For two decades before the 1904 founding of his eponymous car company, now the exemplar of luxury in motoring, Henry Royce had created a myriad of mechanical and electrical inventions, including the electric crane. He shifted his focus to automobiles when he reasoned that he could craft a far finer car than the French manufacturers of the day. Shortly after, an aristocrat by the name of Charles Rolls bought into Royce’s vision and the world’s preeminent motor company was born.
Rolls-Royce’s storied history is as fascinating as it is lengthy, rife with incredible moments of ingenuity, innovation and pure opulence. Below, 15 of the most interesting facts from the company’s 116 years in business.
The first Rolls had 10 horsepower
Royce’s first creation, which made its debut in 1904, had a 1.8-litre two-cylinder that boasted 10 horsepower. The aptly named Royce 10 featured a three-bearing crank and twin camshafts that actuated the side exhaust and overhead valves. To get everything hauling, that mill was mated to a three-speed manual transmission.
The model for The Spirit of Ecstasy was shrouded in scandal
The definitive Rolls-Royce hood ornament is called The Spirit of Ecstasy and debuted in 1911. It was commissioned by Baron John Edward Scott-Montagu, a car collector based the figure’s likeness upon his secretary-turned-mistress, believed to be Eleanor Thornton. Earlier iterations of the sculpture have her finger pressed against her lips, reportedly a wink at their decade-long affair. Thornton perished at sea in 1915, en route to India, when a German U-boat sunk the ship she was travelling on. The sculptor of the statuette, Charles Sykes, adopted and evolved the design for Rolls-Royce and it’s been employed ever since.
BMW shelled out tens of millions for the rights to the ornament
When BMW bought Rolls-Royce from Volkswagen back in 2002, the rights to The Spirit of Ecstasy were held by Volkswagen. Subsequently, Volkswagen requested around £33.6 million to transfer ownership to BMW, which agreed and paid.
Over 60 percent of all Rolls-Royces are still on the road
Rolls-Royce has always focused on crafting durable and enduring vehicles. The commitment to superior build quality means that at least 65 percent of all Rolls-Royce cars ever to emerge from the production line are still operational and on the roads today.
Rolls-Royce once made a .50 caliber machine gun
And it was rather revolutionary, for its time. During World War II, the head of the Rolls-Royce engineering team, Dr. Spirito Mario Viale, sought to improve the efficacy of the staple machine gun, the Browning M2. The Rolls-Royce .50 cal featured a locked breech, in lieu of the typical gas mechanism, and it fired at double the rate of the M2 and weighed more than 40 percent less. However, it jammed often and generated too much muzzle flash, so it never supplanted the Browning as the choice gun. One example is known to exist, housed in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England.
A Rolls-Royce engine helped begin the 300-mph club
Last year, Bugatti set the automotive world aflutter when its Chiron hypercar, piloted by Andy Wallace, hit 304.77 mph. However, Rolls-Royce got to that enchanting speed first. Its 2,300-horsepower, 36.7-litre supercharged Rolls-Royce V-12 engines were known for blistering performance and staggering speed back in the 1930s. The speed record was set back in 1933 by Sir Malcolm Campbell, hitting 272.46 mph in the Campbell-Railton Blue Bird, powered by a Rolls-Royce V-12. In 1935, Campbell took the rudimentary land rocket to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and recorded a run of 301.33 mph.
Its plane engines were so powerful, the exhaust alone bolstered top speed
Rolls-Royce was equally proficient in manufacturing prolific aviation engines, including the 27-litre Spitfire Merlin V-12, created in 1933. This engine generated such powerful thrust from the exhaust that when engineers simply angled the exhaust outlet backward, the Spitfire gained 10 mph.
You could only get a Phantom IV if you were a royal
As Rolls-Royce gained a deserved reputation for elegance throughout the 1930s and 1940s, it became the only choice for the world’s elite. This notion further solidified in 1950 when the British royal family parted ways with Daimler to select Rolls-Royce as its preferred car manufacturer. Then-Princess Elizabeth was the first to receive a Phantom IV, which became a model only designed for the royals and other heads of state. A mere 18 Phantom IV models were produced, making it among the rarest of the Rolls’.
You can send your chauffeur to a Rolls-Royce driving school
The coveted seats in any Rolls-Royce are in the back and, accordingly, many owners opt for drivers. But for the most comfortable experience, they may want to consider splurging on Rolls-Royce’s White Glove training program. The curriculum trains drivers on how to open and close doors without leaving fingerprints, how to brake without moving the passengers’ heads, and how to read and drive a road for optimal smoothness.
Only bulls are used for Rolls-Royce’s leather interiors
Since sumptuous leather abounds in any Roller, ensuring that each inch is blemish-free is a requisite. Rolls-Royce does this by only sourcing from bulls since cows can get unwelcome stretch marks during pregnancy. Furthermore, those bulls are only coming from Europe where the higher altitudes translate to a lack of mosquitos and other insects, minimising bite marks.
One man paints all of Rolls-Royce’s pinstripes by hand
One pair of hands has been painting the pinstripes on all Rolls-Royce cars for the past 17 years, and they belong to Mark Court. Court has been doing this intricate work since the company opened its Goodwood plant in 2003. (It’s his only job, and reportedly earns him a six-figure salary.) Given that the lack of room for error—the pinstripe paint is a unique variety that affixes instantly to the car’s paint, so mistakes result in the whole car needing repainting—it’s well-deserved.
The most expensive Rolls-Royce created is an £11 million one-off
Meet the Sweptail, a one-off coupe that took more than five years to complete after a billionaire client placed the order back in 2013. The design inspiration drew from classic Rolls-Royce sweeping lines of yesteryear’s models, including the dark wood materials used by then-coachbuilders.
It takes at least two months to build a Phantom
Introduced in 2003, the Phantom was the first Rolls-Royce offering under BMW, and the numbers behind the production are staggering. More than 200 aluminium pieces and 300 alloy parts must be hand-welded. Upholstery requires 75 square meters of material and about 17 days to complete. More than 44,000 colours are offered, and it takes at least two months to complete one single vehicle.
The (one-time) owner of the world’s largest Rolls-Royce collection may surprise you
Clocking in at 93 Rolls-Royces, the largest collection of Rollers in history belonged to Bhagwan Rajneesh. If that name sounds familiar, he was the leader of a “spiritual movement,” eponymously called Rajneesh. He and his followers overran a small Oregon town back in the 1970s, all of which (including the Rolls-Royces) was recently showcased by Netflix’s documentary Wild, Wild Country.