bentley. By the time the 1950s and 60s arrived, the two cars were best identified depending on grille-work, with Bentley having a more contemporary, lower-profile design. Over the years, Bentley was also known for having a more sporting character and heritage than Rolls-Royce possessed. In 1933, Rolls-Royce’s esteemed co-founder, Sir Henry Royce, died. From 1936 to 1938, Rolls introduced the 25/30 which had a 115 horsepower engine with a top speed of around 80 miles per hour. Sticking with the ghostly themes for its majestic cars, Rolls-Royce introduced the regal looking Wraith, which was built from 1938 to 1939, with an engine that could cruise between 60 and 70 miles per hour—a pretty fast speed for those days. Its body styles included the Park Ward four-light touring saloon, the H.J. Mulliner four-light touring saloon, and the Park Ward Limousine. In 1947, Rolls moved its operations into a new factory, this one located in Crewe, England. Coachbuilt bodies continued to be important for Rolls, and in 1947, it introduced the Silver Wraith, a model produced through 1959, all having coachbuilt bodies. In a break from tradition, Rolls chose a non-other worldly name for its next new model, the Silver Dawn, which had a body which looked more and more like the one which most people associate with Rolls, with the upright roof, big pontoon fenders, and stately grille. The Silver Dawn was made through 1955. If you are wondering which Rolls is the rarest in the world, look to the Phantom IV, which was built for royalty and heads of state. It was a massive 229 inches long, powered by a straight eight, and was made in only 18 examples. Perhaps the most familiar Rolls Royce model known to Americans living today was the Silver Cloud, which bowed in 1955. It had a completely new body that bore almost all of the design hallmarks which remain with Rolls even to this day—a long hood, upright grille, sloping rear end, and headlights mounted close to the grille work. The Silver Cloud was produced through 1959 and was followed by the Silver Cloud II, made between 1959 and 1962. Its best known difference as compared with the earlier Silver Cloud was a a new 185 horsepower V-8 engine with a top speed of about 113 miles per hour. Even a stoutly traditional car like Rolls eventually bows to changing tastes in style, and it happened in 1962, when the Silver Cloud III bowed. It had dual, horizontally mounted headlamps, something which had long since appeared on other cars. It also had a faster engine, this time 200 horsepower with a top speed of 117. The Silver Shadow I could be seen as a rather breath-taking hurdle headlong into the modern automotive world for Rolls-Royce. When it was introduced in 1965, that much became clear because it did not have the big pontoon fenders, the elongated hood and tall stance that had marked Rolls almost since its introduction. The Silver Shadow I had smooth flanks, a lowered profile and an altogether contemporary look. It also had monocoque construction for the first time on a Rolls, and the engine now produced 220 horsepower with a top speed of 115. This car was produced through 1976. In 1971, Rolls-Royce Limited went into receivership and the companies airplane and automotive operations were separated. There were other distinctive Rolls models in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. They include the Corniche, a two door coachbuilt model built by hand by Mulliner Park Ward produced from 1971 to 1987, the ultramodern and totally “un-Rolls-Royce-looking” Camargue that was styled by the Italilan designer Pininfarina from 1975 to 1986 and the Silver Seraph, built until 2001 and the last model built at the company’s Crewe factory. In January, 2003, a new era began for Rolls-Royce. It was now owned by BMW Group, and was a unit of that company. It also was the first time that the Rolls-Royce and Bentley makes were formally seperated. The new company was now known as Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. Today’s Rolls is the all-new Phantom, a striking sedan with a V-12 engine, and the first from the car maker to be built under BMW ownership. It also is the first to be made at the new headquarters in Goodwood, Sussex, England.

aj on twitter aj on facebook