There are many famous brands in the automotive and engineering worlds. Ford revolutionised the modern manufacturing process with its introduction of the production line, and Mercedes-Benz can trace its roots back to the 1886 Benz Patent Moterwagen, which is widely recognised as the first petrol-powered automobile. No manufacturer, however, is more synonymous with quality and luxury than Rolls-Royce.
Now considered a Great British institution, the seeds of the famous company were sewn at the start of the 20th Century. Henry Royce, who operated an electrical and mechanical business, built his first car – a twin-cylinder Royce 10 – in his Manchester factory back in 1904. That same year he met Charles Rolls, who ran an early car dealership in Fulham, and the two decided to team up. Royce Limited would build a line of cars that would be exclusively sold by CS Rolls & Co, bearing the soon-to-be iconic Rolls-Royce name.
The newly formed Rolls-Royce Limited started in 1906 and launched the 6-cylinder Silver Ghost. Autocar soon proclaimed this the “best car in the world”. Autocar was the world’s oldest car magazine, which was first published in 1895. This certainly wouldn’t be the last time that Rolls-Royce and individual models received similar accolades.
As well as motorcars, Rolls-Royce has a long and proud history of manufacturing aircraft engines – and Rolls-Royce engines had a prominent role to play in both World Wars. The company made its first aeroplane engine, dubbed the Eagle, in 1914 and around half of the aircraft employed by the Allies in WWI used engines manufactured by Rolls-Royce. The last engine design in which Henry Royce was directly involved was the Merlin aero engine, which debuted in 1935. When Britain once more had an hour of need, Rolls-Royce was there to supply the hardware that powered a number of iconic warplanes during WWII.
The Merlin was the engine behind the Hawker Hurricane fighter plane, the Mosquito multi-role combat aircraft and the four-engine Lancaster bomber. It also helped transform the American P-51 Mustang into one of the world’s best fighter planes, with the engine being built under licence by Packard. Perhaps the single most iconic aircraft that the Merlin powered was, however, the Supermarine Spitfire. There were plenty of factors that helped the RAF win the Battle of Britain – an absolutely pivotal moment of WWII. Its 75th anniversary was celebrated by the release of special collector’s edition London Mint Office coins featuring images of these iconic machines. The bravery of ‘The Few’ cannot be over-estimated, but the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that drove both the Spitfire and the Hurricane certainly played its part.
The Rolls-Royce story has not been without its ups and downs. In 1971, crippled by the costs of developing an advanced jet engine, the company was nationalised and the car and aero-engine divisions were split up. It eventually weathered the storm however and the Rolls-Royce brand remains a mark of quality that is renowned throughout the world.