Rolls-Royce is really just a subsidiary of BMW. Of course, that has only been the case for the last two decades; the Rolls-Royce name has existed for almost 120 years.
Upper-class Charles Rolls (son of Lord and Lady Llangattock) met workhorse engineer Frederick Royce (who had made a name for himself building cranes) in May of 1904. The latter was already building cars while the former was already selling them. Rolls was impressed with Royce’s cars and agreed to sell every one he could produce as long as the car was sold under both names. The rest is history.
The first car sold as a Rolls-Royce was the Rolls-Royce 10, as in 10 horsepower, which was unveiled in Paris in December of 1904. The cars quickly acquired a reputation as “the best car in the world” although, sadly, Charles Rolls would not see much of the company success as he died in a plane crash in 1910. He was the first Briton to die in a powered airplane accident.
Rolls-Royce began manufacturing airplane engines in World War I and began developing jet engines during World War II. Much of the company legacy stems from aircraft engines.
Many people are far more qualified than I to discuss the development of Rolls-Royce automobiles and to write a 500-1,000 word history of the company. I think I first became really aware of Rolls-Royce after seeing this:
This entry from Automobiles Of The World by Albert Lewis and Walter Musciano first made Rolls-Royce something real for me as opposed to some nebulous concept. For one thing, this was the only car in the book that had a page all to itself. I purchased this book while in high school in the late 1970s to help me with my senior year History paper, The Development Of The Automobile And Its Effect on 20th-Century American Society.
Rolls-Royce has had American connections for much of its history. The expensive Camargue pictured above had a General Motors Turbo-Hydramatic automatic transmission. Rolls-Royce built the “spiritual” predecessor of that transmission, the original Hydra-Matic, under license from GM from 1952 to 1967 and, obviously, used the TH transmission in its cars.
What many of you may not know is that Rolls-Royce opened a factory in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1921. The company wanted to avoid customs duties levied on the cars, by this time many of their automobiles were sold in the US, as well as to provide additional manufacturing capacity. This factory built almost 3,000 cars during its ten “official” years in existence. The Great Depression was a significant factor in the cessation of production at the Springfield factory although supposedly cars were still built from the existing stock of parts after 1931.
In 1934, Brewster & Company, which had been part of Rolls-Royce of America since 1925, began building cars with Rolls-Royce type bodies on Ford chassis. The parent company in England protested so Rolls-Royce of America became the Springfield Manufacturing Company, but continued to import Rolls-Royce cars from England until it went into bankruptcy in 1935.
In 1931, Rolls-Royce acquired Bentley, which at the time was a small builder of primarily sports and race cars. (Bentley was a victim of the Great Depression.) Rolls-Royce stopped production of the new Bentley 8 Litre, which was threatening sales of their current Phantom, disposed of remaining Bentley assets and just used the Bentley name and its reputation.
After a long series of events including receivership, nationalization by the British government to save the aircraft engine business, re-privatization and merger with Vickers Limited in 1980, Rolls-Royce ended up as a division of BMW in 2003. That is an interesting story unto itself.
As I understand it, Vickers decided to sell Rolls-Royce in 1997. They reached an agreement to sell the company to BMW in 1998. However, somehow,
Volkswagen persuaded Vickers to sell it Rolls-Royce by offering about 90 million more pounds than BMW. The latter was already building engines for Rolls-Royce AND had acquired the rights and license to the name and logo (but not the mascot) as part of a deal with the aircraft engine division of Rolls-Royce.
BMW threatened to exercise its right to stop building engines for Rolls-Royce and eventually came to an agreement with
Volkswagen that enabled it to continue to use the Rolls-Royce name to build cars although, technically, the history and legacy of the original Rolls-Royce company now belong to Volkswagen, including the right to build cars under the Bentley name.
From The Beaulieu Encyclopedia Of The Automobile a picture of a Rolls-Royce ad. I apologize if I didn’t write enough about specific Rolls-Royce models to suit the tastes of many readers.
As a company, Rolls-Royce seems to be doing well in spite of world conditions. In 2021, the company recorded the highest sales figure in its history at 5,586 cars, up 49% from 2020. Even 2020’s figure was good by historical Rolls-Royce standards. Here is a picture of one of the modern Rolls-Royce models that is part of the recent success, a Dawn convertible:
Even if I could easily afford to buy one, I don’t think I would purchase a modern “Roller.” However, as I have often written I am not a big fan of hypotheticals because I think very few of us know how we would behave in an “out of context” situation, a scenario very far removed from our current lives.
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