Charles Rolls and the Rolls-Royce Limousine

by KathleenDuffy

Class differences in Edwardian Britain were no barrier to the inventive spirits of Charles Rolls and Henry Royce. This is a brief biography of Charles Rolls

Charles Rolls was an adventurous, flamboyant character, excited by the Edwardian age in which he lived – the age of the plane, radio, cinema and, most significantly, the motor car.

Born on 28th August 1877 into a rich family, his home was a mansion near Monmouth. After attending school in Berkshire, Charles Rolls went on to Eton where, after a shaky start, he improved academically.

Rolls had considered the army as a career, but his technological talents saw him at Cambridge studying electrical engineering.

Charles Rolls Buys a Peugeot and a Panhard

At the end of 1896 Charles Rolls bought his first car, a Peugeot. He drove it home to Monmouth along country roads at a speed of 5 mph, frightening the horses and setting the seal on his image with the Press as a rich, handsome, daredevil innovator.

By November 1886 the Locomotives on Highways Act had raised the speed limit from 4mph to 12mph. Also, there was no longer any need for men to walk ahead of any vehicle to warn of its approach. It was now full speed ahead for the motor industry.

Charles Rolls bought a four-cylinder Panhard in 1897. This car had won the Paris-Marseilles-Paris race at an average speed of 14.5mph. In 1900.  Rolls, starting from Hyde Park, won the Thousand Mile Trial Gold Medal for overall performance.

The Trial was organised by Claude Johnson, whose organising abilities were admirable, especially considering:

  • few motorists had travelled further than 100 miles in a day.
  • there were hardly any garages.
  • petrol had to be bought from the chemist.

Charles Rolls as Businessman

In 1902 Rolls opened a garage in Fulham selling mainly Panhards. C S Rolls & Co was a one-man operation with Claude Johnson as fellow director.

But the motor industry was developing rapidly and the Panhard was not moving with the times. Buyers now had a choice from eight hundred manufacturers. Charles Rolls had reached a crisis point.

Charles Rolls Meets Henry Royce

Charles heard about a two-cylinder motor-car called the Royce, after its designer, Henry Royce. Royce’s small Manchester firm specialised in dynamos and electronically-operated cranes. Henry Royce was having problems too. His dynamo was threatened by cheap German and USA imports.

It was time for the style and flair of Charles Rolls to meet the meticulous attention to detail of Henry Royce.

After much persuasion, a reluctant Rolls travelled to Manchester and drove the smooth, noiseless Royce car. Impressed, he immediately became its sole agent. His gift for promotion and publicity took him to the Paris Motor Show in 1904 where the Royce had its first public showing. Although still an agent for the Panhard as well as the Minerva, the Royce became Charles Rolls’ priority.

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The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

After the Paris Show Henry Royce agreed to provide Charles Rolls’ London salesroom with four models. These cars would be on the market under a new name, Rolls-Royce, thus combining manufacture and distribution.

In 1906 at the London Motor Show the iconic Silver Ghost was revealed and became an instant success. Many of the design features which made Rolls-Royce an icon of luxury, taste and comfort were the result of Charles Rolls’ eye for style.

Charles Rolls Meets the Wright Brothers

Charles Rolls’ restless spirit needed a new outlet.

On a promotional motor tour he met the Wright brothers and became fanatical about flight. As a result, Rolls began to concentrate less on the promotional car business, becoming one of the first Britains to fly. In 1910 he made a non-stop crossing of the Channel to France and back.

On his return he was mobbed by enthusiastic crowds.

The Tragic Death of Charles Rolls

Charles Rolls began attending air shows to demonstrate his flying skills. In 1910, at a Bournemouth air show, Rolls miscalculated his landing and was thrown from the plane. He was killed instantly.

Henry Royce and Charles Rolls were born on opposite sides of the social divide. Nevertheless, the adventurous outgoing spirit of Charles Rolls was the perfect foil for Henry Royce’s relentless search for perfection.

Charles Rolls’ reputation with the press and public and his eye for style had helped to promote the engineering genius of Henry Royce.

In their short but vital partnership, Charles Rolls had contributed to the Rolls-Royce image, a symbol of technological craftsmanship which would endure for years to come.

Source:

  • The Edwardians by Peter Brent (BBC 1972)
Updated: 12/22/2013, KathleenDuffy
 
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KathleenDuffy on 12/22/2013

Thank you Abby!

AbbyFitz on 12/21/2013

I now have the complete story. Good job!

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