The Renaissance of the Roller: How Rolls-Royce Made It Back from the Brink
There can be few more iconic marques than Rolls-Royce and scarcely anything more British. It is also a byword for the highest quality, with the most discerning of customers in almost any industry looking for the ‘Rolls-Royce’ option.
Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you will find a history that is punctuated by drama and turmoil. It is no wonder that Rolls-Royce is often referred to as ‘the best car in the world’.
The history of Rolls-Royce begins in 1906, when the company was founded by the partnership of Charles Rolls and Frederick Royce. The company soon acquired a reputation for making outstanding cars, and in 1931 it was able to buy out its rival luxury car maker, Bentley. Thereafter the two marques continued to be sold side by side, but the cars themselves were quite often exactly the same except for the different badges and distinctive radiator grilles.
The company was also renowned for its aircraft engines, which were responsible for many air-speed records, but it was this business that nearly brought Rolls-Royce to an end. In the late 1960s, the company was investing heavily in the development of a new jet engine, the RB211. The engine was initially developed for the Lockheed TriStar and it turned out to be a huge success, transforming Rolls-Royce from being just another player in the market to being the undisputed leader. Sadly, it also turned out to be far more expensive than envisaged, and the company became overextended. In 1971, the company went into administration and was nationalised by Ted Heath’s Conservative government. It was then that the company’s aircraft engine and car manufacturing businesses were separated, and Rolls-Royce Motors, the car division, was born in 1973.
The company never really achieved the sort of profit margins that would lead to stability, and in 1980 it was bought by Vickers. It was here that things started to get really complicated. Vickers initially intended to sell the company to BMW, which made sense as the German firm already made parts and engines for Rolls-Royce. But they were outbid by VW, who ended up with the factory in Crewe and the rights to the brand identity, including the radiator grille and the famous ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ bonnet mascot. Unfortunately, the Rolls-Royce logo and the brand name itself were owned by the aircraft engine company, Rolls-Royce PLC, which was by now a completely separate entity. The aircraft engine maker then decided to license these properties to BMW.
Clearly, this situation was problematic: VW had the factory and the grille and the mascot, but it didn’t have the right to use the name so couldn’t build cars with the Rolls-Royce name. On the other hand, BMW could use the name but not the mascot or the distinctive grille. A solution had to be found, and it was: VW took the Bentley brand and business, and BMW took over Rolls-Royce.
It was perhaps the best solution, but while VW got the factory and the better-selling Bentleys, BMW got the Rolls-Royce name only. Again, this could have spelt the end for Rolls-Royce cars, but instead BMW invested the money needed to build a brand new factory at Goodwood in Sussex. Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength. Rolls-Royce now employs more than 1,500 people at its gleaming new plant, instead of the handful of workers that the company had before the BMW takeover. It is also enjoying record sales - more than 4,000 cars in 2014 - and it finally has the financial stability that it always lacked. BMW has also managed the difficult task of maintaining the company’s essential Britishness and traditional values while updating the model line-up with some stunning new cars. The latest rumours concern a Rolls-Royce SUV, but whatever cars make it into production over the next few years, they will almost certainly justify the ‘best car in the world’ slogan.