MOTORING HISTORY - Celebrating 120 years since the founders of the famous Rolls-Royce car firm met - The Solihull Observer

MOTORING HISTORY - Celebrating 120 years since the founders of the famous Rolls-Royce car firm met

Solihull Editorial 4th May, 2024   0

TODAY marks the 120th first meeting of Henry Royce and The Hon Charles Stewart Rolls, the founders of Rolls-Royce.

The brand created by their historic partnership has stood the test of time with the company’s cars still as highly thought of in 2024 as they have always been.

To celebrate this auspicious anniversary, Rolls-Royce considers the historical, technological and social context in which the marque came into being and the impact and influence of the Rolls-Royce name over its 120 years.

But it was the founders’ activities prior to that world-changing encounter on May 4, 1904, which were key to its continued century-plus success.

Henry Royce

In 1884, engineer Henry Royce founded his first engineering company, FH Royce and Co (he was christened Frederick Henry) in Manchester. The firm began producing small items, such as battery-powered doorbells, but progressed to making heavy equipment including overhead cranes and railway shunting capstans.

In 1902, after two decades of expansion and success, his company was heading for financial trouble due to an influx of cheaper products from Germany and America. Royce’s perfectionism and obsession with improvement meant he was not prepared to enter a race to the bottom, or compromise the quality of his products.

Habitual overwork and constant strain seriously affected his already weakened constitution, and finally his health collapsed.

Doctors ordered him to take an extended break so he headed off for 10 weeks to visit his wife’s family in South Africa. His engineer’s mind was as inquisitive as ever and his choice of reading for his long voyage was ‘The Automobile: Its Construction and Management’, literally ‘how to build a motor car’.

On his return to England, inspired and enlightened as well as physically and mentally recovered, he immediately bought his first motor car, a French 10 HP Decauville.

The model was so poorly made and unreliable, Royce set about addressing its countless defects by dismantling it and analysing every component. He then set about building his own car from scratch. His aim was to ‘take the best that existed and make it better’.

The Hon Charles Stewart Rolls

Rolls was Royce’s antithesis: wealthy, aristocratic, urbane, well-connected and highly (and expensively) educated. They shared a passion for engineering and machinery — in Rolls’s case, racing cars, hot air balloons and aeroplanes.

After graduating from Cambridge in 1898, Rolls was briefly employed as Third Engineer on his family’s steam yacht, the Santa

Maria, following a spell at the London and North-Western Railway in Crewe. But after a few years, he realised his considerable talents required a different outlet.


The business seemingly flourished, but Rolls was frustrated that all his stock was designed and manufactured overseas. He could find no car produced domestically that met his clients’ needs, or his own standards as both a trained engineer and a lifelong enthusiast.

That would be resolved in 1904 when the consummate salesman seeking a game-changing product met gifted engineer Rolls.

Henry Edmunds – The connection

Rolls had befriended Henry Edmunds through the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (later the Royal Automobile Club).

Edmunds was a director of Royce Limited and had driven one of the company’s early 10 HP cars.

His enthusiasm for the car was such that Rolls requested a meeting with its creator, which Edmunds duly arranged.

On returning to London from Manchester, Rolls told Claude Johnson he had found ‘the greatest motor engineer in the world’.

Rolls agreed to sell all the cars Royce could make and the rest is, literally, history.

‘Little Ernie’

One of the lesser known – but nonetheless vital – contributors to the first Royce cars’ development was Ernest Wooler.

Born in Manchester in 1888, 15-year-old Ernest stood five feet four inches (1.62m) tall and was nicknamed ‘Little Ernie’ when he joined Royce Limited in 1903 as an indentured premium apprentice — a position for which his father paid the very considerable sum of £100 (over £15,000 at today’s values).

He worked a 56-hour week for a shilling a day (about £7.60 now) in the drawing office, learning to make blueprints — and, strictly against the rules, producing his own drawings on the draughtsmen’s boards.

One morning, he received an ominous summons: Mr Royce himself wished to see him.

After severely reprimanding the unfortunate youngster for his unauthorised handiwork,

Royce ordered him to go and fetch a typist’s notepad. Mystified, Ernie did as he was instructed and gave the pad to his employer.

Royce waved it away. “You hold onto that and follow me,” he said and led the way to the workshops, where he climbed onto the Decauville, took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

Then, assisted by a fitter, he began methodically taking the car apart. Nearby, Ernie sat on a box with his notepad.

He said: “Each piece was handed to me, and I made a sketch of it and added the dimensions they quoted.”

As Royce correctly judged, Ernie was the ideal person to capture the basic data that would inform the design of the motor cars that followed.

It’s also tempting to wonder if Royce recognised a kindred spirit; a young man starting at the bottom, but eager to better himself. If so, he was right. In 1913, Ernie emigrated to America and enjoyed a successful career as a design engineer, becoming an expert in bearings and filing a number of patents.

In 1947, he retired to Hillsboro Beach, Florida, where he was elected as the town’s first mayor.

Andrew Ball, Head of Corporate Relations and Heritage, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, said: “From a modern perspective, 1904 can feel impossibly distant from our own times.

“But it was an age of unprecedented invention, innovation and technological progress, in which many of the things we now take for granted first appeared.

“Rolls-Royce was born into this extraordinarily dynamic, creative world and would go on to shape it profoundly and irrevocably.

“Looking back, the meeting of Rolls and Royce seems somehow predestined, the arcs of their respective careers up to that point making it appear almost inevitable. In fact, it came about through a web of chance connections and overlapping relationships; without these, given their vastly different backgrounds and social circles, it might never have happened at all.

“We are proud to continue their remarkable story, to celebrate and build upon their unique legacy 120 years later.”

The permanent legacy

Rolls and Royce fulfilled their mission to create ‘the best car in the world’. They gave their names to a dynasty of motor cars that defined, and continues to define, superluxury motoring across the world.

But perhaps their crowning achievement is to have made Rolls-Royce the global exemplar of excellence. Practically every product, service, device and technology that has been invented since 1904 has aspired to be ‘the Rolls-Royce of…’ its industry or sector.

The standard they set 120 years ago is still driving innovation and improvement everywhere — including within the company they created.

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