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The name Rolls-Royce refers to several companies, all deriving from the automobile and aero-engine company founded by Henry Royce and C.S. Rolls in 1906. The companies are:

  1. Rolls-Royce plc, by far the most significant in economic terms, is a British engineering firm specializing in turbine-based products, particularly aero engines, but providing a wide range of civil and military engineering products and services. Official site: http://www.rolls-royce.com/
  2. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited, a new manufacturer of luxury automobiles, owned by BMW, which started deliveries of its single model, the Phantom, in January 2003 (see below). Official site: http://www.rolls-roycemotorcars.com/
  3. Bentley Motors is the continuation of the original Rolls-Royce automobile division. Since 1998 the company has been owned by the Volkswagen Group. Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars have shared much mechanically since the 1931 takeover of Bentley by Rolls-Royce, often differing in little other than the radiator grille. Confusingly, from 2003 the company is no longer allowed to produce cars called Rolls-Royce, the trademarks being licensed to BMW, rather than to Volkswagen. For more on Bentley, see Bentley. Official site: http://www.bentleymotors.co.uk/

Table of contents


In 1884 Frederick Henry Royce started an electrical and mechanical business. He made his first car, a "Royce", in his Manchester factory in 1904. He was introduced to Charles Stewart Rolls the same year, and the pair agreed a deal where Royce would manufacture cars, to be sold exclusively by Rolls. A clause was added to the contract, stipulating the cars would be called "Rolls-Royce". The company was formed on March 15, 1906. The company moved to Derby in 1908.

The Silver Ghost[?] (1906-1925) was the model responsible for the company's early great reputation. It had a 6-cylinder engine. 6173 were built. In 1921, the company opened a second factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the United States to help meet demand there. A further 1701 "Springfield Ghosts" were built there. This factory operated for 10 years, closing in 1931.

During 1931, the company acquired rival car maker Bentley, whose finances were unable to weather the Great Depression. From then until 2002, Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars were often identical apart from the radiator grille and minor details.

The company's first aero engine was the Eagle, built from 1914. Around half the aircraft engines used by the Allies in WW1 were made by Rolls-Royce. By the late 1920s, aero engines made up most of Rolls-Royce's business.

Henry Royce's last design was the Merlin aero engine, which came out in 1935 although he had died in 1933. (This was developed from the R engine, which had powered a record-breaking Supermarine S6B seaplane[?] to almost 400mph in the 1931 Schneider Trophy.) The Merlin was a powerful V12 engine, and was fitted into many WW2 aircraft: the British Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, De Havilland Mosquito (twin-engined), Avro Lancaster (4-engine), Vickers Wellington (4-engine); it also transformed the American P-51 Mustang into possibly the best fighter of its time, its Merlin engine built by Packard under license. Over 160,000 Merlin engines were produced.

Rolls-Royce and Bentley car production moved to Crewe in 1946, as the company started to build bodies for its cars for the first time - previously it had only built chassis, leaving the bodies to specialist coachbuilders. For the rest of the automotive history, see sections below.

In the post-WW2 period Rolls-Royce made significant advances in gas turbine engine design and manufacture. The Dart and Tyne turboprop engines were particularly important enabling airlines to cut journey times within several continents whilst jet airliners were introduced on longer services. The Dart engine was used in Argosy, Avro 748, Friendship, Herald and Viscount aircraft, whilst the more powerful Tyne powered the Atlantic, Transall, Vanguard and the SRN-4 hovercraft. Many of these turboprops are still in service.

Financial problems caused largely by development of the new RB211[?] turbofan engine led - after several cash subsidies - to the company being nationalized by the Heath government in 1971. (This delay has been blamed for the failure of the technically advanced Lockheed TriStar to succeed in the airliner marketplace, when it was beaten to launch by its competitor, the Douglas DC-10.) In 1973 the automobile business was spun off as a separate entity, Rolls-Royce Motors. The main business of aircraft and marine engines remained in public ownership until 1987, when it was privatized as Rolls-Royce plc, one of many privatizations of the Thatcher government.

In 1980 Rolls-Royce Motor Cars was acquired by Vickers. In 1998 Vickers sold the company on to Volkswagen (see below). A year later Rolls-Royce plc acquired Vickers plc for £576m.

Today Rolls-Royce engines continue to power many of the world's civil and military aircraft and the company has been particularly effective in reducing noise and adverse emissions from its aviation products, anticipating international regulations arising from community campaigns and improved environmental understanding.

Rolls-Royce cars 1945-1998

The major events in the company's history were:

  • 1965: launch of the modern Silver Shadow
  • 1971: nationalization of the combined aero-engine and car company
  • 1973: privatization of the car division as Rolls-Royce Motor Cars
  • 1980: company acquired by Vickers

Main cars in this period:

  • Silver Dawn, 1949-1955.
  • Silver Cloud, 1955-1966.
  • Silver Shadow, 1965-1980. This was the first Rolls-Royce with a monocoque chassis. Started with a 6.23-litre V8 engine, later expanded to 6.75 litres. This shared its design with the Bentley T-series[?].
  • Silver Spirit, 1980-1994. This shared its design with the Bentley Mulsanne[?].

Bentley models were produced mostly in parallel with the above cars. The Bentley Continental coupés and convertibles (produced in various forms from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s) did not have Rolls-Royce equivalents. Very expensive Rolls-Royce Phantom limousines were also produced. In this period other luxury car makers, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and (much later) Lexus, made many technical advances combining sporting abilities with high levels of comfort; this left Rolls-Royces looking old-fashioned in many ways.

Rolls-Royce cars 1998-2002 (the VW and BMW deal)

In 1998 Vickers decided to sell the Rolls-Royce automobile business. Although Volkswagen Group also made offers for the company, the leading contender seemed to be BMW, who already supplied engines and other components for Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars. However their final offer of £340m was outbid by VW, who offered £430m.

This was far from the end of the story though. Rolls-Royce plc, the aero-engine maker, decided it would license certain essential trademarks (the Rolls-Royce name and logo) not to VW but to BMW, with whom it had recently had joint business ventures. VW had bought rights to the "Spirit of Ecstasy" mascot and the shape of the radiator grille, but it lacked rights to the Rolls-Royce name in order to build the cars. Likewise, BMW lacked rights to the grille and mascot. BMW took out the option on the trademarks, licensing the name and "RR" logo for £40m, a deal that many commentators thought was a bargain for possibly the most valuable property in the deal. VW claimed that it had only really wanted Bentley anyway.

BMW and VW arrived at a solution. For the period from 1998 to 2002, BMW would continue to supply engines for the cars, and would allow use of the names, but this would cease on January 1, 2003. On that date, only BMW would be able to name cars "Rolls-Royce", and VW's former Rolls-Royce/Bentley division would only build cars called "Bentley".

The British press, particularly the tabloids, expressed consternation that this symbol of British excellence was being sold to the Germans, and in such an undignified manner.

Main cars in this period:

  • Silver Seraph, 1998-2002. This shared its design with the Bentley Arnage[?], which sold in much greater numbers.
  • Bentley Continental R

Rolls-Royce cars from 2003

In January 2003 at the Detroit motor show, the Rolls-Royce Phantom was launched. This is the first model of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited, a BMW subsidiary having no technical or corporate connection with the original Rolls-Royce company, apart from the trademarks mentioned above. The car has a 6.75-litre V12 engine from BMW, but most other components are unique to the car. Most parts are made in Germany, but the assembly and finishing is in a new factory in Goodwood[?], Sussex. The price starts at around £250,000.


Nicknames for Rolls-Royce cars are Rolls and Roller. The term "The Rolls-Royce of x" has become a way of referring to anything that is the best of its type.

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